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Commitment 10

Photo: Michael Benanav

Photo: Michael Benanav


Protected Land Rights Defenders

Respect and protect the civil and political rights of human rights defenders working on land issues, combat the stigmatisation and criminalisation of peaceful protest and land rights activism, and end impunity for human rights violations, including harassment, threats, violence, and political imprisonment.

In 2017, worldwide 207 Land and Environment Defenders (LEDs) were killed, according to a report by Global Witness. There has never been a more critical time to protect land and environmental rights and the people who put their lives on the line to defend them.

More and more ordinary people are finding themselves on the frontline of the battle to defend their land and territories from corporate or state abuse and unsustainable exploitation. Many violations are invisible, and the situation is set to become worse as competition for access to natural resources and land grabs intensify against a backdrop of extreme global inequality.

ILC members and their partners face threats, criminalisation, violence, and killings for defending the rights of local communities, peasants, pastoralists, and Indigenous Peoples to their land and environment.

Guatemala – a human rights crisis

Eighteen prominent community leaders and media workers, including from ILC members CODECA and CCDA, have been murdered in Guatemala in 2018. National and international human rights organisations have expressed their concern about the wave of assassinations and have called on the authorities for immediate measures to clarify the facts and protect the defenders.

In August 2018, responding to a request from members in Guatemala, ILC organised an international high-level mission, together with Front Line Defenders, CIVICUS, Pastoral de la Tierra, and UDEFEGUA. The mission visited communities and talked to representatives of local and national government, human rights institutions, UN agencies, and international development partners.

The delegates were gravely concerned by their findings. At the end, they said in a statement: “The message we have heard from defenders across Guatemala is, ‘We are not criminals, we are not killers, we simply want to work our land and feed our families’. We stand by their assertion.

“We have found that to date the Government of Guatemala has failed to make any effective response to protect Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) at risk or investigate crimes against them. The government is presiding over a climate of violence in which HRDs can be killed with impunity and without any fear of sanction. Of grave concern to us is that the acts of violence against HRDs have gone beyond random acts to become a systematic pattern of persecution.

“Not only is the state failing to uphold fundamental human rights, but it is actively dismantling existing protection mechanisms and institutions. Instead of upholding the human rights of individuals and communities, the legal and judicial systems are being used to advance the interests of powerful state and non-state groups against the interests of local communities, often through corrupt means. We have been told by a wide variety of actors in Guatemala that it is no longer a functioning democracy. In meetings with communities, we have heard over and over again their sentiment that the state has abandoned them. The community journalists who expose the brutal reality are now themselves being targeted.

“At the root of social conflict is access to land, water, and natural resources. It is evident that the state of Guatemala has chosen to prioritise an economic model of rural development that enriches the few, at the expense of impoverishing communities, incentivising migration, and destroying the environment.

“The Government of Guatemala has a clear choice between addressing these issues as part of a process of building a more just and equal society, or maintaining the status quo, which will only result in further polarisation and economic hardship for the people of Guatemala. The starting point for building a more inclusive rural development model is the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. If consultations in good faith are to have any value, people need to trust that the government will act on agreements reached with communities. It is also urgent to end the stigmatisation of HRDs, and recognise the legitimate and positive role they play.”

The mission produced a report with recommendations to the Government of Guatemala, development partners, international media, and civil society. Its work was greatly appreciated by members. “The government now realises there are people here,” commented a leader from CCDA, referring to the visibility that the mission and its coverage in the media had brought to their situation. It also provided important lessons for ILC about the roles it can play in support of members in adverse contexts such as Guatemala.

The mission was covered by major national, regional, and global media:


ILC’s Commitment to Land and Environmental Defenders

ILC is aware that, to tackle the sensitive and fragile situation of LEDs around the world, a strong network of actors is needed. It has developed a strategy on Commitment 10, endorsed by members of the global and regional reference groups, that includes a set of initiatives connecting the local, national, regional, and global work of ILC members and mobilising their diverse expertise and capacity to influence key actors. The strategy embraces emergency protection, documentation and data, advocacy, and capacity building of members to access alternative systems of protection.

Strengthening members’ capacity to access human rights protection systems as an alternative to domestic justice systems started, in 2017, with a global workshop in Montevideo, Uruguay, which led to a partnership with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In the following year, ILC members in Africa received training from a former Commissioner of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, focusing on building their capacity to access regional human rights protection systems.

As well as capacity building, ILC is strengthening its regional Land and Environment Defenders Emergency Fund in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and is working with other partners, through the Defend the Defenders Coalition (DD Coalition), to establish a Global Emergency Alert and Action Mechanism to allow immediate action where a threat has been identified.

ILC is also supporting the DD Coalition to share protocols and best practices, improve data, scale up information sharing, and take joint lobbying, advocacy, and campaigning actions to raise awareness, build a sense of urgency, and ensure that action is taken to address abuses against HRDs.