Accessibility statement

CAHR and FGHR webinar on human rights defender security, protection and civic space in the time of COVID-19

Posted on 7 September 2020

On 12 August 2020, CAHR and the Fund for Global Human Rights (FGHR) organised a webinar for human rights funders on the impact of Covid-19 on the work and security of HRDs. Speakers included four human rights defenders (HRDs) from CAHR’s Protective Fellowship Scheme for HRDs at Risk 2019/20 cohort. They came from Brazil, Niger, Nigeria and an Asian country.

With the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating inequalities and restrictions that already hampered HRDs ability to conduct their work, this webinar afforded a number of human rights funders the opportunity to hear from HRDs working in very different environments on diverse issues ranging from anti-corruption and extractive industries to child rights, journalism, extrajudicial killings, racial discrimination, and social justice. The HRDs shared what threats and obstacles they are facing in this new context of a global pandemic; how they are adapting to safeguard themselves, their work, and operating space; and what support they need from the international community to sustain their activism. Moreover, it was an opportunity for CAHR’s 2019/20 visiting HRDs to connect with organisations they might have ordinarily been able to meet with during their fellowship in York, but that was cut short in March 2020 due to the pandemic.

Several trends emerged through the conversation with the HRDs pointing to criminalization of HRDs; increasingly militarized and violent police presence; overt efforts to silence any critics or dissent against government handling of the pandemic; new legislation and increased penalties and fines introduced with the intention of curbing civil society work on human rights; HRDs having to self-censor to avoid criminalization; digital surveillance and attacks that have raised serious challenges for HRDs; and difficulty accessing HRD protection programmes locally with the state having stopped funding. In general, the HRDs highlighted that the people suffering most from the pandemic and various lockdowns are those already marginalised in society, e.g. residents of informal settlements, indigenous peoples, and women suffering from domestic violence.

Encouragingly, the HRDs pointed to several ways that they are adapting to conditions through increased collaboration; innovation; sharing the burden of work at a time when economic impact reduces income and impacts livelihoods; their effective use of online organizing and digital activism; and increased use of public communications. A particularly interesting positive example is the judicial action taken by the favelas movement and some political parties in Río de Janeiro, Brazil, to stop extrajudicial killings in the favelas. The civil society actors and political parties requested the supreme court to declare the police operations in favelas unconstitutional, which resulted in a preliminary decision declaring them illegal during the pandemic. As a result, police operations have been reduced by 70%, and several lives have been saved. As this action at the supreme court was not only related to the pandemic, but the situation in the favelas in general, the temporary decision gives civil society hope that it could be an important step to win the action in the long-term.

The HRDs highlighted also the importance of international diplomatic pressure, solidarity, legal assistance, documentation assistance, and sustained funding as measures that can be provided by international human rights actors, including funders, to support their continued defence of human rights.