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                                                                      April 2020

The International Development Committee inquiry, the impact of coronavirus on developing countries around the world and the UK’s response. Written evidence submitted by Peace Brigades International UK and The Alliance for Lawyers at Risk


Executive Summary




1.0 PBI UK is an international human rights organisation that provides life-saving support to human rights defenders at risk. PBI currently has teams of international human rights observers in Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Kenya and Mexico. PBI provides protection and capacity building to local human rights defenders and communities which include peasant farmer and indigenous communities, women’s groups, LGBTI+ rights defenders and defenders working on impunity and the rule of law. In addition we also provide longer-term support - from security monitoring and psychological assistance, to communications and capacity-building training. Through the work of country groups such as PBI UK, we build international networks that can be mobilised at a short notice to provide much-needed support. We provide defenders with a platform they otherwise would not have, to amplify their voices, ensuring that their calls for rights and freedoms are heard by those who can make a difference. PBI has monitored the security situation of human rights defenders for over 35 years and our field presence alongside local defenders allow us an insight into the human rights situation on the ground and how coronavirus is impacting on vulnerable communities in developing countries.


1.1 The Alliance for Lawyers at Risk is an independent UK-based pro-bono network, founded in 2010, that provides moral and legal support to lawyers and human rights defenders working in precarious circumstances.


1.2 PBI UK and the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk welcomes the opportunity to make a submission to the International Development Committee inquiry. This submission addresses the emergence, incidence and spread of the Covid-19 disease in developing countries where PBI has field projects (Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Kenya and Mexico) and the specific risks and threats faced by Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) as well as the humanitarian crisis and how the restrictions of liberties will impact on vulnerable communities.


1.3 PBI UK and the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk recognise that seeking to contain the virus has led to virtually all countries taking unprecedented steps which involve restricting the freedom of movement of its citizens and/or the adoption and exercise of emergency powers to deal with the social and economic impact of the virus. Nothing in this paper is intended to criticise the adoption of such measures in so far as they are directed to limiting the spread of the virus, to save lives and to ameliorate its economic impact. However, we wish to highlight our concerns that in many countries the measures are in practice having a disproportionate effect on certain already highly vulnerable communities; and that emergency and lockdown powers are in some cases being seriously abused by agents of the state in ways which put human rights defenders and others at great risk to their welfare and sometimes even to their lives.


Specific risks and threats faced by Human Rights Defenders and vulnerable communities


2.0 PBI is concerned about an exponential increase in the humanitarian crisis faced by broad sectors of the population in the aforementioned countries due to the virus and containment measures. These measures could have a devastating impact on the underprivileged sectors of society who are already outside the system and outside of government protection and support mechanisms. For this reason, we seek to highlight the extreme vulnerability of specific groups such as ethnic-territorial communities (indigenous and afro-descendent) and the differential risks faced by women and children; these are groups that deserve a comprehensive and adequate response. In contexts where a lack of water, overcrowding, and the lack of access to sources of income the application of containment measures can be devastating.


2.1 HRDs play an important role in monitoring and safeguarding rights and it is crucial that they are supported at this time of crisis since they have a rights based approach to their work and are able to engage with communities that are already vulnerable and neglected by governments. Protecting and supporting defenders (including financially) is essential at this moment in time when the most vulnerable communities are going to be neglected. HRDs are they key workers of the developing world.


2.2 Individuals, organizations, and communities that defend human rights are in a situation of particular vulnerability. The actions of human rights defenders are extremely limited by the restrictions of freedom of movement and association, decreed to prevent the virus' propagation. In many contexts the actions of HRDs are essential to ensure aid reaches the most vulnerable and yet many HRDs at risk do not have internet access from their houses, nor do they have credit to communicate by phone. They are completely cut off and unprotected. In this context, PBI is extremely concerned about attacks against defenders at the hands of state and non-state actors. A suspension of fundamental rights in several of the countries aggravates the situation.


2.3 The emergency measures taken by different governments around the world have in some cases had unforeseen or unintended negative impacts on human rights, while in other cases governments are actively weaponising the pandemic and using emergency measures to deliberately target certain groups.


2.4 We applaud and support the call from United Nations human rights experts reminding States that their emergency powers should not be used to quash dissent. Thus, they indicate that emergency declarations “should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health nor should it be used to silence the work of human rights defenders.”


2.5 From conversations with our partner organisations we have identified the following risks the human rights defenders and vulnerable communities face in the current context.


-          Defenders in lockdown being easier to find and target by authorities, security forces, illegal armed groups and other potential human rights violators;

-          Suspended courts resulting in limited legal recourse for criminalized HRDs as well as lack of sanitary conditions and overcrowding in jails.

-          Increase in sexual and gender based violence against women and girls;

-          Restrictions on freedom of movement resulting in the inability for civil society organisations or international organisations (including embassies) to meet and offer support to defenders at risk and defenders themselves being unable to assist others who are more vulnerable;

-          Measures taken by authorities to limit freedom of expression and of assembly impacting the capacity of defenders to hold authorities and companies to account, and mobilise;

-          Increased risk of burnout and need for attention to self-care measures for HRDs.



3.0 On 23 March, President Iván Duque announced, via a decree, an obligatory quarantine throughout the country, currently valid through 13 April. On 13 April a total of 2852 cases had been registered in the country.


3.1 With the country's existing context of armed conflict, grave humanitarian crisis, and human rights violations, there is concern for the security situation of human rights defenders, specifically in rural areas. A call for a ceasefire was issued on 18 March by 120 communities (Afro-Colombian, mestizo, indigenous, and Humanitarian and Biodiversity Zones from several departments of the country), to date there has only been a response from the National Liberation Army (ELN), which has declared a ceasefire during the month of April, however, there has been no response from the other illegal armed actors or President Duque, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces. On 9 April, 110 communities, reiterating the importance of a humanitarian agreement, issued a new call to the President Duque. This call from communities and their accompanying organizations, is along the same lines as the call made on 23 March by the Secretary General of the United Nations, which was reinforced by Pope Francisco on 29 March.


3.2 Prior to the COIVD emergency measures many communities were already experiencing confinement, resulting from an escalation of the armed conflict in different regions of the country; the COVID 19 emergency could further limit access to basic goods and drinking water, exposing the most vulnerable populations to very critical situations in relation to safety, food, and health.


3.3 The situation in the prison system is of concern as already before the crisis the system suffered from serious overcrowding. Prison riots on 23 March left 23 individuals dead and dozens injured: So far, authorities have not investigated the circumstances of the incident. It should be noted that 200 former members of the FARC EP, signatories of the Peace Agreement, are still in prison waiting to be released pursuant to the provisions of the Amnesty law.


3.4 In this context, the situation in the rural areas is concerning and the confinement measures could worsen a situation where communities and human rights defenders already face extreme vulnerability. According to figures from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in 2019 at least 108 defenders were murdered, there were 36 massacres with a total of 133 victims, and the number of murdered women human rights defenders doubled in comparison with the previous year.


3.5 Persistence of murders and attacks: Since Colombia initiated measures in response to the Coronavirus crisis the number of aggressions against HRDs has increased: the murder of recognized peasant leader Marco Rivadeneira in Putumayo, just a few days after he had met with different diplomatic missions, is just one example of the incessant violence against defenders and the lack of advances in guarantees, as well as the prevailing need to advance in the clarification of these incidents and to dismantle all groups arising from the paramilitary structure, including the identification and sanction of masterminds and not just material authors. Also in Putumayo, campesino leader Jani Silva has faced threats on her life in recent weeks. Alberto Brunori, Representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, has confirmed that for the first quarter of 2020 they recorded the murder of 56 HRDs (14 of whom have already been verified, 11 men and three women HRDs, and the rest are under verification).


3.6 Militarization of the regions: The increasing presence of armed actors in the regions can in itself be a risk for the communities if it is not accompanied by a multilateral cease fire declaration with clear protocols related to the prevention of Coronavirus. There are concerning reports from ethnic communities,  (such as Cacarica, in the region of Urabá) regarding the presence of the Public Armed Forces that are carrying out land and water based military operations, at times with their faces covered, which puts the communities on high alert. In the past, an increase in the presence of illegal and legal armed actors has led to an increase in cases of sexual violence against women and girls. 


3.7 Absence of civil institutions: Even before the COVID 19 emergency, one of the identified risk factors and a constant request from the communities, which is in line with the Havana Peace Agreement signed in November 2016, is to increase the civil state presence in rural and remote regions and areas, where the only state presence was the Armed Forces. It is concerning that, due to the implemented restrictions, there is an even greater reduction in the presence of institutions such as the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office and representatives of the Presidential Council for Human Rights.


3.8 National Protection Unit (UNP): Although the mere physical protection offered by the Colombian State has been shown to be insufficient to protect the physical integrity of human rights defenders, it is concerning that, due to restrictions, there could be even greater limitations to implement physical protection measures, both individual and collective (the delay for these measures had already been highlighted prior to the emergency). This context generated, on 28 March, a call to action from the Inspector General, Fernando Carrillo who urged the UNP to continue responding to the needs of social leaders and insisted that the government is responsible for the inter-institutional agreement process to guarantee the protection of defenders.


3.9 Concerning legislative measures: The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has called for human rights to be front and centre of states’ COVID-19 responses. It is in this context that we highlight legislative initiatives emerging in Colombia that could potentially have long term human rights impacts. Firstly, the business Sector in the country has called for environmental regulations to be cut in order to avoid a worse economic crisis. Furthermore, the Attorney General's Office has ordered district and local authorities to urgently bury all unidentified corpses in the morgues. This measure has been denounced as violating the rights of victims of forced disappearance in a country with nearly 120,000 cases in the context of the armed conflict and political violence that the country has suffered for several decades.




4.0 On 29 March, the government of Guatemala reported 36 confirmed cases of coronavirus. One of these individuals has passed away. The situation is especially grave in rural areas, where there is a lack of hospitals and trained medical personnel. The existing rural health posts usually lack the minimum material to provide adequate basic health services. Firstly, The Business Sector in the country has suggested taking certain measures, some environmental, to avoid a worse economic crisis due to the measures that have been taken to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus. Among those that have caused outrage is that of simplifying procedures such as prior consultation, environmental and royalty licenses, since, according to them, they slow down the country's development.


4.1 On Thursday 12 March, before detecting the first case of coronavirus, the government of Guatemala stopped the entrance of Europeans into the country, later adding other affected nationalities. On Monday the 16th, President Alejandro Giammattei announced new measures that included a declaration of a State of Calamity, with a suspension of many fundamental guarantees, the suspension of activities for public and private institutions (with defined exceptions), a prohibition of all cultural, sport, and religious activities, the closing of inter and intra-city public transportation, the closing of shopping centers, etc. Since 23 March, there is also a 4pm to 4am curfew.


4.2 The price of basic goods has risen throughout the country. There are shortages in rural areas and significant speculation. In some places, the quintal [100 kg] of maize (a basic food in Guatemala) tripled in comparison to two weeks ago. The government measures to limit the expansion of coronavirus have an enormous impact on the population as 70% work in the informal sector, and under the current circumstances they can no longer work nor do they receive state support.


4.3 In terms of the situation of human rights defenders in Guatemala, to date, the organizations accompanied by PBI have reported the following to our team:


        Suspension of all activities in the defense of rights due to the decreed measures in relation to the coronavirus pandemic;

        Increase in attacks against women;

        Increase in attacks against grassroots citizen journalists;

        Increase in telephone threats against organizations accompanied by PBI;

        In some places, increased militarization and circulation of pickups with Kaibiles (elite soldiers from the Guatemalan army) has been observed.

        Generalized concerns about an abuse of the State of Calamity and curfews to repress the population.

4.4 The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported 2000 arrests over six days due to noncompliance with the curfew. Defenders are worried as these individuals are held in prisons that are already very overcrowded. They have also received information on eight attacks against defenders over the space of one week.


4.5 Criminalized and imprisoned defenders can no longer receive visits, nor can other prisoners. Hence, they are not only overcrowded but also totally incommunicado. Our team maintains a certain level of contact via telephone calls to the prison wardens in question, requesting information on the health status of jailed defenders accompanied by PBI.




5.0 On 11 March the Central American country announced its first two cases of the COVID-19 virus, coinciding with the World Health Organization's declaration of a global pandemic. Since then, the cases officially recognized in Honduras have been climbing until reaching, on 15 April, 426 individuals infected and 35 dead in different departments of the country. Experts warn that the worst of the sanitary crisis in Honduras is yet to come. The Pan-American Health Organization estimates show that up to 46,270 individuals could potentially be infected by COVID-19 in Honduras.


5.1 On Friday 20 March, the government announced a national quarantine. Along with the quarantine, the government announced economic relief measures, which includes food aid for over 800,000 families during 30 days. According to the Social Forum on Foreign Debt and Development of Honduras, these measures do not have strategic planning to ensure food security for the informal sector. This is especially important in a country where the poverty level surpasses 60% and 58% of the population work in the informal economy. During the first few days of the curfew, motivated by necessity, many people went out to buy and sell in the markets of Honduras’ main cities, which led to evictions by the National Police. Since the beginning of April, a segmented movement mechanism was established based on the last number of national ID cards in order to purchase essential goods, with which these situations decreased. However, the citizenry have staged some protests demanding food security.


5.2 The quarantine and state of emergency were implemented along with a suspension of constitutional guarantees, including freedom of expression, private property, and freedom of movement and association under the guise of avoiding crowds and possible transmission. However, guarantees for freedom of expression were restored one week later. There are measures that the Juan Orlando Hernández administration is willing to fulfil with increased militarization throughout the country. Members of the Military Police for Public Order (PMOP) have carried out foot and vehicle patrols, arresting anyone who does not comply with the regulations.


5.3 Given this situation, a major part of civil society organizations' activities and struggles have been paralyzed in the country. This is the case of the organizations we accompany, who have put on hold their daily tasks, or, if possible, they are being carried out from home. In addition, they are taking on humanitarian work, ensuring that food is reaching peasant communities, LGTBI groups, and others and therefore their efforts should be supported. They have shared their concerns about the country's capacity to address an epidemic of this magnitude and whether the government will take advantage of this situation to further impede the work of defenders.


5.4 In this context, we are especially concerned about the imprisoned population: in spite of having a capacity for 8,625 detained individuals, the country's prison population has reached 22,000, according to information from the Center for Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture. Given this situation, several organization have once again requested the lifting of pre-trial detention faced by human rights defenders from Guapinol since 1 September 2019 due to their work defending the environment. COFADEH, ERIC-SJ and other organisations have lodged a corrective Habeas Corpus before the Constitutional Division of the Supreme Court of Honduras, in favour not only of the Guapinol defenders, but also of others who are in pre-trial detention, due to the COVID-19 health emergency in the country. Several Members of the European Parliament expressed their concern about the prolonged preventive detention of these human rights defenders from Guapinol in a letter sent on April 6, 2020, they urged the Honduran authorities to end all judicial harassment against the defenders.




6.0 Indonesia confirmed its first two cases of COVID-19 on 2 March, however it was not until 15 March, when confirmed cases already exceeded 100, that President Joko Widodo issued official advice to practice social distancing, including for citizens to work and study from home, and to avoid public events.  As of 29 March, Indonesia had confirmed 1285 cases and 114 deaths, including the deaths of a number of medical staff. Indonesia has resisted calls for a nationwide lockdown and cases have now been recorded in 30 of its 34 provinces, with the capital Jakarta worst affected.


6.1 On 27 March the Government granted permission for authorities to impose regional lockdowns. This followed several regions unilaterally implementing border closures and the shut downs of ports and airports in the preceding days, with the city of Jakarta already under a state of emergency since 20 March.  As many Indonesians survive on daily wages, the impact of social distancing measures and eventual lockdowns is likely to significantly impact already vulnerable populations. Likewise, access to adequate healthcare facilities varies widely across the archipelago and the health system has already come under significant pressure as the virus spread has escalated. Many health workers have cited concerns regarding lack of access to adequate medical equipment and insufficient testing capabilities.


6.2 The national police spokesperson has announced that people who gather in large numbers could be imprisoned for up to 16 months or fined up to Rp900,000 (US$56). However, the National Commission for Human Rights (KomnasHAM) had criticised the move and stated that those caught violating social distancing measures should not be imprisoned. Rights groups have also criticised the use of coercive measures.




7.0 As of 15 April 2020, in Kenya the number of Covid-19 cases was reported to be 216, with nine deaths reported, and 41 patients recovered. The Kenyan government has put in place a series of measures, such as prohibiting meetings of more than 15 people, mandatory wearing of masks, no travel into and out of major cities, and a curfew. Kenya has also announced some support measures, such as information campaigns, the reduction of taxes, and reallocation of health funds to address the crisis. On Saturday, April 11, direct private distribution of food and non-food donations were banned and it was mandated that every activity be coordinated through a county Emergency Response Fund.


7.1 In Kenya there is a strong network of grassroots HRDs organised through the Social Justice Centers, an initiative which is supported by PBI Kenya. PBI Kenya is in close contact specifically with grassroots human rights defenders in the urban settlements in Nairobi, who have expressed the following concerns: Firstly, the lack of water and access to sanitation in the urban settlements, as well as a lack of adequate food and healthcare. This has led to an increased vulnerability of women and girls in the settlements since they are often tasked with looking for water, and has led to increased sexual and gender based violence.


7.2 Courts have suspended operations which, as the Social Justice Centres Working Group has expressed, has led to an increase in extortion practices of certain local police stations (by arresting and then demanding money for a release) as well as congested jail cells, which put detainees in greater vulnerability. HRDs accompanying victims of sexual and gender-based violence have reported being turned away by police who say they cannot process cases. Civil society organisations have called for the police to adhere to the rule of law and to publish the guidelines for arrest and for handling cases at police stations.


7.3 On 27 March, the National Police Service used unnecessary and excessive force at the Likoni Ferry Crossing, Mombasa, two hours before the designated curfew time. Police used teargas and beat members of the public trying to get home in time for the curfew. The Nation Media Group Journalist Peter Wainaina was beaten by a uniformed police officer during the operation. The Police Reforms Working Group, a civil society network of which PBI Kenya forms part, has condemned the actions. 


7.4 The Missing Voices civil society network has recorded seven deaths allegedly due to police violence in the context of imposing the curfew. Beating by police officers is being normalized. The curfew had already caused concerns amongst human rights defenders, who have warned about an increase in police violence and abuse of force against people who are outside during these hours, especially in the urban settlements. This in a context where already prior to the COVID-19 crisis there was a trend of extrajudicial executions in the slums carried out by law enforcement, as highlighted by a pro-bono delegation of lawyers from the UK in February 2020 together with the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions - Dr. Agnes Callamard


7.5 Due to the socio-economic context of the urban settlements, with many daily wage workers, informal workers and homeless families, as well as already precarious sanitation services, social distancing or working from home is impossible. The social distancing measures have not been accompanied by (economic) support measures for people in urban settlements, and have led to loss of income, hunger, an increase in sexual and gender based violence and difficulty in access to health care. On April 1st, the Judiciary commented there had been a significant spike in sexual offences in many parts of the country in the previous two weeks: these offences constituted 35.8% of the criminal matters reported during that period. The Social Justice Centre Working Group has alerted about the lack of water supply in the urban settlements. This concern will increase if Kenya decides to move further toward a total lockdown as seen in other countries


7.6 Human rights defenders have reported that they lack the equipment to work safely, for example masks, and to be suffering from the impacts mentioned above, such as hunger and loss of livelihood. We want to stress that defenders are redirecting their time and energy to work on basic health, water and sanitation in their communities. They often are the ones receiving requests from their community members in this regard. In some cases, they have had to put in place safety measures to protect water and food meant for vulnerable groups, because of the extreme need in the community. We have observed an increased pressure on them and, in the longer term, an increased risk of burnout and need for attention to self-care.






8.0 On 19 March, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador held a press conference to address the country, reiterating that in Mexico there would not be curfews or a restriction of freedoms to contain the pandemic. By means of Plan DN-III (Support Plan for the civil society to be led by the Secretariat of National defense - SEDENA), the Mexican government deployed medical equipment, facilities, and resources using the Armed Forces, if necessary. In addition, on 30 March, the Federal Government –by means of the Consejo de Salubridad General (Council of General Salubrity) made a National Emergency Declaration of Health for force majeure, which will be valid at least until 30 April, though the Health Secretary recently reported that the expected peak in cases will arrive in May and June.


8.1 Mexico currently has approximately 1.5 hospitable beds for every 1000 inhabitants, ranking the country as 125th out of the 178 countries in the world with available data. Beyond the general challenges to confront the pandemic, there is reasonable doubt regarding the State's capacity to provide sufficient medical attention to the population, specifically in the poorer rural areas. There are also doubts regarding the accuracy of official statistics on confirmed cases and deaths. The government has recognized that true numbers are likely at least eight times greater than official reports.


8.2 Women, indigenous, and migrant rights defenders are in a particularly precarious position due to the multiple burdens they face. One of the problems faced by the indigenous communities regarding the pandemic is access to information on sanitary protection measures. This level of vulnerability led the Human Rights Ombudsman of Oaxaca to issue an “Early Warning” given the risk of human rights violations in relation to the health of the indigenous and Afro-Mexican peoples of Oaxaca. The indigenous peoples in Oaxaca face double vulnerabilities and access to information is limited. Access to information is critical in efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19. Governments must share key information about the pandemic with indigenous communities at risk. Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry has reported that, based on 911 calls, domestic violence has increased between 30%-100% since confinement measures were implemented.


8.3 The situation of migrants in the northern states, such as Chihuahua or Coahuila, is extremely precarious. Over-crowding in the migrant shelters on the border region with the United States leads to the associated risks of extreme transmission. Before the pandemic, these migrant shelters were already vulnerable due to limited resources and relied on the work of volunteers for their basic necessities. However, the risks are not only due to a lack of resources, but also the attacks suffered by those who defend migrant rights: detentions, stigma, threats, being followed, attacks, etc. The National Guard, a recently created police body in charge of migration control, has a long list of accusations of human rights violations due its treatment of migrants, and there is also fear that migrants' fundamental rights will be violated in impunity, as happened in Tapachula on 23 March where the National Guard used water cannons and pepper spray against a group of migrants.


8.4 Since the implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) in January 2019, more than 50,000 asylum seekers have been relocated in regions of Mexico with the highest risk levels, while they await their hearing in the United States. In this context, the United States government announced that all migrants who cross or attempt to cross its southern border will be immediately returned to Mexico, without regard for the potential humanitarian crisis that could arise in a context as vulnerable as that of the border with Mexico. Overcrowding and precarious living arrangements of migrants in the border zone increase the risk of a devastating outbreak.


8.5 According to the International Monetary Fund, Mexico’s economy will likely be the hardest hit regionally due to the health crisis, second only to Venezuela. This warrants concern regarding an increase in unrest, violence and increased control by organized crime, as well as a possible increase in megaprojects and extractive activities linked to human rights abuses in the aftermath of the crisis. Though the president expressed hope for a decrease in homicides in this context, March was the most violent month recorded in the country over at least the last 20 years and April is on track to be even worse. At least eight human rights defenders and journalists have been killed in just over two weeks in Mexico (March 31-April 15), representing a huge surge; in all of 2019 there were 23 human rights defenders reported murdered.