PBI Conference report: building enabling environments for human rights defenders

Our round-up of PBI's 35th-anniversary conference celebrating human rights defenders’ achievements in contributing to democracy and rule of law.

  1. The challenge of “building enabling environments for human rights defenders” all too often seems to be one that is filed away in the ‘issues for other people in faraway countries’ folder.
  2. Yet the murder of a British MP, on the eve of PBI UK’s 35th-anniversary conference, provided a poignant reminder of just how, simultaneously, vulnerable and precious those who speak out on behalf of the oppressed can be, anywhere in the world.
  3. Colombian human rights defender, Luis Guillermo Perez, began his presentation on challenging the impunity of violations against human rights defenders by honouring the memory of Jo Cox MP and her commitment to tolerance, justice, peace and human rights.
  4. Why global solidarity matters

  5. The interconnectedness of both the challenges and opportunities in making an enabling environment for human rights defenders (HRDs) a reality was a reoccurring theme throughout the day.
  6. The Canadian High Commission’s head of political and public affairs, Douglas Proudfoot, who welcomed attendees to the sumptuous surroundings of Canada House, explained that it was fitting that the country’s High Commission play host to the PBI’s anniversary event given that PBI was founded on Grindstone Island in 1981.
  7. The first keynote speaker of the day, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst called on the new,more progressive Canadian government to do more to protect land and environmental rights defenders given the global power of Canadian mining firms.
  8. A bleak UN prognosis for HRD protection

  9. Forst spoke of the worsening situation for HRDs with attacks increasingly focussed on the most exposed and most at-risk defenders around the world.
  10. Indeed, he said that attacks on the very definition of the term HRD and on the Special Rapporteur’s mandate from a block of countries including Russia, Venezuela and Cuba represented a worrying trend as this bad practice is influencing other states to follow suit.
  11. Forst also stressed that the HRD community needed to do far more to welcome defenders working on LGBTI issues into the HRD family.
  12. In Kenya, where human rights defenders have recently come under severe attack from the police, Mathare Social Justice Centre’s Stephen Mwangi spoke, via video link, of the need to ensure that basic steps, such as ensuring access to legal aid for human rights defenders, is achieved.
  13. Shifting attitudes towards indigenous defenders

  14. Edgar Perez, an indigenous lawyer working in Guatemala explained how discriminatory perceptions affect his work. He stressed that working to shift attitudes has a large part to play in improving transitional justice in Guatemala.
  15. This issue of perceptions was echoed by barrister Monica Feria Tinta, a Peru-born barrister with 20 Essex Street Chambers and also a member of PBI UK’s Lawyers Advisory Committee.
  16. Feria-Tinta spoke of her experience as part of an on-site expert mission to document the case of the Chorti community in Guatemala and the lack of representation faced by indigenous communities at higher levels of influence.
  17. Honouring Ana Mirian Romero's courageous struggle

  18. Anna Mirian Romero, present with her four-month-old daughter highlighted, with her mere presence, the complexity many female HRDs face. She spoke of the numerous threats she and her family have faced in Honduras, a country that in 2014 was one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a land and environmental rights defender, according to Global Witness.
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