©Ema Anis for Amnesty International

EU must do more to counter mounting global attacks on human rights defenders

The European Union (EU) and its member states are falling short on their commitment to support and protect human rights defenders (HRDs) who are facing mounting deadly threats and attacks, a new Amnesty International report out today shows.  

The report ‘Defending Defenders? An Assessment of EU Action on HRDs’ reveals that EU support can and does offer vital protection to HRDs worldwide, but it is too often silent on human rights abuses in certain countries, leaving human rights defenders in serious danger. 

When the EU and its member states stand for human rights defenders, it can be the difference between freedom or imprisonment, between life and death.

Eve Geddie, Director of the Amnesty International EU Office

“When the EU and its member states stand for human rights defenders, it can be the difference between freedom or imprisonment, between life and death. But when it fails to act, defenders are left to their own devices which can have a damaging impact for them and the communities they work for,” said Eve Geddie, Director of the Amnesty International European Institutions Office.  

“Our research shows serious inconsistencies when it comes to the application of EU policies to protect human rights defenders. For instance, the EU often speaks out for defenders in China to try to make their plight heard. On the other hand, EU public interventions in Saudi Arabia are virtually non-existent amidst a serious crackdown on dissent – maintaining a close partnership with the Kingdom has evidently taken precedence over human rights concerns.” 

Lack of strategy undermines HRD support 

Amnesty International analyzed the implementation of the EU’s guidelines for the protection of human rights defenders in five countries – Burundi, China, Honduras, Russia and Saudi Arabia – including by speaking to HRDs in those countries and EU diplomats.  

Activists in all countries testified to the difference that EU support can make to their work and lives in the face of spiralling repression. But their testimonies also revealed how a lack of strategy often undermined EU action to support human rights defenders.  

Amnesty International found stark differences between how the EU and its member states support HRDs in the five countries analysed.  

Increasing restrictions that are suffocating civil society in Saudi Arabia have not been met with a clear response from the EU, which rarely if ever speaks out publicly in defence of the country’s HRDs. Meanwhile, despite complex relations with China, the EU uses much more public diplomacy to raise the cases of HRDs facing harassment, arbitrary detention and torture. 

“These inconsistencies undermine the credibility and robustness of the EU’s HRD policy at the global level. At a time when women, LGBTI and Indigenous defenders, as well as those working on issues related to the land, territory and the environment are particularly at risk, it is more urgent than ever for the EU to act in support of those who dare to speak up for human rights,” said Eve Geddie. 

“This is about journalists, lawyers, health professionals, teachers and activists defending the rights of all of us. But too often, the EU fails to meet its potential as a human rights champion by punching below its weight.”  

Weak EU responses to the mounting risks faced by HRDs included a lack of public statements in certain countries, or statements which failed to reflect the gravity of the situation facing HRDs. EU statements are often not translated into local languages or shared on social media.  

Yet when the EU does act, it makes a difference. 

In emblematic cases of HRDs in Russia that were facing unfound prosecution such as Oyub Titiev and Valentina Cherevatenko, consistent, high-level and coordinated EU and member state action contributed to the decision by the authorities to reduce or even drop the charges against them.   

But EU inaction leaves HRDs to fend for themselves. When Mohammed al-Otaibi, a human rights defender from Saudi Arabia was forcibly deported from Qatar despite having been granted a humanitarian visa by Norway, EU member states failed to speak out on his defense and further exposed him to injustice. 

EU support can have a positive impact on HRDs 

On 30 August 2019, several women HRDs took their concerns to High Representative Mogherini and EU Foreign Ministers when they were invited to a recent meeting of Foreign Affairs Ministers in Helsinki. 

One of the defenders, Memory Bandera Rwampwanyi from Uganda, said:

“My organisation engages directly with the EU and we are grateful for its vital support, both financial and technical, for HRDs in the east and Horn of Africa sub region. But I have also seen that the EU is clearly in a double bind when business or other vital interests are concerned. It is important for the EU to continue its work, but it must be guided by the expertise of people defending rights.”

In Burundi and Honduras, Amnesty International’s research highlighted some complex challenges facing HRDs. Human rights defenders working on issues related to the land, territory and the environment are particularly targeted in Honduras, while the majority of Burundian HRDs are now in detention or in exile. 

The report identifies several good and even innovative EU practices to support HRDs in these countries and beyond, yet these approaches do not appear to be systematized or shared across countries.  

“The EU and its member states need a more strategic and visible approach to support and protect people at risk for defending human rights and their crucial work,” Eve Geddie said. 

“A good start would be for EU Foreign Ministers to affirm their commitment to promote and protect HRDs through Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions.” 

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Alison Abrahams on alison.abrahams@amnesty.org +32 2 548 27 73 or +32 483 680 812