Front Line Defenders has documented a more than doubling of killings in just four years and warns the figures — almost 900 in that period — are an under-representation of the true toll.
Among the six most dangerous countries are Mexico, Honduras. and Guatemala — all countries from which families have fled only to become stuck in US border detention camps at the centre of the current controversy over the mistreatment of migrant children.
Front Line Defenders revealed the findings in its Stop The Killings report presented during a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council a day after the United States announced it was quitting the council.
The report focuses on six countries that combined account for 80% of the murders — Colombia, Brazil, The Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Andrew Anderson, Front Line executive director, said the victims had diverse backgrounds. “They include bloggers, lawyers, land rights activists, environmentalists, people who are working for women’s rights and LGBTI rights. But around two-thirds are people who are working on land rights, environmental rights or indigenous people’s rights.
We see a pattern which is often that those who are resisting megaprojects, particularly in rural areas in countries where the rule of law has been corrupted by big business and financial elites, are those who are most vulnerable.
The report finds other common threads. “These are not random acts. These are not people who are caught in the crossfire. They are people who are targetted. Very often they have faced threats over a period of time,” Mr Anderson said.
Typically the killers are private security guards, criminals for hire or police, on or off-duty.
“It’s important to look not only at those who pull the trigger. It’s important to look at what’s driving the killings,” he said.
In the majority of cases, those killed are being killed in the context of disputes driven by international investment, by megaprojects, by local business interests. They are being driven by profit and greed.
“They are being driven by those who think that they can make money out of dispossessing peasants and indigenous people from their land and when they find there is resistance to that through the courts or through occupations or protests, their reaction has been violent.
“And they know they will not be held to account in most cases. We see almost total impunity for those involved in the killing of human rights defenders. Even in the tiny minority of cases where there are some people brought to account, they are not the intellectual authors of the killings, they are the gunmen.”
The death toll last year was 312 across 27 countries, up from 281 in 25 countries in 2016, 156 in 25 countries in 2015 and around 130 in 21 countries in 2014.
Michel Forst, UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, described the trend as “alarming”. “Those who attack and kill human rights defenders do so in the belief that after an initial flurry of anger these people will soon be forgotten. It is essential that we never allow this to happen,” he said.