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Inter-American Court to decide on State persecution and surveillance against defenders

This week sees closing arguments presented in a case that offers a historic opportunity for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to rule on attacks, illegal surveillance and the use of technology against human rights defenders.

During the hearings in the case of Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo v. Colombia, the Court has heard the testimony of surveillance, threats and illegal intelligence – documented over a period of almost 20 years between 1990 and 2019 – against members of this collective.

According to a representative of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), this is an important case regarding transparency and the accountability of the State. 

“This will be an opportunity to determine whether the State should inform citizens about the monitoring activities and establish an independent control to monitor, prevent and avoid illegal intelligence activities that violate human rights”.

The lawyers representing the victims in the case outlined several different kinds of monitoring of the defenders, including through:

  • Surveillance mechanisms
  • The theft of information
  • Profiling and interceptions

This information would then be used by the intelligence services to threaten and attack defenders and their families, and inform speeches made to stigmatise defenders, in cases of criminalisation and assassinations.  In its report IACHR has described these acts as part of a systematic pattern of violations.

During the hearing, defenders discussed the differentiated impact of this policy of on women human rights defenders. Lawyer Soraya Gutiérrez, a victim in the process, mentioned that she hopes ‘(t)he Court will take a position in regard to the gender- based violence experienced and its impacts, as well as the fear, anguish and disquiet experienced by the victims and our families that has adversely affected our lives.’

According to the IACHR, the State has not acted to prevent the acts of violence from continuing. It has not conducted a comprehensive investigation, and has not spelt out the participation of all the perpetrators, including high-ranking military and police authorities and later the DAS, in the design and implementation of a plan of persecution against defenders.

This case comes before the Court in a context of widespread aggressions against defenders in the region. On May 25, the IACHR expressed its concern “at the high level of violence, intimidation and criminalisation of human rights defenders registered during the first four months of the year” by calling on States to guarantee an enabling and safe environment for the defense of human rights. The press release made special reference to the situation of defenders in Colombia, warning of the critical number of murders, according to the Ombudsman’s Office, up to March 2022 there were 52 homicides.

On 29 January 2022, the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders sent a communication ALCOL1/2022 to the president recognising the violations against members of the Cajar. In addition, the Special Rapporteur informed of the death threats against the lawyer of this collective, Alirio Uribe Muñoz, for his work during the national strike.

In the past, the Inter-American Court has produced a judgment on key issues related to the rights of human rights defenders. The Court has established the obligation of States to adopt all necessary and reasonable measures to guarantee the rights of those who are in a situation of special vulnerability because of their work.

Furthermore, the State should facilitate the necessary measures for the protection of human rights defenders when they are subject to threats, generate the conditions for the cessation of violations by State agents or private individuals and refrain from imposing obstacles that impede their work.

This week, the parties present their closing arguments and it will be the Court who will decide on the responsibility of the State and any reparations it should pay. In this decision, the parties have requested the implementation of a comprehensive public policy to guarantee the rights of human rights defenders, including a permanent campaign to legitimise the defense of human rights.

ISHR is encouraged by the opportunity the Inter-American Court is provided with this case to pass judgment on the illegal persecution of human rights defenders and to fight against the structural impunity which reigns in regard to too many violations against defenders. 

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