PANAMA CITY, Panama – Slashed tyres, persecution, information theft and having her relatives harassed. These are just some of the things Honduran human rights defender Jéssica Isla has had to endure throughout her almost 30 years of activism - first, as an advocate in the student movement and later as an activist against gender-based violence and exploitation. Pained, Ms. Isla recalls a comment from her daughter: "Mom, it seems like you're determined to die."

The fears of Ms. Isla’s daughter are not unfounded. In 2019, 31 human rights defenders were murdered in Honduras. This is the second highest number in Latin America according to data from Front Line Defenders (FLD), an organization that aims to protect at-risk activists.

“My greatest commitment is to my children but I have a sense of duty living in Honduras,” says Ms. Isla, director of Grupo de Sociedad Civil (Civil Society Group), a group committed to strengthening citizen participation and promoting democracy and social justice.

Latin America is the most dangerous region in the world for human rights defenders according to FLD, accounting for 68 per cent of all murdered human rights defenders in 2019. Globally, the most deadly countries for human rights defenders and environmentalists were Colombia (106 murdered), the Philippines (43) Honduras, and Mexico and Brazil (both 23). 

“We are convinced that ‘La Esperanza Protocol’ will help guarantee access to justice for women human rights defenders." - Verónica Vidal, member of Front Line Defenders Board of Directors.

La Esperanza Protocol

A new protocol called ‘La Esperanza Protocol’ aims to better protect at-risk human rights defenders by improving the investigation of, and response to, serious threats and attacks. Developed with leadership from the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), together with civil society organizations, women's and feminist organizations, the protocol is due in March. Spotlight Initiative has given a financial contribution to support the finalization of the protocol, which includes a specific focus on the security needs of women human rights defenders and highlights their vital contribution to strengthening democracy. If adopted by states around the world, La Esperanza Protocol will serve as a framework for designing policy measures to protect human rights defenders. Currently, few concrete guidelines for the investigation of threats exist beyond general standards of due diligence.

The Initiative’s Latin America Regional Programme has also dedicated additional funds to to support the work of human rights defenders across the region.

“We celebrate this initiative that UN Women and Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) are promoting together with the valuable contribution of women's, feminist and human rights organizations in the region,” says Verónica Vidal, a member of the FLD Board of Directors. “We are convinced that ‘La Esperanza Protocol’ will become an instrument that will help guarantee access to justice for women human rights defenders and that it will improve the investigation processes for attacks they are exposed due to their work. The alarming levels of impunity in the region reveal the weakness of the justice systems and the investigation processes that, far from achieving in justice, have been built on violent and racist foundations that make it difficult to find and punish those responsible for the attacks and violations of women human rights defenders.”

“Berta's death was a turning point. ​​​​With the protocol, we want to change how threats are treated. They are a key weapon in intimidating women human rights defenders." - Viviana Krsticevic, executive director of CEJIL.

The risk of silencing

La Esperanza Protocol honours the memory of Honduran feminist and environmentalist Berta Cáceres, who was murdered in the western Honduran town of La Esperanza in 2016. Before she was murdered, she had been threatened more than 30 times.

Ms. Cáceres’ murder was not an isolated case: in 75 per cent of the cases documented by FLD, murders occur after a series of repeated threats or security incidents. According to an ongoing investigation by CEJIL and UN Women, 47 per cent of defenders consider the threats they receive as ‘notice’ that greater harm will be inflicted on them in future.

“Berta's death was a turning point,” says Viviana Krsticevic, executive director of CEJIL.

“With the protocol, we want to change how threats are treated, they are a key weapon in intimidating women human rights defenders. We must improve the response of institutions [to women’s complaints] to be able to stop the cycle of pain and silence.”

Ms. Krsticevic says women defenders often have their complaints about threats, increased online harassment and sexual assaults minimized. Indeed, women human rights defenders are disproportionately exposed to sexual and other forms of gender-based violence. 

Ms. Isla also highlights the emotional toll of their work on their families and children, and says the stress can even lead to chronic disease.

“Human rights defenders are a network, and each one of us is a knot within that network. Our protection must be seen as a collective responsibility.” - Jéssica Isla, human rights defender

Lack of protection and the pandemic

In many countries, women human rights defenders now face even more obstacles when seeking protection and justice. Lockdowns and travel restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 have created a new set of issues -- Ms. Isla points to cases where women have tried to report violence, only to be chastised for violating curfew restrictions.

María-Noel Vaeza, regional director of UN Women for the Americas and the Caribbean, says problems like this highlight the urgent need for the Protocol. “The La Esperanza Protocol will be a fundamental tool to create favorable environments for [human rights defenders’] indispensable work through recommendations created from [their] own experience. For this reason, we ask CEJIL to continue working closely with women defenders and civil society: their voices must be heard in all their diversity.”

According to the CEJIL and UN Women study, 67 per cent of human rights defenders surveyed said that they will continue to persevere in their work, despite receiving threats.

“[The defenders] are a network, each one [of us] is a knot within that network,” says Ms. Isla. “We cannot leave a vacuum. Our protection must be seen as a collective responsibility and must cover all of us.”

By Andrea Vasquez