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Latin America is increasingly dangerous for human rights defenders, report says

The region accounted for more than three-quarters of all murders of human rights activists around the globe in 2020, according to Freedom House.
Image: Nicaraguans exiled in Costa Rica take part in a vigil "Together for Freedom", ahead of Ortega's swearing-in ceremony, in San Jose
A Nicaraguan exiled in San Jose, Costa Rica, during a vigil ahead of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 9. Mayela Lopez / Reuters

MIAMI — Latin America is one of the most perilous regions in the world for human rights defenders, according to a report released Wednesday by Freedom House, a nonprofit based in Washington.

Latin America accounted for more than three-quarters of all murders of human rights defenders around the world in 2020.

“Being a journalist, being a women's rights defender, or being a human rights defender in Latin America is very dangerous,” said Gerardo Berthin, vice president of international programs at Freedom House.

The report is the first by Freedom House that focuses exclusively on human rights defenders and civil society organizations that promote rights and freedoms. Human rights defenders include community leaders and artists, some of them Indigenous leaders, who are seeking to advance social justice and human rights.

It found these defenders are working in increasingly hostile environments, facing intimidation, harassment, physical attacks, and legislation that criminalizes their work.

Governments have used the pandemic as an excuse to use authoritarian measures, including limiting movement as well as freedoms of assembly and expression, according to the report.

'Human rights defenders in exile'

Unprecedented levels of migration have taken place in recent years because of political turmoil and worsening human rights situations. The report looked at the cases of Venezuelan activists who fled to Colombia as well as Nicaraguan activists who went to Costa Rica to continue their work.

An estimated 5.6 million people have left Venezuela in recent years, the largest migration in recent Latin American history. Nearly 2 million have settled in Colombia. In the case of Nicaraguans, tens of thousands fled to neighboring Costa Rica after the crackdown on protesters in 2018 as well as the arrests of opposition leaders ahead of the 2021 elections.

“A new phenomenon has emerged, which is human rights defenders in exile,” said Berthin. “And this is what you see in the two case studies of the Venezuelan human rights defenders moving to Colombia and Nicaraguan human rights defenders moving into Costa Rica.”

“Even though some of these exiles cross the border into Colombia and Costa Rica — safer places — you still have the chance of potential transnational repression coming from the authoritarian regimes in their home countries,” said Berthin.

The report found that while there are growing efforts to protect human rights defenders in Latin America, they generally don’t receive support like emergency funds, medical assistance or legal advice.

There are currently some shelters like the Shelter City Initiative in Costa Rica that helps them.

“One of our key proposals in this report is to make sure, not only that we expand these shelters ... but also that the human rights defenders receive the necessary services and help that they need when they arrive,” said Berthin.

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