Amnesty International has worked with human rights defenders for decades, and during this time, the organization has witnessed and worked against a range of repressive tactics that governments of every political hue have deployed to silence human rights defenders.
Patterns of repression have varied over time and across context: in Latin America, for example, "disappearances" and death squad killings replaced politically motivated imprisonment in the 70s and 80s as favoured tactics for suppressing dissenting voices, tactics which allowed the military governments of the time to cover their tracks and deny all responsibility.
Disappearances, death squad killings and politically motivated imprisonment are used against defenders in many countries around the world, particularly those experiencing armed conflict or severe civil unrest.
In such situations, death threats are a common means of intimidation, which the police or judiciary neither investigate nor punish.
Defenders working on human rights issues which have traditionally been neglected or marginalized often face specific obstacles as a result. The rights they uphold may be especially contested or controversial, either because they challenge dominant social norms or because they are seen as threatening to the established political, religious or economic order.
This includes human rights defenders working on economic, social and cultural rights, sexual and reproductive rights and those defending the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people.
Detention or abduction
Human rights defenders in many countries are at risk of being detained or abducted. Many have been tortured or otherwise ill-treated during captivity, often in an attempt to force them to confess to criminal activity or to retract accusations of human rights violations.
Detention safeguards are often flouted and many may be held without charge. Others may have spurious charges brought against them, a pattern AI has increasingly observed in countries where the authorities seek to tarnish defenders' image and reputation by portraying them as criminals, terrorists or delinquents.
In some cases charges are clearly fabricated. In others, legitimate activities such as convening a demonstration or lodging an official complaint have been characterized as public order offences or acts of libel.
Daily harassment of human rights defenders is so common that it often goes unreported. This may take the form of:
- phone tapping
- restrictions on travel.
More extreme harassment can mean:
- attacks or raids on offices or homes
- confiscation of equipment and files
- blocking access to the internet and other communication facilities
- freezing assets.
Smear campaigns and defamatory tactics are also used to delegitimize the work of defenders. The media often collude in spreading slanderous accusations and attacks on their personal integrity and political independence.
Bureaucratic barriers are applied in politically motivated ways to hamper the work of organizations working for the defence of human rights. All manner of pretexts have been used to:
- deny organizations legal registration
- restrict their meetings
- obstruct fact-finding visits
- force them to cease operating, either directly or by preventing access to sources of funding.