June 18, 2020 


Contact: Kate Fried, EarthRights International
(202) 257.0057


New report reveals weaknesses in efforts to help those who speak out against human rights and environmental abuses 

Washington, D.C.–As necessary shelter in place rules brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbate threats against human rights defenders, a new report released today by the human rights organization EarthRights International finds that United States embassies around the world have, at best, a mixed track record when it comes to adequately protecting those who speak up about social justice and environmental concerns.  Speak Without Fear: The Case for a Stronger US Policy on Human Rights Defenders asserts that while embassies have taken some steps to protect human rights and environmental defenders, they also consistently support economic, political, and military activities that harm them. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified attacks against activists,” said Ka Hsaw Wa, Executive Director of EarthRights and internationally recognized Burmese human rights advocate.  “The U.S. government, through its embassies abroad, can do much to help activists who are at risk. But that’s not happening consistently. We urge the U.S. to again be a global leader on human rights by stepping up protections for human rights and environmental defenders.” 

Human rights defenders who bring attention to land and environmental abuses are frequent targets of violence. Between 2002 and 2018, more than 1,400 land and environmental defenders were killed. According to the group FrontLine Defenders, some 304 human rights defenders were murdered in 2019, with over a third of these killings taking place in Colombia. Forty percent of those murdered were involved in efforts to protect lands, the environment, and indigenous rights. The Business and Human Rights Resource Center documented 572 business-related attacks against human rights defenders that year. Most disturbingly, a disproportionate number of those killings targeted indigenous communities and were related to disputes over extractive activities such as mining or oil and gas extraction. When attacks are reported, the authorities often fail to adequately address them.

Killings are not the only form of attack that threaten defenders. Some 85 percent of those defenders killed had previously reported threats, particularly from armed forces. In other cases, defenders are prevented from speaking out as governments criminalize dissent and free speech, often labeling these groups as “terrorists” while launching surveillance measures against them. These tactics are especially prevalent in Peru, Myanmar, Russia, and Central Asia. Threats against women, girls, and gender non-conforming people, in particular, have increased in recent years. 

The U.S. government’s response to these trends has been inconsistent. In some cases, U.S. embassies have played an important role in protecting human rights defenders. In other cases, embassies have sided with repressive regimes in Latin America and the Middle East. 

In 1998, Congress enacted safeguards, named for Senator Patrick Leahy, to prevent U.S. security assistance from going to those who commit gross human rights violations.  The law arose specifically out of the human rights crisis in Colombia, where U.S.-supported security forces collaborated with paramilitary groups to commit atrocities against local populations during Colombia’s civil war. The Leahy Law vetting process applies when a U.S. agency or contractor offers training, materials, and equipment to foreign security forces using funds made available through the State Department or the Department of Defense. The law, however, does not necessarily account for situations related to human rights defenders. Leahy Law vetting only applies to acts committed by those who are authorized by the host government to use force, nor does it require vetting of commercial arms sales, direct technical assistance, or intelligence sharing.  

Key findings of the report include: 

  • When engaging with U.S. embassies, human rights defenders see more “personality” than “policy.”
  • U.S. embassies appear to struggle when dealing with “repressive allies,” such as Bahrain, Honduras, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia.
  • U.S. embassies do not systematically coordinate their work on human rights defenders with their economic portfolios.
  • Existing safeguards, such as the Leahy Law, are not sufficient to prevent U.S. security assistance from supporting perpetrators of attacks on human rights defenders.

To address these issues, EarthRights urges the U.S. State Department to take the following steps: 

  • Take immediate action to strengthen protections in crisis countries, such as Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, and the Philippines where human rights defenders face a range of lethal and nonlethal threats, some of which are linked to U.S. economic, political or national security interests.
  • Develop comprehensive, public-facing guidelines for U.S. embassy action to protect human rights defenders, in consultation with a broad range of civil society organizations. 
  • In conjunction with the public-facing guidelines, develop internal protocols and training on issues facing human rights defender issues.
  • Add a section to the State Department’s annual human rights reports on reprisals against human rights defenders and the host government’s response. The annual human rights reports are a cornerstone of the State Department’s approach to human rights and are used widely within the U.S. government. Until the annual reports examine patterns of attacks on human rights defenders in a systematic way, the U.S. government will have difficulty prioritizing this issue.

Read the report here