It has been five years since human rights defender Berta Cáceres was murdered in her home in Honduras.
She was among hundreds of human rights defenders killed that year for their peaceful work. Hundreds of people have been killed each year since, but those responsible have rarely been brought to justice. Although some have been found guilty of the Cáceres murder, others believed to have been involved have yet to answer for their actions.
It is a familiar and continuing story, in Honduras and around the world, where those responsible for the murder of a human rights defender often enjoy impunity.
This week, I present my latest report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, and it focuses on the killings of human rights defenders and the threats that often precede them.
At least 281 human rights defenders were killed in 2019, and a similar number is expected to be recorded for 2020. Unless radical and immediate action is taken, we can expect hundreds more killings this year.
Since 2015, at least 1,323 defenders have been killed. While Latin America is still the most affected region and human rights defenders like Cáceres are often the most targeted, it is a global problem.
Between 2015 and 2019, human rights defenders were killed in at least 64 countries, a third of all UN member states. Those who collect the data agree that underreporting is a common problem. The number of defenders killed is probably much higher than the numbers we have.
We know that on every continent, in cities and countryside, in democracies and dictatorships, governments and other forces threaten and kill human rights defenders. Many, like Cáceres, are murdered in connection with major commercial projects.
Why are so many governments and others killing human rights defenders who work peacefully for the rights of others? Partly because they can, because there is unlikely to be a political will to punish the perpetrators.
While some states, especially those with large numbers of these killings, have dedicated protection mechanisms in place to prevent and respond to risks and attacks against human rights defenders, defenders often complain that the mechanisms lack of resources.
And in too many cases, companies are also shirking their responsibilities to prevent attacks on defenders or are even responsible for the attacks.
These murders are not random acts of violence that come out of nowhere. Many murders are preceded by threats. As Amnesty International noted, Cáceres’ murder “was a tragedy waiting to happen”, because she had “repeatedly denounced the assault and death threats against her. They had risen as she campaigned against the construction of a hydroelectric dam project called Agua Zarca and the impact it would have on the territory of the indigenous Lenca people.
And yet her government failed to protect her, as so many governments fail to protect their defenders. Since taking office in May 2020, I have spoken to hundreds of human rights defenders. Many have told me of their real fears of being murdered and have shown me death threats against them, often in public.
They tell me how some threats have shouted in person, posted on social media, transmitted in phone calls or texts, or in written notes pushed under a door. Some are threatened with being placed on published hit lists, receiving a message through an intermediary or having their homes graffiti. Others receive photos by mail showing that they or their families have been under long-term surveillance, while others are told that their family members will be killed.
Defenders told me that a coffin was delivered to the office of an NGO; a bullet was left on a dining table in their home; edited photos of them posted on Twitter, showing they were attacked with an ax or knife and an animal head strapped to their organization’s office door.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights advocates, as well as transgender women and human rights defenders, are often attacked by gender-based threats and targeted because of who and what they are. that they do. Women and LGBTQ people who claim rights in patriarchal, racist or discriminatory contexts often experience specific forms of attack, including sexual violence, slander and stigma.
Killings of human rights defenders are not inevitable, many are reported ahead of time, yet governments year after year fail to provide enough resources to prevent them, and year after year fail to hold them to account to murderers. In fact, states should not only end impunity, but also publicly salute the vital contribution that human rights make to societies.
This week, I will remind the United Nations once again that its members are failing in their moral and legal obligations to prevent the killings of human rights defenders. There is no point in government officials wringing their hands and agreeing that the murder of Cáceres and other defenders is a terrible problem and that someone should do something about it.
It’s not that hard. It is up to states to find the political will to prevent killings by better responding to threats against human rights defenders and to hold murderers to account.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.