‘Attacks and killings’: human rights activists at growing risk, study claims

Research proves 34% rise in attacks against campaigners defending land, surrounding and labour rights in the face of corporate activity

Human rights defenders who challenge big corporations are being killed, assaulted, harassed and squelched in growing numbers, researchers have claimed.

A survey by the Business and Human Rights Resource Center recorded a 34% global rise in attacks against human rights activists last year, including 120 alleged murders and hundreds of other cases involving menaces, assaults and intimidation. The number of incidents were found to have risen sharply, with 388 attacks recorded in 2017 compared with 290 the previous year.

The research focused on attacks against activists involved in protests against corporate activities. Victims included unionists, protests, whistleblowers and indigenous communities.

Land rights defenders and activists linked to the mining, agribusiness and renewable energy sectors were found to be in greatest hazard. The researchers also highlighted an increased risk to lawyers, and to members of human rights and environmental civil society organisations working for corporate accountability.

In 42% of harassment instances, judicial intimidation was used in an attempt to suppress protests against record-keeping activities. This included arbitrary detention, criminalisation and aggressive lawsuits.

The Business and Human Rights Center found that companies involved in mining, agriculture, energy and construction- particularly those headquartered in the UK, US, China, Canada and France- were the most likely to use legal means in an attempt to prevent human rights protests.

” Our research highlights that companies do play a significant role in assaults on human rights defenders- the first time that this data has were consistently collected ,” said Ana Zbona from the Business and Human Rights Resource Center.

The researchers found that human rights defenders creating concerns about business operations are often criminalised on fabricated charges. Documented suits include activists accused of being involved in assassinations in Guatemala, arson attacks in Chile, and fraud and tax evasion in Turkmenistan, Russia and Azerbaijan.

” Judicial harassment deters communities, workers and activists from speaking out against corporate abuse. Legal harassment often forms part of a broader campaign which are able to include physical attacks and killings ,” said Zbona.

” Impunity from the nation and the declining strength of unions has a big role to play, as well as a growing competition for natural resources that is only gaining pace .”

Although assaults occurred in every region across the world, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala and the Philippines- which collectively accounted for 212 of all incidents- were identified as the countries where attacks were most probable.

Last week, the International Council on Mining and Metals acknowledged that attacks on human rights defenders were on the increase and called on relevant government authorities to take action.

” Defenders continue to face harassment and dread for their safety when they speak out ,” members of the council said in a statement.” This is deeply concerning for companies that are committed to human rights, openness and transparency. While we may not always agree with postures taken by human rights defenders, ICMM recognises freedom of expression and assembly as fundamental human rights .”

Last month, a report by Frontline Defenders said that in 2017 there was a” well resourced and coordinated strategy of libel, criminalisation and violence deployed to intimidate, marginalise and stillnes human rights defenders “.

The group received reports on the murder of 312 rights defenders in 27 countries.

” In 2017 the alarming rise in attacks is just a continuation of what has become a very open and very aggressive attack on civil society and anyone who advocates against or challenges corporate power ,” said Katie Redford, director of EarthRights International, a civil society group that provides legal assistance to human and environmental rights activists.

Case studies

On 24 January 2018, Quintin Salgado, a labour activist and leader of the Los Mineros employees union, was attacked and killed by unknown assailants. Salgado had been working with striking miners at the Media Luna mine in Guerrero, Mexico, owned by Canadian mining company Torex Gold. Employees have been striking since November 2017 in an effort to secure better working conditions and the right to freedom of association. Salgado, a former worker at the mine, was the third person involved in the ten-strikes to be killed. In a statement following the murder, Torex Gold said:” The Company has no way of knowing who was behind the killed. It is our understanding that Mr Salgado was well known to authorities and that the investigation continues. It is genuinely sad that Los Mineros and their supporting unions have chosen to exploit these human tragedies to further their political agendas .”

On 9 January, Ronald David Barillas, a member of the Xinca indigenous parliament, was killed in Santa Rosa, Guatemala. Barillas, a vocal critic of the sugar agroindustry, had opposed the Escobal mining project, owned by Canadian firm Tahoe Resources. In a statement, the mining company said:” As an open, transparent and statute biding company, we will cooperate with authorities as requested. We are committed to the search for truth, strengthening the rule of law, and the fight against impunity in Guatemala … We recognise human rights activists are particularly vulnerable to violence and persecution. We denounce any tries by others to threaten, frighten, or attack each member of community activism groups or human rights organization .”

Attorneys in Cambodia are seeking criminal charges and pre-trial detention for three prominent human rights defenders, Moeun Tola, Pa Nguon Teang and Buddhist monk Venerable But Buntenh. If convicted, they face up to three years in prison.

Last month, palm oil company Socfinand its Cameroonian subsidiary Socapalm began defamation proceedings in Paris against two NGOs, Sherpa and ReAct, and French media outlets Mediapart, L’Obs and Le Point, over reporting of protests by farmers living near plantations run by the two companies. Socfin is part-owned by French conglomerate Bollore, one of the world’s largest companies. Sherpa claims that, collectively, Socfin and Bollore have launched more than 20 libel suits against 40 journalists, NGOs and media organisations since 2009.

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Latin American countries sign legally binding pact to protect land defenders

New treaty obliges states to investigate and punish killings and attacks on people defending their land or environment

Officials from 24 Latin American and Caribbean countries have signed a legally binding environmental rights pact containing measures to protect land defenders, almost two years to the day since environmental leader Berta Caceres was killed in her home in Honduras.

Last year almost 200 nature protectors were killed across the world, 60% of them in Latin America. The new treaty obliges the countries to” ensure a safe and enabling surrounding for people, groups and organisations that promote and defend human rights in environmental matters “.

It obligates strong measures to protect national environmental defenders from threats or assault- and analyse and punish these whenever they result. And it codifies the rights of environmental defenders” to life, personal integrity, freedom of opinion and expres, peaceful assembly and association, and free movement .”

The 2016 killing of Caceres, a win of the Goldman environmental prize, focused attention on the killings of environmental and land rights activists in the region. Her demise was one of 14 such deaths recorded in Honduras that year in a collaboration between the Guardian and NGO Global Witness, inducing the country one of the deadliest in the world for environmental activists. In a sign of progress, though, the number of killings fell in 2017 and two days before the new pact was agreed, Honduran authorities arrested a former military intelligence officer for masterminding Caceres’s killing.

Costa Rica’s president, Luis Guillermo Solis, described the treaty as” a turning point” in the fight against poverty, inequality and hate.” It is also crucial for the very survival of our species ,” he said.” The right to a healthy surrounding is a human right .”

Carole Excell, the environmental democracy director of the World Resource Institute, described the new protocol as” an historical stand to safeguard the backbone of environmental protection “.

In Brazil, where 49 environmental defenders were killed in 2016, a statement by Fundacao Grupo Esquel Brasil and the Article 19 campaign said:” A legally binding agreement is critical for us to protect our land and environmental defenders who will now have greater access to the rights enshrined in this convention.

” The treaty may help Brazil to reverse the trend of regressive environmental laws .”

The agreement is formally called the Latin American and Caribbean countries declaration on Principle 10( LAC-P1 0 ). Emerging from the UN’s Rio +20 seminar on sustainable development in 2012, it covers access to environmental datum, justice and public participation in decision making.

” I cannot understate how critical it is for communities to have access to environmental datum, like data on local water pollution or nearby mining concessions ,” Excell said.” LAC-P1 0 is designed not only to protect environmental defenders, but also to make it easier for people to get information, participate in decision-making that will affect their lives and hold powerful interests to account .”

The treaty, which was stewarded by Chile, Costa Rica and Panama, also guarantees the right to a healthy surrounding and impels states to establish transparency bodies to monitor, report and oversee compliance with the new regulations.

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Indigenous rights “serious obstacle” to Kinder Morgan pipeline, report says

Pipeline company downplaying major legal and financial risks of crossing unceded First Nations territory in British Columbia

The controversial expansion of a pipeline that would carry tar sand crude from Alberta to British Columbia’s coast will be doomed by the rising power of Indigenous land rights.

That’s the message that Kanahus Manuel, an Indigenous activist from the Secwepemc Nation in central BC, plans to deliver to banks financing the project as she travels through Europe this week.

She’ll have in hand a report being released today by the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade, which highlights the fact that Texas-based Kinder Morgan has misinformed fiscal backers about health risks of expanding its TransMountain pipeline, almost half of which runs across “unceded” Secwepemc territory.

The project, whose expense has ballooned from $5.4 to $7.4 bn, would nearly triple capability on an existing pipeline to ship 890,000 barrels per day to Asian marketplaces, locking in expanded production of one of the world’s most carbon-intensive oils.

The report details” significant legal, financial and reputation hazards” that amount to “serious obstacles” it says have been downplayed by Kinder Morgan in its dealings with Canadian and international banks.

The key risks, detected by economists and lawyers based on the pipeline’s history, Canadian legal precedents, and fiscal documents, include Kinder Morgan’s plans to build on lands whose ownership is hotly contested.

The pipeline intersects 518 km of Secwepemc territory over which the First Nations assert Aboriginal title, a type of land rights that the supreme court of Canada has recognized were never conceded or relinquished through treaties.

TransMountain
TransMountain pipeline’s road through the Secwepemc Nation in British Columbia, Canada.

The Secwepemc could not opposed the original Trans Mountain pipeline being built through their territory in 1951, because it was illegal at the time for Indigenous peoples to politically coordinate or hire lawyers to advocate on their behalf.

“[ Kinder Morgan] either does not understand the diverse realities of Indigenous rights in Canada or they are wilfully dismissing the results of those rights for the project ,” the report says.” Either style, it should be a major red flag for investors, lenders, and other financial backers .”

Kinder Morgan did not return a request for comment.

Banks are increasingly rethinking their investments in the tar sands- French bank BNP Paribas pledged last week to stop financing pipelines carrying tar sand petroleum, following similar moves by Dutch Bank ING and Sweden’s largest pension fund AP7.

The report also notes that the likelihood of increasing Indigenous protest has not been accounted for by the company.

Inspired by her time at the Standing Rock encampment, this autumn Manuel and others finished constructing the first of several tiny houses- to be outfitted with solar-panels- that they are able to place in the path of the pipeline as an act of defiance.

” We will defend with all of our capacities our unceded lands and waters from this climate chaos-fuelling pipeline ,” Manuel said from Europe.” The government has to follow the minimum standards laid out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples- that includes free, prior and informed consent, which they have not gotten from us for the project. Instead Kinder Morgan is concealing the risks and the costs their backers will face when this pipeline doesn’t get built .”

Kinder Morgan’s initially estimated the pipeline would be in operation by late 2017, but postpones have pushed back the date to spring 2020.

Each month of delay costs the company $5.6 m in expenses and $88 m in lost revenue, according to an affidavit Kinder Morgan are presented in court during a stand-off near Vancouver in 2014, when 100 Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists were arrested trying to block exploratory drilling by the company.

The pipeline project has the backing of the Alberta government and prime minister Justin Trudeau, whose national resources minister has now been suggested the governmental forces could call in the Canadian military to deal with protests, evoking the prospect of what First Nations leaders have labelled a” Standing Rock of the North .”

The Trudeau government approved the pipeline in 2016, but the recently-elected NDP provincial government in BC has said it” would apply every tool available” to stop it. Both governments have committed to implementing the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The BC government joined as an intervenor in federal court of appeal hearings last week, supporting legal challenges against the pipeline launched by First Nations closer to the coast, municipalities, and environmental organizations.

The report comes on the heels of TransCanada withdrawing its application to build Energy East, the largest proposed tar sands pipeline that would have carried 1.1 m barrels daily to the east coast.

It was hobbled by political protests, as well as the recent introduction of a” climate exam” that would evaluate how the project might impact Canada’s overall carbon emissions.

Research by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has found that Canada cannot construct new tar sand export pipelines and expand production and still hope to meet its Paris accord climate commitments.

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