Side event: Human rights defenders under threat: the “war on drugs” and the shrinking space for civil society

Daniel Joloy, Amnesty International. Human rights defenders face harassment, intimidation for speaking out on human rights. They are forcibly disappeared. Far from being protected by the state, they are treated as criminals. The increase in violence has created an increasingly difficult environment for human rights defenders to work. Attempts to clamp down on criminal groups can create a dangerous environment for human rights defenders. Human rights defenders have faced challenges. Each human rights defender will tell us about their work here in the midst of the war on drugs. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the UN declaration on human rights defenders. We hope that we can discuss how current drug control creates specific risks for human rights defenders. But UN agencies can take specific actions on this.

Maricela Orozco, Mexico. I come from Mexico. I am here today because my 19 year old kid Herson was kidnapped 3 years ago. The same day, my son Allan and my son in law Miguel were killed. They were killed within the war on drugs in Mexico. The militarisation of public security has resulted in an increase in violence, with 100,000 disappeared people since 2006. Judges have covered for organised crime, there is very little justice. I started looking for my son. I got in touch with other families and we created a network of family collectives looking for their disappeared relatives. From searching only for my son, I started looking for many others in Mexico. This is where I started fighting for the rights of all those disappeared in the war on drugs. And I became a human rights defender.

I have joined actions to look for those disappeared who are alive and those in mass graves. We worked on a law for those disappeared which was recently approved. The security law was unfortunately adopted not too long ago. Besides the damage of the war on drugs on thousands of families, searching for loved ones and defending human rights in this context is very dangerous. In our work, many friends have been killed. The search for our loved ones makes us be uncomfortable for criminal actors and for the state for their collusion for organised crime. And our vulnerability increases.

In addition, the lack of reparation for the victims of human rights violations is inexistent. I am part of the mechanism for the protection of human rights defenders and journalists, and they assessed my risk as extremely high. They have put together security protection, but the attorney general’s office has been forced to protect me as well with police. The panic alert is privatised, and puts you in touch with a private corporation. But it doesn’t enable you to react properly in an emergency case. Being able to be considered by this mechanism is very hard. The specific measures are assessed and revised regularly too. The mechanism will aways be insufficient. It doesn’t prevent attacks or reduces the rates of impunity for these attacks. The threat of attacks will definitely continue under this system.

The cycle of impunity and corruption that fuels the war on drugs has not enabled us to find our disappeared. We need to urgently review the drug strategy in Mexico so that it ensures the full protection of human rights. In December, I could find my son’s body who had been kidnapped for more than three years.

Carlos Ellecer (Budit), Philippines. Thank you for this important event which enables us to say the truth about what is going on in the Philippines. I am part of a human rights organisation which shed light on the killings even before Duterte’s fight against drugs. We are extending the Philippines human rights movement outside of the country now. You are all aware of the human rights crisis, the biggest since the time of Marcos. We have repeatedly reiterated that Duterte has institutionalised mass murder and impunity in the Philippines. This has conditioned police to be quick on the trigger and have a general contempt on the rule of law. Hitler style murder dehumanised drug users and paddlers. This resulted in violence. Killing society’s undesired has left 12,000 deaths at least, including children.

Civil society has offered three things: academic institutions and human rights groups have condemned this approach and promoted a humane alternative. This is an investment for the life and dignity for all. Duterte demonised us. The state enforced the extortion of the truth, and ensured a public acceptance that the killings might reach human rights defenders if they obstructed justice. Duterte’s message is clear: he gives the order and we will all be killed. This has restricted space for the human rights discourse in the Philippines. There is no affirmative action we’ve undertaken here. The drug war has confined the killings to the most vulnerable and the poor.

The impact of the drug war is manyfold. It does not enable people to defend themselves. It transfigures the mindset of the police into butchers. It threatens to throw away all the human rights education. It normalises the killings, damaging our collective sociopathy. The drug war will continue until 2022. The issue is that the dormant death squat has been expanded again.

The Philippines war on drugs is nothing more than a populist tool to advance an authoritarian agenda. It is clear that this is part of a bigger picture. It is about a democracy falling apart and disintegration of society. Human rights and democracy are rolling back. We have evaluated that the current priorities intend to dissolve democratic, political and economic systems. There is also a well financed propaganda in the Philippines, including online bullying and intolerance to criticism and dissent. Those representing checks and balances face much stigma and condemnation: Senator De Lima, the Supreme Court Chief facing removal. Duterte is painting the Marcos years as golden years.

Extremist groups are painted as patriotic, Hitler style. This calls for public action from us. The challenge now is unprecedented. Human rights defenders have to fight for apathy, respect for life and collective humanity. The difference between now and Marcos, is that the public used to be sympathetic then. Now, a huge portion of the public detests us. We lack physical security plans where the government is upgrading its surveillance capacity. The total crackdown of political activists is extremely concerning. Our role is to make sure that our fellow Philippines society does not act as Hitler followers and provide sanctuaries for human rights defenders.

Peter Sarosi, Hungary. Rights Reporter Foundation is based in Hungary, we develop videos as a powerful tool to give a voice to those who are impacted by the war on drugs. I have been working in this field since 2003. I was optimistic then, thinking we would be able to close the gap in human rights. But now I feel disappointment, the gap is not closing, it is widening in human rights and drug policies. We have restrictive drug laws which are disproportionately affecting those at the margins of society: including Roma communities, racial minorities. There is a lot of abuse against them.

There is now abuse in the name of treatment. So called rehab centres torture and beat down people who use drugs in the name of treatment. There is a belief that people who use drugs must be humiliated to be ‘treated’. We have developed a video recently on Ukraine about this issue. These centres should be closed.

At the same time, there is no increased access to evidence based services in my region. 90% of harm reduction services are funded by international donors, and we see a collapse of harm reduction in the region. In Budapest we were providing 50% of clean needles in the country and these are now closing down. Russia invaded Crimea, and hundreds died because they had to stopped their methadone treatment. We have brave and strong activists from the region that are working to protect people’s rights, but there is a strong backlash. For instance, the Andrey Rylkov Foundation’s website in Russia was closed down because they were promoting harm reduction. Russia also introduced the ‘foreign agent’ law, so that NGOs receiving foreign money had to register and are now stigmatised and bullied.

More and more countries are now importing the Russia style foreign agent law. This is the case for Hungary. Rights Reporter Foundation is included as a foreign agent. But we submitted a complaint at the Supreme Court. But the government does not learn from this. A new law has been introduced called ‘Stop George Soros’, as a conspiring force against Hungary. The government also launched a huge billboard poster campaign with the photo of George Soros depicted as the devil. In this environment, it is really hard for NGOs to do advocacy, especially in drug policy. This negative campaign has a chilling effect.

A totalitarian system can coexist with Parliament systems, but it cannot coexist with a vibrant civil society – this was said before the 1990s. So the message here for democracies is that you need to keep funding and supporting advocacy NGOs and civil society in general. There is less and less support for advocacy – the international community has a lot to do in this regard. Thank you.

Questions and comments: 

Could you expand on some of the methods the Philippines government is using against human rights activists? 

Pedro Arenas, OCDI. This is a quick opinion on the Colombia situation: in the last few years, many human rights defenders have been in danger and several have been killed. Despite the peace agreement, at least 14 campesinos were killed in the last year, in particular in poor communities, especially on 5th October 2017. In the first two months of 2018, 10 people were killed. Between 2017 and 2018, 34 were killed. We claim that the responsibility to protect families within the peace process is with the state.

Budit, Philippines. The mechanism is a demonstration of power against those institutions that provide checks and balances. There is an organisation now tagged to be supporting the left and they had a big conference, but their budget was stopped by the government. About three-four days ago, the department of justice released the names of 300 individuals declaring them as terrorists, including somebody from IDefend. There is also other forms of intimidation, a new law which came about during the night in which the national Philippines police can summon anybody without judicial approval. This is becoming a police state even despite martial law.

Isabel Pereira, DeJusticia. Could you tell us more about the Commission for searching the disappeared and which mechanisms are available to protect their work.

Maricela, Mexico. We started looking for our disappeared illegally, following tips from people who told us. This was civil disobedience. The families organised themselves. We looked at mass graves, and we found many people, we also found my son. We found 284 bodies – this is one of the biggest mass grave in Mexico. Despite this, the Judge of Vera Cruz still denies that there is criminal organisations in this area.

Daniel Joloy. We see similar trends of human rights attacks in very different parts of the world. People working to defend human rights are also scapegoated, with undue restrictions of civil rights. We see direct threats and attacks here. So we urge Vienna based bodies and governments to keep the discussion going on this issue, and offer opportunities to raise these stories and push states to commit to their obligations to protect those human rights defenders.

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