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Human rights defenders and coronavirus

12 June 2020
Coronavirus - Amazon, Brazil - Indigenous woman standing guard

Luisa, an indigenous woman, guards the entrance to her Amazon community.

Your donations to CAFOD are supporting human rights defenders worldwide. These brave women and men are activists, lawyers and community leaders who often risk their own lives to promote and protect human rights.

Now, coronavirus is making their work even harder, with indigenous leaders at particular risk from the virus and several governments using lockdown rules to restrict freedoms.

Who or what is a human rights defender?

Human rights defenders are people who act to promote or protect human rights.

They are community leaders, lawyers, activists, journalists and bloggers. They are often working in conflict zones and defending the rights of the poorest. 

Saint Oscar Romero, who was born on 15 August 1917, was a human rights defender. His refusal to be silenced cost him his life.

What rights are they defending?

Human rights defenders work to promote and defend many rights and freedoms. These include the right to take part in society and politics, environmental rights and social justice.

They are active citizens just like many of you, our supporters in England and Wales. They are campaigning for a safe place to live or demonstrating about climate change.

What risks do they face?

Defending human rights can be very dangerous in many of the countries where we work.

Human rights defenders most at risk are often those working on land, indigenous and environmental rights. They can face threats, harassment or arrest, and so can their families.

Human rights defenders we support have also been killed for this work. 

In 2019 more than 304 human rights defenders were reportedly killed around the world. The actual figure is likely to be even higher.

What is the impact of coronavirus?

Lockdowns have been enforced brutally in some countries. Parents who have broken quarantine to try to earn money to feed their children have been thrown into prison, leaving their families with nothing.

Access to clean water has also become an urgent human rights issue in El Salvador, so the Church has been asserting and defending the right of people to access water without paying for it.

Stop illegal mining

The situation for indigenous human rights defenders in the Amazon is particularly dangerous.

The Yanomami indigenous group have faced years of violence from gold miners who have illegally invaded their ancestral lands. It is estimated that there are currently 20,000 miners on their territory, putting the Yanomami at far greater risk of contracting the deadly coronavirus.

They have launched a petition to remove the miners from their land and made a video to support the campaign.

Human rights defenders

We're urging the government to introduce a new law that will hold UK companies to account when their activities lead to human rights and environmental abuses.