November 29, 2016
Human rights defenders worldwide are regularly subjected to harassment and trumped-up criminal charges aiming at paralysing, intimidating and delegitimising their human rights activities. They face difficulties carrying out their work in increasingly restrictive legislative and administrative environments denying the right to freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly. Licences of human rights NGOs have been steadily cancelled, bank accounts seized and their right to access foreign funds violated. A growing number of States have also developed a systematic pattern of obstacles to human rights defenders’ freedom of movement (in particular through the use of travel bans)in a clear attempt to isolate them.
Within the first year of the project, ProtectDefenders.eu, the EU Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society, has perceived this phenomenon as a worldwide growing trend, which undermines the existence of an enabling environment for human rights defenders. Only in 2016, as per ProtectDefenders.eu’s findings1, more than 425 defenders have faced judicial harassment and at least 193 defenders have been charged or sentenced to prison.
The misuse of domestic criminal justice systems and the development of restrictive legislations and regulations against human rights defenders have a threefold impact on their work. Firstly, it practically interferes with their daily human rights activities. It obliges them, for instance, to present themselves regularly to summons, to serve long periods of pre-trial detention or, when convicted, to serve sentences preventing them from pursuing their human rights activities. Secondly, it contributes to the stigmatisation of human rights defenders and organisations depicting them as criminals, therefore delegitimising their positive role in society. Thirdly, criminalisation and judicial harassment of defenders creates a chilling effect on civil society as a whole, specifically within the communities or groups to which the defenders belong, in many cases leading to social fragmentation and isolation of the defenders themselves.
Some groups of defenders have been more frequently the target of criminalisation by State and non-State actors, due to the issues they work on. In particular, land and environmental rights defenders, defenders working on economic, social and cultural rights, women’s rights (including sexual and reproductive rights), LGBTIQ rights, freedom of expression, rule of law or accountability issues, often face trumped-up criminal charges.