On 26 February, as part of the 167th hearings of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), representatives from human rights organisations from across the Andean region presented a new report entitled ‘Defending the Territory is our Right’. This documents a series of cases and highlights the way that human rights defenders (HRDs) working on land rights and the environment are at risk.

The hearing, held in Bogotá, was requested by organisations from Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia, as well as by the Belgium-based organisation Broederlijk Delen. From the Peruvian side, there were representatives from Aprodeh (Eduardo Cáceres) and Grufides (Mirtha Vázquez). There were no state representatives present, only commissioners from the Inter-American system. Who raised a series of questions and comments towards the end of the proceedings.

Key issues highlighted included:

  • A legal framework that favours companies and private investment, such as the use of servidumbre (right to labour usually tied to land), and land expropriation affecting indigenous and campesino communities. Those present pointed to a number of forced evictions and the lack of adequate reparations.
  • The presence and use of security forces to protect economic interests, creating an environment in which HRDs are harassed, threatened, or even killed. Vázquez referred to the use of the police in providing private security to companies in Peru, citing 118 contracts between the police and private companies.
  • The use of states of emergencies that grant discretionary powers to the state in the name of national security. These are used to deter and confront social protest, and result in cases of criminalisation and harassment of HRDs.
  • The use of the media to stigmatise the work of human rights defenders, using a public discourse that depicts extractive industries as the only engines of economic growth and ignoring other voices that advocate alternative models.

Civil society representatives issued the following recommendations to the Commission to:

  • Take into account the particularities of rural/community settings when looking at the situation of HRDs working on issues related to territory and the environment;
  • Look at the role of private companies, as well as the responsibility of states;
  • Continue to legitimise the work of HRDs and to exhort Andean countries to create and/or effectively implement policies to protect them, taking concrete steps to eradicate impunity; and
  • Carry out field visits.

The commissioners underlined the dangers facing HRDs in Latin America. Francisco Eguiguren, rapporteur for human rights defenders and a former Peruvian justice minister, highlighted the fact that three out of four killings of defenders take place in the region. He called the situation of those working to defend their territories “dramatic”.

The Commission insisted on the need not only to provide protection measures following reports of cases where defenders are at risk, but to work on preventive measures that aim to eradicate impunity and punish those responsible for human rights violations. The commissioners said that the IACHR is working alongside the United Nations to design a joint mechanism for the protection of HRDs.

Commissioner Vargas mentioned the importance of prior consultation and the need to continue developing it. He encouraged civil society to bring cases of failed consultations to the IACHR’s attention, and to continue using the system of precautionary measures whenever possible.

Soledad García, rapporteur on economic, social and cultural rights, mentioned that the Commission is conducting a report on business and human rights. She said that the Commission has regularly reiterated that economic development without respect for human rights cannot bring growth and economic benefits to all.