Amid the coronavirus, human rights defenders need more protection

The pandemic has increased the risks human rights defenders face as they work to protect the rights of others.

Womens rights defender Reuters
A women's rights activist wears a protective mask amid the coronavirus pandemic during a women's rights rally in Manila, Philippines, March 8, 2020 [Eloisa Lopez/Reuters]

On May 1, I took up the mandate of the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights defenders (HRDs). As part of my new role, I have been talking online to HRDs on a daily basis.

A few weeks ago, I had arranged to catch up with Ruth Mumbi in Kenya. I have known her for many years through her work as a community mobiliser and campaigner on social justice and accountability issues in her country. She was a little late to the call and explained she had been at the police station to report a death threat made against her.

This is an all too common fact of life for many HRDs who help build free, civil and just societies. They are at risk, sometimes lethal risk, for their work in defending the rights of others.

And the current pandemic risks making things even worse for them. We have seen authoritarian regimes taking advantage of the current crisis to grab more power and target those defending human rights.

We could lose, in the coming few months, valuable ground that took us decades to win in establishing human rights protections.

The pandemic is an alarming reminder of our interdependence and fragility, the weaknesses of our political systems, and the strength of individual human resilience. 

Right now, we have much to learn from HRDs who are used to working in unstable, dangerous contexts. They know how to cope with great fear and vulnerability, how to adapt and survive while facing constant threats, and how to continue working for the common good amid growing adversity. We need to draw on that expertise as we rethink how to reorder our systems during the current crisis.

In the coming years, the killings of HRDs will be one of my main priorities. Every year, hundreds of people peacefully working to protect the rights of others, including journalists, environmentalists, defenders of LGBT+ and women’s rights, are killed for their work. 

I will also work to address the rise in online attacks and abuse aimed at HRDs. People online are targeting, stigmatising, and threatening HRDs for their work on a daily basis. These threats too are often a prelude to murder. 

I will also work with the UN and governments around the world to find ways to better protect HRDs working in rural areas, who face increased risks due to being far from the protective gaze of embassies and international media bureaux. 

I will also focus on HRDs who are serving long prison terms for their work. Just last week Asimjan Askarov, an HRD in Kyrgyzstan, lost his final appeal against his life sentence. I have visited him before and will continue to work on his case during my tenure as special rapporteur.

As we all adapt to a rapidly-changing order, businesses and governments will have to re-examine their relationships with human rights and those who defend them. They will have to learn from those working on the climate crisis, on health rights, in the fight against corruption, and a range of other issues which directly connect us all.

If those HRDs who were warning against the spread of COVID-19 had been listened to months ago and not silenced, the world would be a much healthier place now, with far fewer lives and livelihoods lost. The world cannot afford to ignore journalists, scientists and health professional HRDs any more. 

It is in all our interests to protect that most fundamental principle: The right to defend rights. Now we have to find new ways of doing that. In the short term at least that will mean drastically changing how we operate as advocates. 

The world, and the world of human rights activism, has changed drastically from when I started at Amnesty International in Ireland in 1976 in an age long before the internet or mobile phones or social media. We have learned to constantly develop over generations of human rights activism, and we will adapt again.

For now at least, we cannot travel to meet HRDs in person, gather to consult, or lobby government officials face to face. But we cannot put the fight for human rights on hold. We need to learn fast how to do more online, and how to protect our digital security and privacy, issues that are even more important than they were six months ago.

I will hold this post for three years, and no doubt the world will be very different in 2023. But what the world will look like then will depend on what we do now, and how quickly we figure out how to best protect those doing their legitimate work for the rights of others, so they can carry out their work without persecution. It is in all our interests.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.