At a time of populist right wing anti human rights rhetoric, when respect for human rights is under threat, human rights defenders (HRDs) are increasingly at risk. In its Annual Report Front Line Defenders reported the killing of 281 human rights defenders in 2016 – 215 of them in the Americas. In this last week alone Front Line Defenders has received reports of the killing of 6 HRDs in Guatemala, Colombia and Mexico.
On 6 January Olmedo Pito García was shot dead by unknown gunmen when he was travelling home from work. Olmedo was a member of the Movimiento de los sin tierra (Landless Rights Movement) and was an active campaigner for the land rights of the indigenous community.
On 7 January Aldemar Parra García, president of the Asociacion Agricola de El Hatillo, in the province of Cesar in Colombia, was shot dead by two gunmen travelling on a motor bike which had been seen scouting out the area on previous days. Aldemar was one of a group of local activists protesting against contamination caused by mining projects in the area.
On 13 January 53 year old community leader Edmiro León Alzate was reported missing in the province of Antioquia, Colombia. The next day his body was found on the side of the road. He had been shot dead. Edmiro was one of the community leaders who had been defending the community’s access to water and campaigning to protect water sources in advance of the development of a major hydroelectric project in the area.
In 2005 Mexican environmental rights defender Isidro Baldenegro Lopez won the Goldman Environmental Prize for North America. Isidro Baldenegro was recognized internationally as a champion of indigenous land rights. On Sunday 15 January he was shot in the home of a relative and died later from his injuries. According to local media reports the murder suspects are linked with known assassins of other indigenous environmental activists in the region.
On Tuesday, 17 January, protesters led a peaceful demonstration against a hydroelectric plant in Guatemala. But the event ended in death after paramilitaries shot and killed 72-year-old activist Sebastian Alonso. The groups have been protesting the project for five years, with little acknowledgement from government officials. Violence has dogged the dam project; in 2014, two people died in disputes over the project.
Colombian human rights defender Emilsen Manyoma was last seen with her husband, Joe Javier Rodallega, boarding a taxi in Villa on Saturday 14 January. On Tuesday, 17 January 2017, their bodies were found in the neighbourhood of el Progreso in Buenaventura. Emilsen Manyoma was the leader of the Comunidades Construyendo Paz en los Territorios (Communities Building Peace in the Territories, CONPAZ) in Buenaventura. CONPAZ is an initiative of communities and organisations that live in territories where the armed conflict is taking place.
Repressive governments think that HRDs can be killed with impunity and that there will be few if any real consequences. As human rights standards are being rolled back in Poland and Hungary and the President of the Philippines is threatening to include HRDs in his “harvest” of killings, the human rights movement needs government champions who will combat this dangerous trend by re-stating their commitment to the human rights which have been built up at such cost over the last 60 years. Governments should condemn every killing of a HRD as with every killing the prospects for building more just and equal societies are lessened.