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The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life as we know it; millions of people have been diagnosed with the virus and over half a million have had their lives tragically cut short. It has exposed the inadequacies of many healthcare systems and has further tested public faith in the government officials tasked with protecting us. It has also exacerbated problems that existed long before the virus emerged as a global threat. As governments around the world continue to fight the coronavirus, human rights and environmental activists worry that governments and other powerful actors are also exploiting the moment in order to repress activists.  

Shrinking global resources

Globally, repression of activism and the shrinking of civic space has increased since the early 2000s. This trend is in part due to the erosion of democracy in a number of countries as authoritarian governments and corrupt corporations grab power from the public. It’s worsened by the global competition for land and other natural resources that have become increasingly scarce and inaccessible due to climate change. Human rights and environmental defenders have shouldered the brunt of this problem. More than 300 defenders were killed in 2019 alone. Threats to defenders include harassment, intimidation, rape, murder, and criminalizaton. The vast majority of these conflicts concerned mining, agribusiness, water, and logging projects. 

Colombia is widely regarded as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for defenders; over 100 were murdered last year alone. Those targeted include Afro-Colombian and Indigenous leaders, environmentalists and land rights activists, and human rights advocates. Many of these defenders, like those murdered by paramilitary forces connected to Chiquita Brands International in the 1990s, were silenced for daring to protect their communities and resources from exploitation from aggressive agriculture interests. 

Using the law to silence activism

The repression of activists takes many forms. Those who do not fear for their lives fear for their freedom. In some countries such as Peru, where unchecked natural resource extraction has galvanized numerous defenders to take up the peaceful defense of land and environmental rights, governments and corporations often use court systems to level inflated charges against activists who oppose large-scale oil, mining, or hydropower projects.  These charges can take years to defeat and can exhaust activists’ meager resources. Judicial harassment is also pervasive in the United States, where Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (or SLAPPs) are used to condemn activists for exercising their first amendment rights.

The United Nations and the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights have called on governments around the world to vigorously adhere to international human rights standards, but that isn’t enough. Illegal armed groups remain a threat and as long as governments allow the mining, agriculture, and oil sectors to extract resources on Indigenous peoples’ lands without their consent, tensions will persist. 

Increased threats in lockdown

While social distancing measures are undoubtedly critical for controlling the spread of COVID-19, they’re endangering the lives of defenders who would otherwise be able to escape persecution by changing location when threats to their safety emerge. We must uphold these measures if we’re ever going to beat the pandemic, but governments around the world, including the United States, have a moral obligation to guarantee the human rights of defenders and to decriminalize their work. Under no circumstances should anti-virus measures be used to justify further repression and criminalization of activists.  

Stand with defenders

Recently, nearly 100 members of Congress, led by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), called on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to urge Colombian President Ivan Duque to step up efforts to protect Colombia’s endangered human rights defenders by investigating attacks and threats and dismantling paramilitary networks that fuel violence. Actions such as these would protect communities from illicit natural resource extraction and set an international precedent for other problematic countries such as Myanmar, Honduras, the Philippines, and Peru to follow. 

As we restructure society to create a safer and healthier world, we need to ensure that those who risk everything to protect their communities and our shared resources are allowed to carry out their work without threat of death, loss of livelihood, or criminalization. Otherwise, we face another insidious pandemic–silence against injustice and the erosion of our vital, shared resources.