‘Canary in the coal mine’: Prioritising the protection of local civil society and human rights defenders at the UN Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Week

As governments, UN agencies and others convene for the annual high-level UN Security Council review on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, CAFOD highlights the importance of ending attacks against local civil society and human rights defenders. In our experience, local NGOs – and the harassment, obstruction and threats they face – serve as ‘canary in the coalmine’ indicators for wider violence against civilians.

This year’s UN protection review comes at a critical juncture in global action on Covid19. Around the world, CAFOD is hearing from civil society partners about how government authorities, non-state armed groups and other power-holders are using COVID-19 to accelerate attacks against human rights defenders and people working at the community level to protect and assist people affected by both conflict and Coronavirus. In some contexts, lockdowns and other emergency measures are fuelling the violence, which in turn undermines efforts to halt the spread of the virus.

In Colombia, for example, a local women’s rights activist and humanitarian, Carlota Isabel Salinas Pérez was killed on 24th March 2020 at her home in San Pablo. Carlota lived in an area of San Pablo that housed families displaced by the armed conflict. Her activism included support to peacebuilding and women’s rights. On the day she was shot, she was organising food supplies for local families affected by the pandemic. Carlota had been working on a campaign called “SOS – we are all vulnerable” to help those without food who could not access local markets due to the shutdown. Monseñor Héctor Fabio Henao, Director of Caritas Colombiana said: “Being a human rights defender in Colombia is a dangerous, often deadly job. Since the start of the pandemic we have seen that especially those working to support the peace process are at greater risk, as killings and other types of attacks against community leaders have increased.”

Partners in Syria also highlight how protection of civil society and human rights defenders is interlinked with the wider protection of civilians. For example, Women Now For Development Syria has advocated in support of a political declaration by governments addressing the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA): “By virtue of operating within Syria, our teams are unfortunately no strangers to the catastrophic impact of explosive weapons in populated areas. The women’s centres we have run, some in-besieged areas, have been routinely hit, damaged, and forced out of service by explosive weaponry.”

Governments should use UN protection discussions to demonstrate their commitment to support local civil society groups and human rights defenders working at the frontlines. Towards that end, CAFOD highlights four priorities:

1. Scale-up timely, adequate and flexible longer-term funding to local NGOs working on the frontlines of conflict on protection

Given all the risks and sensitivities involved in work by local NGOs on protection, it is essential they receive flexible, longer-term funding to take forward their work safely and effectively. Unfortunately community-based protection remains a chronically underfunded area of humanitarian response. In May, CAFOD, as part of the Charter4Change coalition, analysed funding to local and national NGOs under the UN’s Covid19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan. At that time, data on OCHA’s Financial Tracking System indicated that only 0.1% of funds reported were reaching local and national NGOs, which is far below the global commitment to deliver 25% to them as directly as possible.

Donors need to expedite funding to local and national NGOs. Options like increased support to country-level NGO-led funding instruments and consortia, and establishing localisation indicators for UN agencies and INGOs, should be explored. In contexts like South Sudan, OCHA had started to engage with CAFOD partners like Titi Foundation on a mapping of local women-led NGOs. This was linked to plans to support such groups on access to the UN country-based pooled fund. These kinds of efforts should be stepped-up with a particular focus on local NGOs working on community-based protection for at-risk communities.

2. Use diplomatic channels to speak out in support of people who are being threatened, criminalised and attacked, and justice mechanisms to hold perpetrators to account

Local NGOs working on protection and human rights defenders need backing in terms of political attention to protection and action to tackle impunity for attacks against them. For such interventions to support their efforts, governments and international agencies need to engage local groups in a safe and meaningful dialogue about what would be helpful. Over the past year, for example, the British Government has published guidance for its embassies on how to help local human rights defenders, which is up for its first annual review this June. Likewise the UN system has tried to rally humanitarian efforts on protection both through the protection cluster, which coordinates protection-focused strategy and programming, and the wider ‘Centrality of Protection’ agenda, which aims to rally wider inter-agency efforts across all sectors of crisis response. Time and time again, CAFOD and its partners have faced challenges by the lack of a coherent approach to protection, and a lack of sustained engagement with local NGOs on what to prioritise.

3. Emphasise transparency, inclusion and accountability to deliver on protection in Covid19 support to governments

From across the globe, CAFOD is hearing concerns over a lack of transparency and accountability in funding for Covid19 response channelled through governments in conflict contexts. A lack of transparency and accountability over those funds is fuelling suspicion and tension, which have spilled into unrest and violence in some cases. In some countries, different forms of discrimination, marginalisation and conflict also appear to be resulting in some sections of society being denied assistance or being scape-goated for the spread of the virus. For example, in Lebanon, some Syrian refugees have been uncertain about seeking medical assistance as they fear being forcibly returned to Syria. In other contexts, specific social groups – sometimes demarcated by their faith, citizenship status or other discriminatory factors – have been targeted for more harsh restrictions. To help counter this, governments and UN agencies should prioritise clear metrics on inclusion, transparency and accountability from the outset of funding to national and local authorities on Covid19 response, not leave these as an afterthought.

4. Support the UN Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire

Governments and others should emphasise their support for a global ceasefire and steps they will take to support this in specific contexts.

For example, CAFOD’s partners in Colombia emphasise the importance of addressing the forced recruitment of minors, which has increased by 113% over last year according to UN and Colombian monitors. The Colombian Bishops Conference also issued a statement highlighting: “We appreciate the humanitarian outcomes brought about by the cease-fire that the ELN had agreed to, and we urge the guerrillas to reconsider their decision to end this. The ceasefire should be revived on an indefinite basis.” In Syria, partners emphasise the importance of concerted engagement to both enable a ceasefire across the country and to catalyse a deeper political process to address the root causes of the crisis. In South Sudan, although a unity government is in place, governors are yet to be appointed across the country’s ten states. This means conflict prevention and COVID-19 coordination are more difficult at the local level.

Until now, the UN Security Council has failed to agree a resolution endorsing the global ceasefire due to wrangling between the USA and China over references to the World Health Organisation. Our partners hope such differences can be overcome to enable an effective Covid19 response, and as an entry-point to addressing deeper drivers of violence, division and conflict in their contexts.

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