Human rights defenders squeezed by geo-politics? The cases of Colombia, Iran and Cuba.

September 11, 2015

Health and holidays (in that order) have slowed down my blog production somewhat this summer, but perhaps this was a welcome break for many of my readers for reasons of holiday and health (in that order I hope). Anyway, during these summer months I read quite some instances of HRD repression related to countries involved in major ‘geo-political’ progress and I started wondering whether this is coincidental. Take the following three cases: Colombia, Iran and Cuba.

The references to cases reported below are too few to constitute clear evidence of such a link. Still, it could be interesting to mull about a possible relation. There could several explanations for an increase in attention for the fate of HRDs in such transition situations:

For one, there is the real possibility that BECAUSE the geopolitical picture is changing and finds itself in the media limelight, the NGOs use this occasion to fire up their ‘production’ or at least that the media pay now more attention to cases from these countries.

Another explanation could be that in the on-going peace process or negotiations there is a need by one or more of the parties to ‘offset’ their compromises on big issues by toughening their position against HRDs, to show toughness to the outside world or at least to internal opposition. 


While the talks in Havana are dragging on there are many reports claiming increased killings and harassments. “Colombian Human Rights Defender Murdered Every 5 Days”, in the first half of 2015, says a report from the Colombian human rights organization Somos Defensores (19 August). Human rights defenders are most targeted where support for the peace process is low. Paramilitaries are allegedly responsible for the majority of attacks. “Human rights defenders and indigenous, campesino, LGBTI, and community leaders were the common targets of the attacks in the first half of 2015,” said the report. Threats against human rights activists have spiked dramatically this year in Colombia, up 105 percent from the same period last year.

As recently as 11 September 2015, the NGO Front Line mentions the case of human rights defender Dagoberto Giraldo Henao who was unlawfully detained and later released [Dagoberto Giraldo Henao is the president of the Junta de Acción Comunal de las Américas]

On 2 August 2015, Front Line reported on worrying reports of continued acts of intimidation and harassment against Ms Claudia Julieta Duque and her family, including the targeting of her daughter. The same NGO gave details that on 23 July 2015, human rights defender Ms Nicolasa Díaz Ortiz received two anonymous telephone calls to her home in which her life was threatened, while on 1 July 2015 Front Line had reported on renewed death threats against the director of CREDHOS Mr Iván Madero Vergel


The agreement between Iran and a group of major States seems now likely to pass without the US Senate able to block the US President on the lifting on sanctions.

First all it is remarkable how many and how openly Iranian human rights defenders (including Akbar Ganji, Karim Lahidji and Shirin Ebadi) have come out in support of the deal. Is it because they genuinely believe that once the deal is struck that the situation of human rights in Iran will improve (which is the main argument stated) , or is it also an expression of ‘national’ interest comparable to the way most human rights defenders in Argentina supported ‘their’ military on the Falklands/Malvinas conflict?

In the meantime reports on violations continued to trickle in such as:

– On 10 August Heshmatullah Tabarzadi, who shared a prison cell with Mr. Khanjani, wonders aloud why there is so little interest in the case of this 83-year old Baha’i who continues to linger inEvin prison (

– On 5 August UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein expressed alarm at the imposition of the death penalty on Mohammad Ali Taheri, the founder of a spiritual movement, writer and practitioner of alternative medicine theories used in Iran and abroad. “Iran’s use of the death penalty has long been problematic, with many executions on drug offences, several executions of people who were below the age of 18 when the crime was committed, as well as other cases where broad, ill-defined charges led to the imposition of capital punishment,” Zeid added. Iran has reportedly executed more than 600 individuals so far this year. Last year, at least 753 people were executed in the country. (

– At the end of July, Iran’s state-controlled media launched a fresh round of attacks on the UN Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed (


The normalisation of relations between Cuba and the USA seems to be progressing steadily. Views on whether human rights defenders profit or suffer from this development differ greatly, especially in the politicized context of the USA.

The toughest assessment comes in an editorial in the Times Union of 28 July, stating that:

In the months since President Barack Obama has used his authority to reopen relations with the Castro regime, little has been done to improve Cuba’s consistent violations of human rights.” As The Washington Post has editorialized, since December there have been more than 3,000 detentions in Cuba. Many involved beatings. Human Rights Watch reports that in recent months “short-term arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, independent journalists and other critics have increased dramatically.” (Most of the piece then bases itself on the State Department Report for 2014 which contains information from before the opening of talks).

see also:

  • On 13 August the Human Rights Foundation strongly condemned the harassment and threats made by Cuban state security agents against Gorki Águila, lead singer of the anti-dictatorship rock band Porno para Ricardo. The singer and human rights advocate was arbitrarily arrested on August 5 and released after a few hours with the warning that if he were to continue supporting the Ladies in White, he would not be allowed to leave the country. The musician was also arrested last May for calling for the release of Cuban graffiti artist Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado, a recipient of the Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent, who has been imprisoned since December.
  • Reports surfaced in July about the possibility of the Cuban state having been involved in the murder of Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá in 2012. The report was prepared by the Human Rights Foundation suggesting “direct responsibility” of the Cuban government for his death.
  • On 2 April the Human Rights Channel of Witness uploaded a compilation of NGO statmentys saying that violations are on the rise. (For more information about this video montage, including the source footage and links to more on human rights in Cuba, see the Human Rights Channel: ‪…
  • Finally, it would seem that the visit by the Pope (who played a role in bringing the two countries together) will lead to the release of some 3500 political prisoners. If so, the ‘evidence’ of overall negative impact in the case of Cuba would seem weak. Report by the BBC on 11 September:


for previous posts on the 3 countries, see:






2 Responses to “Human rights defenders squeezed by geo-politics? The cases of Colombia, Iran and Cuba.”

  1. […] process and the role of human rights defenders in Colombia was referred to in earlier posts [e.g.…%5D  Mary Lawlor here welcomes the agreement as historic, offering the Colombian people an […]

  2. […] ‘nuclear agreement’ Iran would relent in its persecution of human rights defenders. […] It now seems clear that this is not the […]

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