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More than 300 human rights defenders killed in 2019 – with “staggering number” murdered in Colombia

More than 300 human rights defenders in 31 countries were killed in 2019. Forty percent of them were working on land, indigenous peoples’ and environmental rights, a new report reveals.

The report, released by Front Line Defenders (FLD) on Tuesday, details reported violations of detention, sexual violence, torture, disappearance and physical assault against social activists between January and December of last year.

According to the findings, 2019 was characterised by waves of mass uprisings demanding greater civil and political rights across the world from Iraq in the Middle East to India and Hong Kong in Asia and Chile in the Americas. In nearly all of the countries that experienced mass protests, human rights defenders were specifically targeted. The Philippines was the second deadliest country with 43 killings, followed by Honduras, Brazil and Mexico.

The UN human rights office, OHCHR, puts Colombia as the bloodiest nation with 107 human rights defenders murdered in 2019. A spokesperson for OHCHR has said that the body is “deeply troubled by the staggering number of human rights defenders killed in Colombia” over the last year.

At least 10 were reportedly killed during the first 13 days of January.

More than half the killings took place in four provinces – Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca and Caquetá – and people advocating on behalf of specific community, ethnic, indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups were the most targeted. The murder of land campaigner and community organiser María del Pilar Hurtado on 21 June 2019 sparked national outrage. She had previously received death threats from the Gaitanist Self-Defence Forces over her social activism.

Eighty-six percent of the deaths took place in villages with a poverty rate above the national average where illegally armed and criminal groups operate.

Killings of female activists increased by almost 50% between 2018 and 2019, with women being more likely to be subjected to verbal abuse and surveillance compared to their male counterparts.

“The vicious and endemic cycle of violence and impunity must stop,” said Marta Hurtado, Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Right.

Human rights defenders working on LGBTI+ rights faced an increase in attacks. The scale of this targeting was starkly highlighted in a report by Colombia Diversa which recorded the killing of 2,900 LGBTI+ people between 2014 and 2018 in ten countries across Latin America and the Caribbean.

In a statement by the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), Spokesperson Rupert Colville said:

“We urge the State to make sure all killings, attacks and threats are properly investigated and the perpetrators – including those directing them, as well as those carrying them out – are brought to justice,”

Colville also reported that the total of human rights defenders and activists were allegedly killed in just the first four months of the year.

The UN renewed its call on the government of President Iván Duque to redouble efforts to ensure a secure environment for civic engagement increase the presence of state authorities in rural areas and expand access to basic health and education services.

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