What Should Be on the Agenda at the Summit: Protect Human Rights Defenders

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I can tell you what should be on the table for discussion at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia:  The safety of the region’s human rights defenders.

Alexander Quintero campaigned for justice for the victims of Colombia’s 2001 Naya River massacre, committed by paramilitary forces.  “He brought us all together, indigenous, Afro-Colombian and mestizo communities,” said a colleague.  “It could have been any of us,” a sobbing defender said, as she told me about his May 2010 murder.

 Nahúm Palacios Arteaga was the anchor for a TV station in Tocoa, Honduras. He was reporting on land conflicts in Bajo Aguán, where campesino leaders were being threatened, evicted and murdered.  Hit men killed Palacios and his friend, a doctor, in March 2010.

Dora Alicia Recinos Sorto was eight months pregnant when she was shot dead in December 2009, in El Salvador’s Cabañas region. She belonged to an environmental group opposing a mining project, as did Ramiro Rivera, who was killed six days earlier.

Killing human rights activists—or “defenders” as we call them—harms not only the people, their friends, and family. It often aims to destroy an organizing process and derail a struggle to defend the rights of many.

Latin America was the most dangerous region in the world to be a trade unionist in 2009 and 2010, according to the International Confederation of Trade Unionists. Over eighty percent of murders of trade unionists worldwide during those two years took place in the Americas.

Defenders working on land and environmental issues related to extractive industries like gold mining were more at risk in the Americas than in any other region, according to the United Nations.  Many were indigenous people or women. 

See more about defenders in the Americas in our Huffington Post blog.

Right after the Summit, President Obama is meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in a bilateral meeting in Cartagena.   Here’s what we wish he would tell Mr. Santos:  Colombia needs to do more to protect its trade unionists, its land rights leaders, and its human rights defenders.  More than 26 land rights leaders have been murdered during Mr. Santos’s administration.  Thirty trade unionists were killed in Colombia in 2011.  And 2011 was one of the deadliest years ever for human rights defenders:  49 defenders were killed, and defenders and victims’ families routinely faced death threats.

President Obama should not declare the Labor Action Plan, which both governments signed to address violence against trade unionists and strengthen labor rights protections, completed.  The Colombian government is not yet doing enough to protect trade unionists, seek justice for the violence against them, and protect basic labor rights.  See this statement by WOLA, LAWG, US Office on Colombia, CIP and USLEAP and this letter from the United Steelworkers.

President Obama, we’re waiting for you to stand up for those who defend rights in the Americas.