The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its utmost concern regarding the large number of killings of human rights defenders at the outset of 2017, and reiterates its concern for defenders of land rights and natural resources, as well as indigenous and Afro-descendant human rights defenders, who continue to face high risks of violence.
So far in 2017, the IACHR has learned of 14 murders of human rights defenders: seven in Colombia, two in Guatemala, two in Mexico, and three in Nicaragua. The IACHR expresses its consternation over the devastating increase in violence against those who oppose extractive or development projects or who defend the right to land and natural resources of indigenous peoples in the region; they now account for 41 percent of all murdered human rights defenders in the region, according to information from civil society organizations.
The seven murders in Colombia about which the Commission has received information have taken place in a context in which human rights defenders in the country are increasingly being threatened or killed, something the Commission previously condemned in a press release on November 2, 2016. This context still exists despite the recent signing of a historic peace agreement. The information received indicates that Olmedo Pito García, a young indigenous leader and member of the organization Movimiento Político y Social Marcha Patriótica, in Cauca, was killed on January 6, 2017. In addition, on January 7, Aldemar Parra Garcia, a community leader who advocated against the involuntary displacement of his community due to the environmental destruction caused by industrial mining, was shot to death. The murder occurred despite the State having been informed, through its early warning system, of death threats against members of the community and of the presence of suspicious men in the area.
The IACHR also received information regarding the murders of Juan Mosquera, a recognized community leader in the Bajo Atrato region, and his son, Moisés Mosquera, on January 10, 2017; José Yimer Cartagena, a campesino leader of Marcha Patriótica Alto Sinú and vice president of ASODECAS; and a young Afro-Colombian community leader with CONPAZ, Emilsen Manyoma Mosquera, and her husband, Joe Javier Rodallega, whose bodies were found on the morning of January 17, 2017, in Buenaventura. In addition, Yoryanis Isabel Bernal Varela—an advocate for the rights of Wiwa indigenous women in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta—was reportedly killed on January 26, 2017. The IACHR values the recent creation of the National Commission on Security Guarantees in the context of the Final Peace Agreement, whose goal is to fight and dismantle criminal behavior against human rights defenders. Regarding the case of Emilsen Manyoma Mosquera, the IACHR expects progress in the investigation by the Office of the Attorney General.
With regard to Mexico, Isidro Baldenegro was reportedly killed on January 15, 2017. He was a well-known indigenous environmental activist who fought against illegal logging of the old-growth forest of the Western Sierra Madre on Tarahumara/Rarámuri traditional lands in the state of Chihuahua. Isidro Baldenegro won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2005 and was recognized as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International for being incarcerated for 15 months on false charges. He was killed during a visit to his community, where he no longer lived because of death threats he had received. The activist was the second Goldman Environmental Prize winner to be killed in the space of a year, following the murder of Berta Cáceres in March 2016. Isidro Baldenegro was also the fourth activist from the community of Coloradas de la Virgen to be killed in the past 12 months in retaliation for defending ancestral forests and lands. The Commission was also informed about the killing of human rights and environmental defender Juan Ontiveros Ramos, who following Isidro Baldenegro’s murder had denounced the untenable situation of violence in the region to the Human Rights Unit of the state Public Prosecutor’s Office and Ministry of the Interior.
With regard to Guatemala, Laura Leonor Vásquez Pineda, a former activist in the movement of peaceful resistance against the San Rafael mining project, was killed on January 16, according to the information available. She was reportedly found dead in her home, with gunshot wounds to the head. The Commission was also informed that indigenous land rights defender Sebastián Alonso Juan was killed on January 17 in Huehuetenango, during a peaceful protest against the hydroelectric projects Pojom I and II.
In Nicaragua, three members of the Miskitu indigenous community in Nicaragua have reportedly been killed so far this year. As the Commission noted in a press release on February 23, 2016, and as is acknowledged by the precautionary measures in place, the Miskitu are facing particular risk as they are in the midst of a conflict over territory, in a context of lack of implementation by the State of official recognition of indigenous ownership over their ancestral lands. In this context, and despite the IACHR’s call to the State to protect the members of the Miskitu community, an entire family—Bernicia Dixon Peralta; her husband, Feliciano Benlis Flores, and their 11-year-old son, Feliciano Benlis Dixon—was murdered on their land. The information received indicates that this was a retaliation killing, as the family had taken their case to court and had been successful in obtaining legal title to their land.
The Inter-American Commission reiterates that States have the obligation to prevent any attempt on the life and physical integrity of human rights defenders, and to guarantee in all circumstances that rights defenders can carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free of any restrictions. States have the duty to guarantee the safety of groups of defenders at particular risk and to adopt specific measures of protection tailored to their needs, for example through special protocols.
The States are obligated to undertake, at their own initiative,immediate, thorough, and impartial investigations, carried out with due diligence, into the killings of Olmedo Pito García, Aldemar Parra Garcia, Juan Mosquera, Moisés Mosquera, Emilsen Manyoma Mosquera, Joe Javier Rodallega, Yoryanis Isabel Bernal Varela, Isidro Baldenegro, Juan Ontiveros Ramos, Laura Leonor Vásquez Pineda, Sebastián Alonzo Juan, Bernicia Dixon Peralta, Feliciano Benlis Flores, and Feliciano Benlis Dixon. The States have the obligation to establish who is responsible for the killings and to bring the perpetrators and masterminds to justice. The investigations should include the development of lines of investigation under the hypothesis that the motive for these killings may have been the victims’ work as human rights defenders.
The Commission also reiterates that acts of violence and other attacks against human rights defenders not only affect the guarantees afforded to all human beings but also undermine the fundamental role that human rights defenders play in society and contribute to the vulnerability of all those whose rights they champion. In the case of indigenous communities, such acts carry additional serious consequences because they damage social and cultural cohesion.
A principal, autonomous body of the OAS, the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.
This article was published on OAS' website on February 7, 2017.