“‘First They Ignore You’: Attempts to Thwart Human Rights Advocacy” | The Advocate March 2021

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First published by The Advocate, Vol. 79, Part 2, March 2021

By Catherine Morris


“First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you … And then they build monuments to you,” said U.S. labour rights leader Nicholas Klein in 1918.[1] A century later, this pattern of responses continues to impede the work of human rights advocates. Headlines are easily generated by extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, or jailing and torturing of advocates. These grave violations are often preceded by more easily disregarded or more easily forgotten methods of silencing human rights defenders (sometimes referred to simply as “defenders” below). Despite such attempts to halt the efforts of defenders, the legal research, education and advocacy of Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (“LRWC”) contribute to saved lives, restored liberty, or positive decisions and changes in laws, policies and practices. LRWC’s open files illustrate its continued contributions in face of these challenges, as set out below.

“First They Ignore You”
Recommendations made by human rights defenders are often ignored or omitted in minutes of proceedings or reports. Letters to governments may not be answered at all, or responses may be perfunctory. This does not mean governments have not noticed letters or statements: “victims of human rights abuses and their advocates continue to report that LRWC’s work is vitally important to achieving justice in individual cases, providing a source of hope in the interim”.[2]

“Then They Ridicule You”: Vilification and Defamation
Human rights defenders around the world are often subjected to mockery, vilification or defamation in response to their peaceful human rights advocacy. This is despite universally accepted international standards upholding the right to engage in human rights education and advocacy.[3]

In some of the most dangerous countries for defenders, attacks are often preceded or accompanied by public defamation.[4] In Colombia, discriminatory vilification of environmental human rights defenders, particularly Indigenous and women defenders, is commonplace.[5] Saudi Arabia uses smear campaigns to justify arbitrary arrests and detentions of defenders.[6] The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has noted “the vilification of dissent” in the Philippines,[7] where human rights defenders are “red- tagged” as “communists”.[8] Human rights defenders in Turkey are subjected to campaigns of public vilification by government officials and state- controlled media.[9] China stigmatizes human rights lawyers in state-run media, “calling them ‘opponents of China,’ ‘radical activists’ and ‘black sheep,’ and airing coerced confessions” to discredit their human rights work.[10] Legal research and advocacy for defenders who are maligned in their home countries because of their work help to protect reputations and destroy justifications for attacks.

“And Then They Attack You”
Unchallenged public disparagement makes it easier to justify threats, criminalization, attacks or even killings of human rights defenders. The range of attacks noted by LRWC against defenders includes surveillance, judicial harassment, arbitrary detention, unfair prosecutions, disbarment, threats of harm, assaults or murders with impunity, or enforced disappearances.

Colombia fails to properly investigate attacks on human rights defenders, making it one of the top two most dangerous countries to be a defender. Last year was described as “the year that massacres returned to Colombia”.[11] In 2020, at least 375 people were murdered in 90 massacres, the “highest num- ber of assassinated human rights defenders and community leaders since 2011”.[12] State surveillance of defenders has also been a concern.[13]

The Philippines is also on the list of the two most deadly countries for defenders. Since LRWC’s November 2020 report in the Advocate,[14] the toll of jurists extrajudicially killed in the Philippines during the period starting with the 2016 election of President Rodrigo Duterte has risen to 62. Included among the murdered jurists are nine prosecutors and eight judges.[15]

Another 16 lawyers have survived murder attempts, and one lawyer has been subjected to enforced disappearance since November 2020.[16] Many of the murdered lawyers and defenders had been red-tagged (accused of being communists or terrorists) before being killed. There have been few proper investigations.

Turkey has imprisoned more lawyers than any other country.[17] Lawyers who represent people considered to be dissidents are targeted, disparaged, detained, charged and sentenced to prison as “terrorists” for performing their professional duties. The situation in Turkey was described in LRWC’s November 2020 report to the Advocate.[18]

Saudi Arabia makes claims of social cohesion and cultural norms as it routinely violates international human rights law by arbitrarily detaining numerous defenders. Included among those arbitrarily detained is women’s rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul, who in December 2020 was sentenced to imprisonment for campaigning against the driving ban for women and against Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system.[19] She was convicted in unfair proceedings on spurious charges by a tribunal that lacks the competence, impartiality and independence required by international law standards.[20] Ms. Al-Hathloul was convicted of charges that fail to comply with the international principle of legality,[21] including “trespassing the country’s religious and national foundations”, “suspicious communication with foreign entities”, “recruiting people working in government positions”, and “funding hostile groups abroad to undermine Saudi national security, stability, social peace and to destroy the social cohesion”.[22] Human rights advocates around the world joined forces in a well-publicized campaign to secure her release. Ms. Al-Hathloul may be released in March 2021 after the court suspended a portion of her nearly six-year sentence. [Ms. Al-Halthloul was ultimately released on or about February 10, after submission of this article for publication – Asst. Ed.] A Saudi Arabia court peremptorily dismissed com- plaints that Ms. Al-Hathloul was tortured and ill-treated during detention.

China stigmatizes dissent as a violation of proclaimed ideals of social harmony. Dissidents and human rights defenders have been subjected to kid- napping and incommunicado detention in secret locations where they are likely to be tortured and ill-treated.[23] They are charged with vague offences such as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” or national security offences.[24] Despite increased intensity in international calls for accountability for its human rights abuses[25] (including allegations of genocide against Uighur people[26] and convincing civil society findings of forced organ harvesting[27]), China continues its resistance to international human rights, refusing to remediate its ongoing rights violations and instead attempting to reframe international law in “win-win” terms of “dialogue and cooperation”.[28] Despite China’s egregious and systematic human rights abuses, in October 2020 the UN General Assembly narrowly elected China to the UN Human Rights Council for a three-year term (2021–2023).

Lest lawyers in Western democracies be complacent, one need only look to events in the United States in 2020 to see how vilification can be used to justify and incite attacks against defenders. In 2020, the then-U.S. president labelled peaceful protestors as “left wing extremists”[29] and journalists as “enemies of the people”.[30] Subsequent crackdowns against peaceful protestors during 2020 included arrests in numerous cities of hundreds of journalists[31] and dozens of clearly marked legal observers reporting on protests.[32]

“Then They Build Monuments”
Generations of human rights defenders have achieved the creation of inter- national law aimed at prevention and remediation of human rights violations. Over the past 70 years, international human rights norms have been accepted by the vast majority of countries, including (in varying degrees) by China, Colombia, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Looking at the international human rights treaties, one might imagine a world of peace and human dignity. Have the treaties become impotent monuments to international human rights to which states only pay lip service? International human rights law and standards came about as a result of the work of human rights defenders, sometimes at the cost of livelihoods, reputations, freedoms or even their lives. And it will be defenders who bring about the respect, protection and fulfillment of rights, through documentation of facts, legal research, public reporting, advocacy and international human rights education. Effective implementation of international human rights law and standards depends on the support of lawyers, legal scholars and other rights advocates.[33]


[1] Labour rights lawyer Nicholas Klein, speech delivered 15 May 1918, quoted in Documentary History of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America: 1916-1918, Proceedings of the Third Biennial Convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (Baltimore, Maryland, 13–18 May 1918) at 53, online: <books.google.ca/books?id=QrcpAAA AYAAJ&q=monuments&redir_esc=y#v=snippet&>. A similar quote is misattributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”. See “Quote Wrongly Attributed to Mahatma Gandhi”, Associated Press (5 October 2018), online: <apnews.com/article/2315880316>.

[2] Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, LRWC Biennial Report 2017-2018, at 2, online: <www.lrwc.org/ws/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/LRWC-Biennial-Report-2017-2018.Edition.May_.2019.F-1.pdf>.

[3] UN General Assembly, Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, 8 March 1999, A/RES/53/144, online: <www.ref world.org/docid/3b00f54c14.html>. See also the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, 7 September 1990, online: <www.refworld.org/docid/3ddb9f034.html>.

[4] Global Witness, Defending Tomorrow: The Climate Crisis and Threats Against Land and Environmental Defenders (July 2020), online: <www.globalwitness.org/documents/19939/Defending_Tomorrow_EN_low_res_-_July_2020.pdf>.

[5] Erika Guevara-Rosas, “Stop the Killing of Human Rights Defenders!”, Amnesty International (10 December 2018), online: <www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/12/stop-the-killing-of-human-rights-defenders/>.

[6] Amnesty International, “Saudi Arabia: Chilling Smear Campaign Against Women’s Rights Defend- ers” (19 May 2018), online: <www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/05/saudi-arabia-chilling-smear-campaign-tries-to-discredit-loujain-al-hathloul-and-other-detained-womens-rights-defenders/>.

[7] UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Situation of Human Rights in the Philippines, UN Human Rights Council (4 June 2020), at para 50, online: <www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/PH/Philippines-HRC44-AEV.pdf>.

[8] Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, “Philippines: Extra- judicial Killing of Jurists 2006-2019 | Appendix to Joint Written Statement to the UN Human Rights Council” (9 September 2019), online: <www.lrwc.org/philippines-extrajudicial-killing-of-jurists-appendix/>. See the full written statement: <www.lrwc.org/philippines-extrajudicial-killing-of-jurists-written-statement-to-the-hrc/>.

[9] Law Society of England and Wales et al, “Joint Stakeholder Submission to the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review: Turkey” (submitted to the International Coalition of Legal Organisations, 35th Session (Jan-Feb 2020)), online: <www.lrwc.org/ws/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/UPR-Turkey-Combined.pdf>.

[10] International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, “IBAHRI Joins Call to End Freedom of Expression Restrictions in China”, joined by LRWC et al (14 July 2020), online: <www.ibanet.org/Article/NewDetail.aspx?ArticleUid=37be6810-6459-4cc2-ab47-c52cc42a8ce5>. See also International Service for Human Rights, Human Rights Defenders and Lawyers in China: A Mid-Term Assessment of Implementation During the UPR Second Cycle (May 2016), online: <www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/UPR/NGOsMidTermReports/ISHR_midterm_China.pdf>.

[11] Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, “The Year That Massacres Returned to Colombia” in Action News, 2021(1) (15 January 2021), online: <www.lrwc.org/category/publications/newsletters/>.

[12] Ibid at 6–7.

[13] Colombian Caravana et al, “Colombia: Allegations of Illegal Surveillance Against Lawyers and Other Human Rights Defenders | Joint Letter” (23 July 2020), online: <www.lrwc.org/colombia-allegations-of-illegal-surveillance-against-lawyers-and-other-human-rights-defenders-joint-letter/>.

[14] Catherine Morris, “Lawyers in Danger: Threats to Advocates Worldwide” (2020) 78 Advocate 867.

[15] Report with list of names, 22 December 2020, on file with LRWC.

[16] Ibid.

[17] The Arrested Lawyers Initiative, “Bar Associations of
Turkey: Turkey Has Become the Largest Prisoner of Lawyers (24 February 2020), online: <arrested-lawyers.org/2020/02/24/turkey-has-become-the-largest-prisoner-of-lawyers/>.

[18] Morris, supra note 14.

[19] Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, “Saudi Arabia:
Arbitrary Detention, Torture of Women’s Rights Defender Loujain Al-Hathloul | Letter” (18 December 2020), online: <www.lrwc.org/saudi-arabia-arbitrary-detention-torture-of-womens-rights-defender-loujain-al-hathloul/>.

[20] UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III), arts 8, 10, online: <www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/>. See also OHCHR, Press Release, “Saudi Arabia: UN Experts Alarmed by Loujain Al-Hathloul Trial, Call for Immediate Release” (10 December 2020), online: <www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=26593&LangID=E>; UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, “Opinion No. 10/2018 concerning Waleed Abulkhair (Saudi Arabia)”, 4 July 2018, A/HRC/ WGAD/2018/10, at paras 28 and 73, online: <www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Detention/Opinions/Session81/A_HRC_WGAD_2018_10.pdf>.

[21] The customary international law principle of legality requires that criminal laws adhere to standards of certainty, non-retroactivity, accessibility and foreseeability. For further explanation, see Lois Leslie, Attacking Defenders: The Criminalization of Human Rights Advocacy (Vancouver: Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, 2020) at 50–62, online: <www.lrwc.org/attacking-defenders-the-criminalization-of-human-rights-advocacy/>.

[22] Gulf Center for Human Rights, “Saudi Arabia: Update: Seven Saudi Women’s Rights Defenders Branded as Traitors in a Dangerous New Wave of Arrests” (21 May 2018), online: <www.gc4hr.org/news/view/1867>.

[23] For examples, see Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada et al, “China: Incommunicado Detention of Human Rights Lawyer Chang Weiping” (11 November 2020), online: <www.lrwc.org/china-chinese-authorities-placing-human-rights-lawyer-chang-weiping-under-residential-surveillance-joint-statement>; Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, “China: Released Chinese Rights Lawyer Wang Quanzhang Finally Reunites with Family” (27 April 2020), online: <www.lrwc.org/china-released-chinese-rights-lawyer-wang-quanzhang-finally-reunites-with-family>.

[24] China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group et al, “China: Incommunicado Detention of Human Rights Lawyer Chang Weiping | Joint Statement” (9 November 2020), online: <www.lrwc.org/china-chinese-authorities-placing-human-rights-lawyer-chang-weiping-under-residential-surveillance-joint-statement/>.

[25] UN, Press Release, “UN Experts Call for Decisive Measures to Protect Fundamental Freedoms in China” (26 June 2020), online: <ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=26006&LangID=E>.

[26] Deirdre Shesgreen, “‘The World’s on Fire’ and Other Takeaways from Biden’s Secretary of State Nominee Confirmation Hearing”, USA Today (19 January 2021), online: <www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2021/01/19/biden-nominee-antony-blinken-china-committing-genocide-uyghurs/4215835001/>.

[27] Independent Tribunal into Forced Organ Harvesting of Prisoners of Conscience in China, Judgment, 1 March 2020, online: <chinatribunal.com/final-judgment/>.

[28] UN Human Rights Council, “Promoting Mutually Beneficial Cooperation in the Field of Human Rights”, adopted 22 June 2020, A/HRC/RES/ 43/21 (2 July 2020), online: <undocs.org/A/HRC/RES/43/21>.

[29] Ted Hesson, “Explainer: Who Are Antifa, the ‘Boogaloo’ Movement and Others Blamed in U.S. Protest Violence?” Reuters (5 June 2020), online: <www.reuters.com/article/us-minneapolis-policeprotests-extremist/explainer-who-are-antifa-the-boogaloo-movement-and-others-blamed-in-us-protest-violence-idUSKBN23C2R1>.

[30] Brett Samuels, “Trump Ramps Up Rhetoric on Media, Calls Press ‘the Enemy of the People’”, The Hill (5 April 2019), online: <thehill.com/homenews/administration/437610-trump-calls-press-the-enemy-of-the-people>.

[31] See the US Press Freedom Tracker’s incident database, online: <pressfreedomtracker.us/>.

[32] New York City Bar, “Statement on Detention of Legal Observers” (17 June 2020), online: <www.nycbar.org/media-listing/media/detail/statement-on-detention-of-legal-observers>.

[33] For more information on how to join or support LRWC, visit <www.lrwc.org>.