Woman Human Rights Defender María Martín about criminalization

March 8, 2015

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As I announced in an earlier post [https://thoolen.wordpress.com/tag/mea-laureate-2014/], Protection International has done a series of interviews with woman human rights defenders. Today is the turn of Maria Martin, a member of Protection International’s Policy, Training and Research Unit, who speaks about criminalization patterns and how it specifically seems to affects women human rights defenders even more than their male colleagues. Here are some extracts:

PI: What is criminalization?

MM: To explain it in simple terms, it’s the use of the criminal legal system to try to dissuade or obstruct the work of people who defend human rights. Often, instances of criminalisation are associated with other processes like stigmatisation or the application of administrative sanctions against human rights defenders. Nevertheless it remains important to be able to distinguish criminalisation apart from these other processes.

PI: So could you explain the difference between criminalisation and stigmatisation? 

MM: Stigmatisation consists of trying to affect the image that exists of a defender. This is often related to criminalisation because it can happen in connection to judicial processes or in detention. Then again, stigmatisation can also be a consequence of criminalisation. I mean, once criminal proceedings have started, the defender’s public image will be affected, which is precisely one of the effects of this criminalisation.

PI: What do you think the impact is of criminalisation on WHRDs

MM: ..Criminalisation does not only have a strong impact on the person that is subject to it and who faces detention, guilty verdicts or unjust processes. The organisations where WHRDs work are also highly affected, since the criminalisation of one defender obstructs the work of all defenders collaborating with her…

Families of criminalised women are also affected. In this respect the criminalisation of women tends to have a stronger impact than with men. This is due to the leading role that women often play in a family, providing support for their children, parents and other dependants.

If the woman is the income-provider of the family, the economic impact on the family can be very severe. Criminalisation may also have a psychological impact on a family, because they see their loved one illegitimately deprived of her human rights and freedoms.

To compare this to the criminalisation of a male activist, normally the male defender has a partner who attends to the children and supports them during the difficult process. In contrast, women defenders are often single parents and have to single-handedly bear family responsibilities in addition to their criminal charges.

PI: What can WHRDs do to combat criminalisation?

MM: I believe women defenders must first know what criminalisation is, and how to recognise it. Only then can they work towards a strategic response within the judicial system that prevents it from reoccurring. In other words, she can develop strategic responses to condemn attacks aimed at women defenders on the bias of incorrect legal norms. On the other hand, once a process of criminalisation has been set in motion, defenders can also take actions to identify and counter the negative impact criminalisation can have in their work, on their families and society in general.

One of the situations where I have seen such a response against criminalisation was by a women defenders’ organisation in the town of Barillas in the northern part of Guatemala. There, defenders were facing police and military interventions. Local women defenders started using different tactics in order to put an end to the government’s criminalisation norms in Barillas.

They carried out large-scale protests and made trips to remote parts in the region to make a conflict little known by national and international populations more visible. Through these actions the women succeeded in putting the issue on national and international agendas. This ultimately generated enough political pressure to paralyse such repressive actions by the state.

PI: What can other actors do to combat criminalisation?

MM: For other actors, the first step is to analyse actions of all stakeholders to see what exactly generates criminalisation and why, and what laws permit such practices to take place. As for governments, they can also fight criminalisation by prohibiting law enforcement officers or justice system officials to carry out norms and practices that favour or lead to criminalisation of defenders. One way of doing this could be implementing fines against police officers that have detained defenders illegally.

The Women Who Defend Human Rights – María Martín – Protection InternationalProtection International.

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