Situation of Human Rights Defenders During Covid-19: Proposals for a Better Future by the UN Special Rapporteur

Prof. Mary Lawlor

I know from talking to human rights defenders all over the world how hard this COVID-19 pandemic has hit them, but despite the enormous challenges I remain hopeful. If my years working with defenders has taught me one thing, it is not to be surprised at their ability to endure and overcome.

When we are in the midst of crises, it can be easy to think of them as never-ending, but there is always hope. Many of my LGBTI+ friends and colleagues in Ireland in the 1980s and early 1990s struggled against conservative laws that criminalised their human existence. The decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993 suddenly accelerated progress where, thanks to the work of LGBTI+ rights defenders, anti-discrimination and marriage laws rapidly developed in the succeeding two and a half decades.

Those dark times, which seemed eternal, are already reduced to the history books. As an aside, I’ve been encouraged by similar trends on that topic in India, where the decriminalisation of same sex activity in 2018 was quickly followed in 2019 by legislation favourable towards legal gender changes.

Despite the rollout of vaccines under way in some places, we are still not out of this dark period. Since I took up the job as Special Rapporteur in May, I’ve been talking pretty much daily to human rights defenders from around the world and they have all had their work affected by the pandemic. Some tell me they have the virus or are fearful for their lives if they contract it. Others say the pandemic is being used as a pretext by governments to silence them, and others still can’t leave their homes when they receive threats. There is no quick fix to the trauma that many have experienced this last year.

It has been a scramble at times to get Governments to recognise the true harm this virus can cause. I wrote to the Indian Government last June about eleven human rights defenders who had been imprisoned for their participation in peaceful anti-Citizenship Amendment Act demonstrations. Some, such as Akhil Gogoi and then pregnant Safoora Zargar, were more at risk of suffering serious medical complications if they contracted the COVID-19 virus.

And we see few lessons learned, with the imprisonment of 83-year-old human rights defender Fr. Stan Swamy in October 2020, who continues to be detained. Cases such as Swamy’s take on a new meaning in the context of a pandemic. Not only is he detained for his peaceful defence of human rights, but his age category means his imprisonment puts his very health and wellbeing at grave risk. I wrote to the Indian Government on this case in November and am still awaiting a reply. I have however heard from Fr. Swamy, who is filled with hope despite his dire circumstances:

Dear friends: Peace! Though I do not have many details, from what I have heard, I am grateful to all of you for expressing your solidarity support. I am in a cell approximately 13 feet x 8 feet, along with two more inmates. It has a small bathroom and a toilet with Indian commode. Fortunately, I am given a western commode chair. Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira are in another cell. During the day, when cells and barracks are opened, we meet with each other. From 5.30pm to 06.00am and 12 noon to 03.00pm, I am locked up in my cell, with two inmates. Arun assists me to have my breakfast and lunch. Vernon helps me with bath. My two inmates help out during supper, in washing my clothes and give massage to my knee joints. They are from very poor families. Please remember my inmates and my colleagues in your prayers. Despite all odds, humanity is bubbling in Taloja prison.


What I see from these dark times is a springboard for change. With new challenges come new opportunities and possibilities for learning. Many of us, myself included, have been reminded of those things that matter most; our health, our families, our communities.

Forced to work from home, I have seen human rights defenders discover innovative ways to connect across communities, regions and continents. Advancements in technology mean I can video-call people living in the most remote locations on every continent. While nothing will ever be as real and engaging as a physical meeting, these new possibilities allow my global mandate to better engage with the defenders and hear from those who otherwise may never have had the opportunity to interact with international mechanisms such as the UN. One human rights defender living in a very remote area told me that he had a new understanding of the word “gathering” thanks to the internet, in a way he could not have imagined before COVID.

Increased online activity has also unfortunately made it easier for perpetrators to track human rights defenders. Defenders tell me that they or their deceased colleagues receive death threats on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Others are subjected to smear campaigns or monitored and have their pages taken down by the authorities. But just as with Newton’s third law, every action has an equal and opposite reaction; this pandemic is forcing us to become more aware of how to protect ourselves online with the necessary digital tools to continue to carry out our work. For too long, digital security took a back seat; now it has been catapulted to the forefronts of our minds and the front pages of our news.

Governments must learn that targeting free speech is not only a human rights abuse but is also harmful to them and the society they’ve sworn to serve. We saw the fallout from this attitude in China last year when Li Wenliang was persecuted for raising the alarm on COVID-19. Li himself subsequently passed away from COVID-19 complications. Many more people would have survived if there was a stronger culture of respect for the right to freedom of expression China and elsewhere. If this pandemic has taught us anything it is that free exchange of information is vital for modern society.

As we carry out our discussions on ‘building back better’, it is paramount that the voices of human rights defenders are heard and included. Defenders who are frontline staff have kept us and our loved ones safe and secure. They are so well placed to advise governments on how to nurture better, stronger, fairer societies.

COVID-19 exposed the true vulnerabilities that the marginalised in our societies face. I’ve heard from indigenous communities in Brazil, Peru, Costa Rica and beyond, who have talked about how much more at risk they were when authorities had to withdraw their protection programme personnel from their communities out of public health considerations. Suddenly there was no authority to stop deforestation, attacks or usurpation of ancestral lands. The line between security and insecurity can be so paper thin. This is not just about making National Protections Mechanisms for HRDs more robust; the pandemic has given us an opportunity to look inwardly, at how we can address the systemic inequality, racism and discrimination that perpetuate attacks against minorities and the marginalised.

When I see the courage, determination, and the sheer stubbornness of HRDs in persisting, in not giving up, in not taking the easy way out, I know we’re making progress. I talk regularly with officials from various governments, and for all of their different cultures, motives and track records, they are all very conscious of their reputation. So, we must continue to call them out when they do not uphold their responsibilities. Governments must learn from this experience: human rights defenders are their allies, who share their goal of protecting communities. From silencing so many during the pandemic, they should seek out their voices when building back better. Advancing technology, when used right, should continue to be embraced and adapted to life after COVID-19.

Proposing a better future is by no means expecting a perfect one. There are still many bumps in the road ahead of us, which we should not take as setbacks, but opportunities to try again. As Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote, “Even if the last move did not succeed, the inner command says move again. Even if the hopes you started out with are dashed, hope has to be maintained”. I remain hopeful, I hope you do too.

Prof. Lawlor currently serves as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. She is also the founder and former Executive Director of Front Line Defenders and is a former Director of the Irish branch of Amnesty International.

Image Credits: Outlook India