(IPS) – Although the public identifies human rights organisations in Latin America with resistance to the dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, for years now these groups have broadened their concerns to encompass environmental and other issues.
Environmental conflicts over access to land and the use of natural resources, triggered by the polluting activities of oil or mining companies or by the expansion of large-scale agriculture at the expense of woodlands, are now among the top priorities of activists.
Also high up on the agenda of human rights defenders are violations of the rights of indigenous people, violence against women, and the rights of workers, immigrants and members of sexual minorities.
“The key issues on the new agenda arise from the tension caused when economic development clashes with the environment and human rights,” Gastón Chillier, executive director of the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), an Argentine human rights group, told IPS.
Chillier inaugurated the Dec. 5-6 meeting of Latin American human rights defenders organised by CELS in Buenos Aires, which drew more than 70 representatives from organisations in 14 countries in the region.
The aim of the meeting was to discuss the new issues of today, identify other actors – besides the state – who violate human rights, discuss the challenges faced by many human rights defenders, such as death threats and murder, and evaluate different mechanisms of protection at the local, national or regional levels.
“Today it is not only the state that violates human rights, but also companies, para-state agencies and organised crime,” said Chillier, who cited a number of activists killed recently in Argentina and other countries in Latin America.
CELS and many other human rights groups in Latin America emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, when most of the region was governed by authoritarian regimes that left thousands of people dead, “disappeared”, tortured or exiled.
The organisations, created by the families of victims of the dictatorships or by political leaders or human rights lawyers, spoke out about the abuses and demanded justice.
But as democracy was restored in the region, their focus stretched to include police brutality and torture in prisons.
And their agenda continued to expand, to economic and social conflicts, in which the state is not necessarily the central actor in human rights violations.
In Argentina, conflicts have mushroomed involving indigenous people and landless peasant farmers defending the use of common land and opposed to deforestation to make way for export crops like soybeans.
The same thing is happening in other countries in the region, along with the emergence of conflicts with different industries.
Brazilian activist Andrea Caldas of Justiça Social (Social Justice) told IPS how her organisation has gradually begun to incorporate new issues in its work, which initially focused on violence and brutality in the police and criminal justice systems and the question of access to justice.
Now the Rio de Janeiro-based human rights group also documents cases of violations of economic, social and cultural rights by mining companies and other multinational corporations or by the construction of enormous hydropower dams, which affect the poorest, most vulnerable communities.
“Brazil is following a development model based on mega-infrastructure works and incentives for large corporations, like the Vale iron ore producer, the biggest in the world in its field,” she said.
Caldas said Justiça Social had found violations of the right to land, a healthy environment and health of two communities in the northeastern Brazilian state of Maranhão where Vale plants operate and, she said, pollute the water.
Human rights defenders face growing risks for the work they do. Brazilian panellist Edmundo Rodrígues Costa, of the Catholic Pastoral Land Commission, reported that 1,855 activists had been threatened in his country in the past decade in disputes over land, and 42 were murdered.
“There is no safety for defenders,” he said. “Impunity reigns, so mining and agricultural export companies can do whatever they want on the land, such as directly having people murdered in contract killings or by their own private guards.”
Rodrigues Costa cited the case of U.S.-born Catholic nun Dorothy Stang, who was killed in 2005 in the northern state of Pará after working for decades on behalf of landless peasants and defending the Amazon jungle from deforestation by private landowners.
He also mentioned a more recent case: the May murders of a husband and wife team of activists – Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espírito Santo – who had spent years fighting illegal logging in the rainforest in northern Brazil.
Francisco Soberón of Peru’s Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos human rights association also mentioned socio-environmental conflicts over open-pit mining, which pollutes the soil and water.
“There are many conflicts over mining, oil and natural gas, and logging. The extractive industries and the social conflicts they generate are a key focus of the new human rights agenda,” he told IPS.
Soberón said rightwing legislators had introduced a bill in the Peruvian Congress to put the armed forces in charge of maintaining public order in the country – which he said activists hoped would not be approved.
Women’s rights activists also took part in the two-day meeting. Carmen Herrera, with Abogados y Abogadas por la Justicia y los Derechos Humanos (Lawyers for Justice and Human Rights) of Mexico, told IPS about the new issues they face.
“The new challenge is to visibilise the double discrimination suffered by indigenous women,” she said. “We are denouncing that the Millennium Development Goals (a series of development and anti-poverty targets adopted by U.N. members in 2000) are never met for indigenous people, and that’s just taken as normal.”
Andrea Medina, with the Red Mesa de Mujeres, a network of women’s groups based in Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, told IPS that the 10 organisations in the network not only speak out against the wave of violence suffered by young women – many of them factory workers – in that city on the U.S. border, but also against the brutality and threats suffered by human rights defenders.
“A year ago they murdered Marisel Escobedo, the mother of one of the missing girls, and a few days ago Norma Andrade, the mother of another one of the young women who have been murdered, barely survived an attempt on her life by an unknown gunman and is in critical condition in the hospital,” she said.
These cases not only show that a climate of impunity continues to surround these crimes, but also that there is “a culture of discrimination that underpins violence against women.
“Today the people who face the biggest threats in Mexico are women who speak out against human rights violations against women,” she said.