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The Price of Defending Rights

The crisis of violence has deepened, with threats against those who seek to oppose the pollution and devastation of the environment, demand sustainable solutions to industry, maintain their ways of living, or defend rights to ancestral land.

In 2018, 321 human rights defenders (HRDs) were killed – an increase of nine from 2017 – 77% of whom were killed while working on environmental, land, and indigenous peoples’ rights. HRDs working on these issues were also nearly three times as likely to be physically assaulted.[1]

The crisis is particularly acute in Latin America; Mexico and Colombia alone accounted for more than 54% of killings. While there are protection mechanisms in place for HRDs in some countries (including Mexico and Colombia), 49% of those killed globally had received a specific and direct threat beforehand.[2]

Governments continued, throughout 2018, to paint HRDs – particularly environmental campaigners who stood in the way of big industry or resource extraction – as anti-state, anti-development, and even terrorist.

Indigenous HRDs are subjected to racist treatment; smear campaigns carried out through social media often associate them with criminal groups, guerrillas, and threats to national security. This is routine for communities such as the Mapuche people in Chile and Colombia’s Nasa groups. In the Philippines, indigenous people – particularly the Lumad – are often accused of membership of the communist New People’s Army.[3]

The digital security of many HRDs was also attacked in 2018; the powerful spyware, Pegasus, was used in 45 countries, as well as surveillance and online harassment – from trolling to doxxing.[4]

Art Behind Bars

In 2018, 60 artists were imprisoned in 13 different countries, under charges ranging from inciting debauchery and insulting those in power to inciting subversion. The majority were musicians. Forty-four artists were threatened or harassed, and 48 sanctioned or fined.[5]

Cross-Border Dangers

Increasingly, governments are targeting dissidents outside their own borders, from exiles to expatriates. There are 24 recent cases of this, including Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Since 2016, Turkey has captured 104 of its own citizens from 21 countries.

As we reported in the XpA 17/18, Interpol and its ‘red notice’ system continues to be a tool of cross-border oppression and targeting of dissidents.[6]



[1] Front Line Defenders, Global Analysis 2018, 7 January 2019, available at .

[2] Ibid

[3] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 10 August 2018, available at

[4] Front Line Defenders, Global Analysis 2018, 7 August 2019, available at

[5] Freemuse, The State of Artistic Freedom 2019, available at

[6] Freedom House, Freedom in the World, available at