Archive for the 'Human Rights Defenders' Category

Delhi High Court re-establishes that criticism is not sedition

June 16, 2021

Lawyers have welcomed the decision by Delhi High Court stating that protesters have the right to criticise the government. They also hailed the Court’s verdict defining the lines between criticism of the government and activities that destabilize the country.

Aneesha Mathur in India Today of 16 June 2021 reports that -with the Delhi High Court rapping the government and Delhi Police over imposing UAPA on activists in connection with the clashes, following the anti-CAA protest – lawyers and jurists have said the verdict was significant since it has tried to define the line between criticism of the government, which is a Constitutional right, and activities that destabilize the country.

Former Supreme court justice Madan B Lokur welcomed the High court verdict.: “The judgment is welcome. It’s about time the courts told the State that draconian laws like the UAPA, NSA, sedition and so on may be used, if at all, very rarely and only if there is clinching evidence. Draconian laws cannot and must not be abused otherwise our braveheart judges will strike down arbitrary actions. The Delhi High Court has opened the door for interference and other High Courts should follow quickly while recognising that human rights are for humans and not the faceless State,”.

See also; https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/10/07/india-attacks-on-human-rights-defenders-abound-under-unlawful-activities-prevention-act/

Senior advocate Dushyant Dave told India Today TV that the court had “not said anything new but laid down the law on the facts of the case.” Dave also called for “proactive and expeditious” movement from the judiciary on similar cases, and said that the activists “had lost one year of their life,” for no reason.advertisement

We are the world’s largest democracy. We will not be able to call ourselves a democracy if such laws are used to suppress dissent.” Speaking to India Today TV, Dave said despite “rule of law”, India had “become a police state.”

“Not only is BJP government abusing UAPA, but the Congress government also abused POTA and thousands were put in jail,” said Dave.

Lawyer Vrinda Grover also said the HC verdict was “significant” since there has been indiscriminate use of the law in recent years.

“Over the last few years, we see the police frequently using UAPA and sedition to silence critical citizens’ voices by placing them behind bars under stringent anti-terror law. The High Court has pierced through the indiscriminate use of UAPA by the police and unwarranted labelling of activities as terrorism. The Court has reiterated that non-violent contestation of government policies and laws is a constitutionally protected right to protest. Finally, the court has also reminded that if the speedy trial is not possible they must be granted bail,” said Grover.

He added: “In this context, we must raise the issue of incarceration of 16 human rights defenders in the Bhima Koregaon case under UAPA for almost three years and the trial is yet to commence. The judiciary must intervene and not allow the criminal legal machinery to be used by the State to suppress fundamental freedoms of citizens, otherwise democracy is in peril.”

“Anti-terror laws are made very strict because they are meant to handle terrorism cases. The government must balance the right of the citizens to protest and criticise with the need of the state. But governments tend to treat criticism as sedition and anti-national, which is wrong. The two judges have shown courage in calling this out,” said Senior advocate Geeta Luthra.

Former Law Commission chairman, Justice BS Chauhan said that while the potential for misuse “cannot mean repeal of an act”, there is a “need to define the contours of the law, as the UAPA is a wide provision” as it was meant to combat serious threats.advertisement

“Courts need to define contours of sedition and UAPA otherwise they can cover freedom of speech and expression,” said Chauhan.

https://www.indiatoday.in/law/story/wrong-to-treat-criticism-as-sedition-lawyers-welcome-delhi-hc-verdict-quashing-uapa-case-against-activists-1815309-2021-06-16

University of York names new college after David Kato

June 16, 2021

The University of York has decided to name its new college after Ugandan David Kato who went to the university in 2010 for six months as a Protective Fellow on the Human Rights Defenders Programme at the Centre for Applied Human Rights (CAHR).

The announcement comes during national Refugee Week (June 14-20 ) as the university celebrates its newly-awarded status as a University of Sanctuary with a launch event on today (Wednesday).

David’s time in York provided respite from his role in Uganda as a human rights activist, and his legacy supports the University’s continued commitment to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities (LGBT+).

An award in David Kato’s name was established in 2012: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/awards/94EE8123-09C7-410A-9DE9-A0077FA87F31

He returned home to Uganda to fight the country’s controversial anti-homosexuality act. But he was murdered in Kampala in 2011, weeks after winning a court victory over a tabloid paper that called for homosexuals to be killed.

Vice-Chancellor, Professor Charlie Jeffery said: “Colleges are an integral part of university life here at York and we knew we wanted an inspiring role model when naming our new college – one which would also reflect our belief in equality, diversity and inclusion.

Director of the Centre for Applied Human Rights, Professor Paul Gready said:“The naming of the David Kato College also symbolises and demonstrates our admiration of, and solidarity with, human rights defenders across the world and with all previous Protective Fellows, of which there have been over 90 from more than 45 countries over the last 12 years.

The University will mark its newly-awarded status as a University of Sanctuary with an online event tonight (June 16) at 6.30pm. The event will include the launch of a film which tells the story of how York became a University of Sanctuary for refugees, asylum seekers, human rights defenders and those in need of humanitarian protection. The film will be followed by a round-table discussion. Go to http://www.refugeeactionyork.org/refugee-week.

https://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/public-notices/19373685.new-university-york-college-named-david-kato/

Olga Sadovskaya is the 2021 OAK Human Rights Fellow

June 15, 2021

The Oak Institute for Human Rights has named Olga Sadovskaya, a Russian human rights lawyer, as its 2021 Human Rights Fellow. Sadovskaya, vice chair of the Committee Against Torture, the largest and most notable anti-torture organization in Russia, has worked on issues surrounding torture for more than 18 years. In 2017 she was shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Sadovskaya, who hails from the city of Nizhny Novgorod in western Russia, will join the Colby community in August and will engage with students, faculty, staff, and the greater community throughout the fall semester.

Olga Sadovskaya, the 2021 Oak Human Rights Fellow, will join the Colby community for the Fall 2021 semester and raise awareness on issues of torture and incarceration in Russia and around the world.

“The consistent violation of human rights in the carceral system is not only a major global problem but it is an urgent issue in the United States. There is a pressing need to confront and find better solutions to our current prison system,” said Valérie Dionne, director of the Oak Institute for Human Rights and associate professor of French. “We are lucky to have Olga Sadovskaya coming to campus to share her experience combating torture and to explore potential solutions with us that could replace the current carceral system.”

The Committee Against Torture (CAT), established in 2000 by Sadovskaya and three other activists, created accountability for torture previously missing in Russia. Torture was scarcely discussed, and victims were often scared, ashamed to speak out, or believed justice was unattainable. Even with CAT’s work, however, the practice of torture prevails, and investigations into torture are still inadequate. This problem is amplified in the Chechen Republic, where CAT is the sole organization working on cases of torture and abductions. 

Sadovskaya and her dedicated team have won many international awards: the PACE Prize of the Council of Europe, the Martin Ennals Award, the Frontline Defenders Human Rights Award, and the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize. Sadovskaya herself has received the Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award. See: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/D1B800F8-72AE-F593-868A-57F650E2D576 and https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/5E2006EC-8C84-6024-F77C-52D17819BB10

During her early years at the organization, Sadovskaya’s role as an investigator included collecting evidence of torture in prisons, penal colonies, police stations, and psychiatric institutions. Over time, she transitioned to analysis and international defense work with the European Court of Human Rights and various UN bodies. Sadovskaya also trains lawyers on how to work with the European Court of Human Rights. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2015/12/02/russian-olga-sadovskaya-keeps-fighting-torture/

Drawing upon years of experience with torture cases, Sadovskaya and her team wrote and published a methodology for public investigations, widely used by human rights organizations in Russia. Sadovskaya has personally represented more than 300 victims of torture before the European Court of Justice. Two of the cases were included in the list of the 20 most important cases that changed Russia (Case-Law of the European Court of Human Rights, Special issue, 5, 2018).  

While working against state-sanctioned torture, Sadovskaya has faced personal threats, including threats of murder, particularly for her work in Chechnya. The committee’s office has been burned down several times, and members’ cars have been destroyed. Sadovskaya is also periodically monitored and constantly at risk of being accused of baseless crimes. 

The Oak Human Rights Fellowship will give Sadovskaya a much-needed respite to return to Russia with renewed energy. As the 2021 Oak Fellow, she will connect with Colby students and raise awareness on issues of torture and incarceration in Russia and around the world. 

http://www.colby.edu/news/2021/06/11/olga-sadovskaya-named-2021-oak-human-rights-fellow/

Mary Lawlor calls AGAIN on UAE to release prominent human rights defenders

June 15, 2021

On 11 June 2021 Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, called on the United Arab Emirates to immediately release five human rights campaigners detained since 2013.

Mohamed al-Mansoori [https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/074ACCD4-A327-4A21-B056-440C4C378A1A], Hassan Mohammed Al-Hammad, Hadif Rashed Abdullah al-Owais, Ali Saeed Al-Kindi and Salim Hamdoon Al-Shahhi were among a group of 94 lawyers, rights advocates and academics accused of plotting to overthrow the Emirati government. 

In July 2013, 69 of the defendants in the “UAE-94” case were sentenced, eight of them in absentia, up to 15 years in prison.  The detentions came amid Abu Dhabi’s crackdown on an Islamist association called al-Islah and other activists calling for political reform in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. 

They should have never been detained in the first place for legitimately exercising the freedoms that all people are entitled to,” said Mary Lawlor.

Lawlor called the five activists’ sentences “excessively severe” and noted that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has declared their sentences arbitrary

She noted allegations that the rights defenders have been subjected to long periods in solitary confinement, which could amount to torture. Other allegations include prison guards shutting off the air conditioning amid scathing hot temperatures and covering windows to prevent the prisoners from getting sunlight. 

The prisoners have severely limited or no access to legal counsel, Lawlor said, potentially violating their right to a fair trial. 

I call on the Emirati authorities to release these human rights defenders from detention in order to continue their meaningful and necessary human rights work,” Lawlor said.

This follows an earlier plea of 22 February: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/02/22/lawlor-urges-uae-to-free-ahmed-mansoor-mohamed-al-roken-and-other-hrds/

https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/06/un-expert-calls-uae-release-prominent-human-rights-defenders#ixzz6xesKipiF

Save the dates for the RAFTO Prize 2021

June 15, 2021

The Rafto Prize Events 2021

These are the dates for the 2021 Rafto Prize Events. They are live-streamed. You can watch them on RAFTO’s website and on Facebook.

The Rafto Prize Announcement (online )

Thursday 23 September at 10:00 AM (CEST)

Watch the press conference where the Head of the Rafto Prize Commitee announces the recipient of the Rafto Prize 2021! The live-stream starts at 09:30, and will include interviews and commentaries by experts and Rafto staff.

The Rafto Conference (online)
Saturday 13 November at 11:00-14:00

Join our online conference with keynote speech by Rafto Laureate 2021. The conference will shed light on and discuss human rights challenges related to this year’s Rafto Prize. Free of charge and open for everyone to attend.
Speakers and program TBA

The Award Ceremony (online)
Sunday 14 November at 18:00-19:15

Live broadcasted from Den Nationale Scene, Bergen, we are celebrating this year’s Rafto Laureate with an award ceremony and a concert.
Free of charge. Artists and perfomances TBA

Torchlight procession, Den Nationale Scene in Bergen.
Sunday 14 November at 19:30

After the Award Ceremony there will be a torchlight procession, that will start outside of Den Nationale Scene, Bergen.
Physical attendance only.

For more on this and other human rights awards for HRDs, see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/awards/A5043D5E-68F5-43DF-B84D-C9EF21976B18


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History writing in Russia suppressed

June 10, 2021

A new FIDH report published on 10 June 20212 finds that human rights abuses targeting historians, activists, journalists, and NGOs working on historical memory of the Soviet past have become systematic since at least 2014. Legal impediments and implementation of laws designed to stifle free speech and freedom of association, arbitrary arrests and prosecutions, censorship, public smear campaigns, and failure to provide effective remedies for past abuses are just some of the violations detailed.

In recent years, control over the historical narrative of the Soviet past has become an essential tool for consolidating authoritarian rule. Building Russia’s collective identity around Soviet victory in the Second World War, the current regime attacks historians, journalists, civil society activists, and non-governmental organisations that work to keep alive a historical memory of the Soviet past that focuses on identification of the perpetrators and victims of the likes of the Great Terror, Joseph Stalin’s 1937-38 campaign of deadly political repression.

The new FIDH report, Russia: Crimes Against History, catalogues these violations, analyses them from the viewpoint of international human rights law, and makes recommendations to national authorities and international organisations on how to improve the situation of so-called “history producers.”

Our report is the first comprehensive analysis of the issue of manipulation of historical memory in Russia from the vantage point of human rights law,” said Ilya Nuzov, head of FIDH’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk who conceived and co-authored the report. “Our findings show that the authorities have created a climate of fear and repression for all independent voices working on historical past in Russia, reminiscent of the worst practices of the Soviet period.”

Specifically, the report details how, in recent years, the government has methodically attempted to discourage independent work in the historical field while actively promoting its own “historical truth” that centers on Soviet victory in the Second World War.

In 2020, the official historical narrative was set in stone in the Constitution, which was amended contrary to domestic and international law. In the Constitution, Russia is presented as the “successor” regime of the Soviet Union, which must “honour the memory of the defenders of the fatherland” and “protect the historical truth.” This narrative is actively promoted by government institutions. On the other hand, the authorities have stigmatised and penalised internationally supported civil society organisations, such as International Memorial, with the likes of foreign agent laws; it has criminalised interpretations that diverge from the state’s interpretation of history through the adoption of “Exoneration of Nazism” and other memory laws; and it has organised show trials against independent historians like Yuri Dmitriev, who received a draconian 13-year sentence for his tireless work to identify and commemorate victims of the Great Terror. Seae also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/10/01/dunja-mijatovic-calls-on-russia-to-end-judicial-harassment-of-human-rights-defenders/

“The report is important not only for Russia,” remarked Valiantsin Stefanovic, FIDH vice president. “Its findings and recommendations could be applied to other countries in the region and around the world that manipulate historical memory. In Belarus for instance, we see a similar use of memory laws to crack down on the pro-democracy movement.”

The report formulates a number of recommendations, such as the establishment of legal guarantees and protections to safeguard the independence of historians’ work. It also proposes the official recognition of historians as human rights defenders by United Nations special procedures, in addition to the creation of a “historians’ day” by UNESCO.

The intriguing case of Artur Ligęska who was in prison with Ahmed Mansoor in the UAE

June 9, 2021

Mirage news of 8 June 8, 2021 tells the sad story of Artur Ligęska, a 40-year-old Polish citizen who has spoken out widely about torture and ill-treatment in Emirati prisons. He was found dead in his apartment in Amsterdam, the Netherlands on May 26, 2021. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch are deeply saddened by the news of his death and extend their sincere condolences to his friends and family.

Following his release from al-Sadr prison in May 2019, Artur dedicated himself to seeking justice for the abuse he and other prisoners suffered in prison, especially Ahmed Mansoor, an award-winning human rights defender who is on the advisory boards of GCHR and Human Rights Watch. [see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/074ACCD4-A327-4A21-B056-440C4C378A1A]Artur was a uniquely valuable source of information on prison conditions in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

He was an activist, author, and fitness expert and had recently celebrated the second anniversary of his acquittal on May 9. He had been sentenced to life in prison in the UAE following a deeply flawed trial on drug charges despite the absence of any evidence of drugs in his possession.

In a voice message to a friend at GCHR on May 9, Artur said, “My main wish for this new-life birthday is freedom for Ahmed Mansoor. I really do hope that this year will be special for him. I was thinking all day about him. I remember our last talk, and I was thinking about his wife and kids. …In the last days, Ahmed told me ‘Don’t forget about me.’

Artur said he was planning to organize a protest in The Hague soon to call for Ahmed’s release. Artur’s many actions to help Ahmed included advocacy with Polish and EU officials, providing human rights groups with information, taking part in human rights events, documentary films and TV appearances, and writing about Ahmed in his two books.

Artur first phoned GCHR staff in April 2019 to tell them that Ahmed was on a hunger strike and told them that he was worried that Ahmed might die because his health had deteriorated greatly. He told GCHR that Ahmed was being held in “terrible conditions” in a cell with no bed, no water, and no access to a shower. Ahmed today remains in a 2-by-2 meter isolation cell with no bed or mattress, serving a 10-year prison sentence for his human rights activities.

Despite suffering serious trauma after suffering abuse as a prisoner in the UAE, Artur again phoned GCHR to share the good news that human rights groups’ advocacy had been successful. Ahmed had ended his hunger strike after being allowed to phone his ill mother and to go outside to see the sun for the first time in two years. Artur sacrificed phone calls to his own family to make calls on behalf of Ahmed, referring to him as a brother.

Following his release, Artur was able to provide GCHR with more details about what he called the “medieval prison conditions” in al-Sadr prison, including periods when there was no running water despite extreme heat.

In a wide-ranging interview released by Human Rights Watch in January 2020, Artur described how he and Ahmed had become “prison mates in UAE hell.” Artur spent eight months in al-Sadr prison, in solitary confinement in a cell beside Ahmed’s. His friend suffered psychological torture from a near-total lack of human contact and access to the library, Artur said. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/02/22/lawlor-urges-uae-to-free-ahmed-mansoor-mohamed-al-roken-and-other-hrds/

Artur told GCHR that after he left the UAE, he had undergone surgery and therapy to treat the damage done by the rape and psychological torture that he said he was subjected to but he was recovering well and taking classes to become a journalist and human rights professional.

On April 13, 17 European Parliament members wrote to the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell to express their “deepest concern over the ongoing human rights violations in the United Arab Emirates, particularly with regards to the systematic crackdown on freedom of speech and expression and the subsequent retaliation received during detention.” The letter mentions Ahmed, and also refers to Artur, noting, “The use of torture has not been limited to Emirati nationals, as there have also been instances of EU citizens that have reported facing brutal torture at the hands of prison authorities.”

On October 22, 2020, Amnesty Westminster Bayswater and GCHR held an online event, The Prisoner and the Pen, featuring the writing, songs and poetry of prisoners who are human rights defenders and the work of writers and artists from the Middle East and North Africa region. The event, held on Ahmed ‘s birthday, included his poems. Artur read from his memoir, “The Sheikh’s Different Love,” published in 2019 in Polish. He has also written a second bestselling book in Poland, “Prison Diary.” His story is documented in a film by Hossam Meneai, Isolation Cell 32, which debuted at the Polish Film Festival in America in November. Artur also appears in an upcoming documentary about Ahmed Mansoor made by Manu Luksch.

Artur’s untimely and unexpected death comes as a great shock to those who knew him. The Dutch police are investigating the circumstances of his death.

https://www.miragenews.com/tribute-to-artur-ligeska-former-prisoner-in-uae-573024/

Documentary Film Calls for Justice for Kyrgyzstan’s Azimjon Askarov

June 3, 2021
Azimzhan Askarov Pictured here during hearings at the Bishkek regional court, Kyrgyzstan, October 4th, 2016.  
Ethnic Uzbek journalist Azimzhan Askarov. Pictured here during hearings at the Bishkek regional court, Kyrgyzstan, October 4th, 2016.© 2016 AP

Philippe Dam, Advocacy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, on 2 June 2O21, writes aavout Azimjon Askarov, a 69-year-old human rights defender from Kyrgyzstan, who died in prison after contracting pneumonia. Askarov had been in prison for 10 years, having been given a life sentence following an unjust and unfair trial in 2010, in retaliation for his investigations into the tragic wave of inter-ethnic violence that year in southern Kyrgyzstan. [see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/D8B31FA3-E648-4F92-81B9-8C3A4270F80E]

His death was the result of cruelty and negligence by Kyrgyz authorities. A screening this week of a documentary about Askarov, to be attended by senior European Union officials, is a reminder to Kyrgyzstan that it is responsible for his death and needs to show accountability and to the EU to press Bishkek on this issue. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/07/31/mary-lawlor-calls-death-of-human-rights-defender-askarov-a-stain-on-kyrgyzstans-reputation/

Askarov’s trial in 2010 was marred by serious procedural violations and allegations of torture that were never investigated. A United Nations human rights body ruled in 2016 his detention was illegal and called for his immediate release, but Kyrgyz authorities looked the other way.

Since his death, many have called for a full inquiry into the causes and responsibilities for his death.  A toothless internal inquiry ordered by Kyrgyzstan has gone nowhere. The documentary “Last Chance for Justice,” by filmmaker Marina Shupac, is a touching portrayal of the fight by Khadicha Askarova, Askarov’s wife, for justice and his release from prison.

The screening is on June 4 as part of the One World Film Festival in Brussels. The panel discussion of the film will be joined by Eamon Gilmore, the EU’s top human rights envoy; Heidi Hautala, a European Parliament vice-president; and a representative of the Office of the EU’s Special Representative to Central Asia.

On the same day as the screening, the EU is set to hold its highest-level annual meeting with Kyrgyz officials. This is a crucial opportunity for the EU to make it clear that closer ties with Kyrgyzstan will depend on the resolve of Kyrgyzstan President Japarov’s administration to investigate Askarov’s death, clean up his judicial record, and grant compensation to his family.

This week’s high-profile screening makes clear: Kyrgyzstan will continue to be in the international spotlight on Askarov until it fulfils its human rights obligations to account for his death.

https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/06/02/documentary-calls-justice-kyrgyzstans-azimjon-askarov

Call for nominations Council of Europe’s Raoul Wallenberg Prize 2022

June 2, 2021

The call for candidates for the 2022 Raoul Wallenberg Prize has been launched in Strasbourg by Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić

For more on this and other awards in the name of Wallenberg, see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/awards/730A3159-B93A-4782-830F-3C697B0EC7A0

The prize is worth €10 000 and the award ceremony will be held at the Council of Europe’s headquarters in Strasbourg on or around 17 January 2022 – the date of Raoul Wallenberg’s arrest in Budapest in 1945.

The Prize Jury consists of six independent persons with acknowledged moral standing in the field of human rights and humanitarian work, appointed by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the municipality of Budapest, the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Lund, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Raoul Wallenberg family.

The deadline for submitting candidatures for the 5th edition of the Prize is 31 October 2021.

https://www.miragenews.com/raoul-wallenberg-prize-2022-council-of-europe-570245/

Book review of “The Water Defenders” tells the story of environmental defenders in El Salvador

June 1, 2021

In Toward Freedom of 31 May 2021 Charlotte Dennett reviews the book “The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed“. It is a very uplifting story that teaches a lot about how to continue a sometimes hopeless-looking case

The Water Defenders

At a time when all caring people are seeking a new way forward out of a year of unimaginable death, destruction and rampant inequality, along comes a book that gives us hope that a better world may be possible. The book, recently published, is based on a struggle in a small section of a small country—El Salvador—beginning in 2002, when a group of “white men in suits” entered the province of Cabañas and tried to convince poor farmers that gold mining would be good for them. Their resistance, done at great peril and resulting in the assassinations of some of their leaders, ended up years later in a landmark case against corporate greed, garnering support from around the world. The basis of their success lies in the most fundamental of human needs: Water, for which left-right antagonisms fall apart once the deadly consequences of mining’s misuse of it—including causing cyanide poisoning—become patently clear.

Authors Robin Broad and John Cavanagh have brought us this amazing David versus Goliath story in their new book, The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved A Country from Corporate Greed. Their first-hand accounts of working with front-line communities, both in El Salvador and in the United States. provide lessons along the way about how to fight an immensely powerful entity and win, whether the enemy be Big Gold, Big Oil or Big Pharma (to name a few). As they write in their introduction, “You may find yourselves surprised to find the relevance of the strategies of the water defenders in El Salvador, whether your focus is on a Walmart in Washington DC; a fracking company trying to expand in Texas or Pennsylvania, or petrochemical companies outside New Orleans.” By the end of the book, they added relevant struggles in countries like Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, as well as in South Africa, South Korea, and India.

In an interview with John Cavanagh, I asked if he and Robin had an inkling of the huge ramifications of their story right from the beginning, and his answer was decidedly no. In fact, when they first got involved, back in 2009, they never expected to win. They knew what they were up against and had no illusions. As they wrote about the ensuing years of twist-and-turn battles lost and won, the authors described a combination of events that made the water defenders’ decades-long struggle unusual… Yet now, with lessons learned, replicable.

Their involvement with the water defenders began in October 2009. That month, the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a progressive organization “dedicated to building a more equitable, ecologically sustainable, and peaceful society,” invited a group of Salvadorian water defenders to accept IPS’s annual Letelier Human Rights Award for their struggle against Pacific Rim (PacRim), a huge Canadian gold-mining company that sought permits in El Salvador. [See: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/06351cb8-8cc0-4bdd-ac3a-2f7ee5a0b553]That year’s award was particularly poignant because one of the awardees, Marcelo Rivera, had been assassinated the month before. Five people still came to Washington, with Marcelo’s brother, Miguel, traveling in his place. Leading the delegation was a small-statured, seemingly nervous Vidalina Morales. But when she stepped up to the podium at the National Press Club and began her acceptance speech, her voice filled the room with a sense of urgency. She described the dangers of gold mining—for drinking water, for fishing and for agriculture. By the time she got to explaining the use of toxic cyanide in separating the gold from the rock, she had the audience—including the authors—mesmerized.

Miguel Rivera in front of anti-mining mural in his town in northern El Salvador
Miguel Rivera in front of anti-mining mural in his town in northern El Salvador / credit: John Cavanagh

Another factor made this occasion different. Cavanagh, who is the director of IPS, explained that usually the awardees arrive in Washington to accept their awards and return home. But on this occasion, “They asked for our help. El Salvador had just been sued by PacRim in an international tribunal that argued that El Salvador had to allow it to mine gold or pay over $300 million in costs and ‘foregone profits.’ They also asked if we could help them with research on companies involved in gold mining.”

John had previously engaged with IPS in fighting against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and had become familiar with the tribunal and the rules set by the World Bank involved in regulating a global economy. Robin Broad, for her part, had written her doctoral dissertation and first book on the World Bank, and she had worked on the bank at her job with the U.S. Treasury Department in the mid-1980s. But she was less familiar with the workings of the tribunal the World Bank had set up in 1964, “The International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).” Its mission was to hear cases brought by foreign investors demanding compensation for lost profits from countries that tried to limit or regulate their activities. The couple figured they could be helpful.

“That’s how we were drawn in,” John explained, while emphasizing the extraordinary role local Salvadorans played in educating local communities about the dangers of landfills and then the dangers of gold mining. It was their groundbreaking work, often under dangerous conditions, that had earned them the Letelier award.

What happened next is a remarkable story of a growing North-South alliance that eventually went global, succeeding in two monumental victories: 1) a decision by ICSID in October 2016 that rejected PacRim’s claims for damages, while ordering the corporation to pay El Salvador $8 million in costs, and 2) the world’s first-ever comprehensive metals mining ban, brought by the El Salvador legislature in March 2019.

The Challenge

Up until 2016, Cavanagh explained, “we never thought we would win.” But that did not stop the momentum of coalition building, which had begun as early as 2005 by local village defenders, human rights advocates, farmers, lawyers, Catholic organizations and Oxfam America. They united to call themselves the National Roundtable on Metallic Mining, or La Mesa Frente a la Mineria Metálica—La Mesa for short. Their ultimate goal, beyond building resistance at the local level, “seemed like a pipe dream,” the authors wrote. That goal? “Getting the Salvadoran Congress to pass a new national law banning metal mining.”

Over the years, spurred on by their quest to find out who was responsible for Marcelo’s murder, the water defenders and their international allies yielded a treasure trove of insights on how to fight the Men in Suits, regardless of the outcome. Here are just a few lessons learned from their struggles described in the book:

  • Listen to the horror stories coming from refugees, in this case, those fleeing Honduras. Marcelo; his brother, Miguel; and Vidalina made several trips to Honduras to learn more about the gold mines there. (Honduras had become a haven for Big Gold after the 2009 coup). They returned with “shocking stories of rivers poisoned by cyanide, of dying fish and skin disease, of displaced communities, denuded forests, and corruption and conflict catalyzed by mining company payoffs.” Those trips, the authors write, made a huge impression on the water defenders and “crystallized their thinking… They were vigilant researchers, thirsty to know more.”
  • Seek out unexpected allies. One was Luis Parada, a Salvadoran government lawyer with a military background. As it turned out, he was a disciple of Sun Tsu, a Chinese military strategist from 2,500 years ago, who had written The Art of War. Among the lessons Parada (and Sun Tsu) imparted: “Know thy adversaries”—be one step ahead of them, and also know your possible allies. “Befriend a distant state while attacking a neighbor.” Luis also offered valuable practical advice, including the fact that the Sheraton Hotel in the capital, with its bar and pool, “offered some of the best intelligence in El Salvador.” Another unexpected ally was the ultra-conservative Archbishop Saenz Lacalle, a member of the right wing Opus Dei. “All it had taken was the word cyanide,” the authors explain, to cause him to oppose mining. His replacement in 2008, Archbishop Escobar, followed suit. He was “hardly an activist cleric,” but he “had long-held unexpected and firm views on mining,” and in his inaugural messages called on the government to reject mining operations in El Salvador. Getting the Catholic Church behind the water defenders was crucial. The martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, “whose photo is omnipresent throughout the country,” was no doubt a factor for widespread community support behind the water defenders, as was the encyclical put out by Pope Francis urging priests to take to the streets to defend the environment. Yet another surprise endorsement came from a member of one of El Salvador’s richest families and a leader of the right-wing ARENA party, which dominated the legislature. It turned out that John Wright Sol had a passion for the environment. Also noteworthy: His family’s vast sugar plantations consumed a lot of water. As he studied the impact of mining on water, he reached out to fellow members of ARENA. “I didn’t want to turn this into mining companies are the devil,” he advised. Instead, he chose to emphasize that “every citizen in the country must have access to clear water.”
  • Be wary of corporate PR campaigns. PacRim put out a report emphasizing that a whopping 36,000 jobs would be created from its mining operations, a vastly inflated claim. In radio interviews, PacRim aimed separate messages to the ARENA party and to the left-wing FMLN party, in which it claimed revenues would fund social agendas. Trips abroad arranged by PacRim often resulted in swaying politicians, whether on the left or right, to support their corporate agenda.
  • No matter how big, corporations can make mistakes. OceanaGold, a Canadian-Australian mining company which took over PacRim in 2014, had put on a brave face after the ICSID ruled against PacRim, acting as though it had won, and refusing to cough up the $8 million the company owed El Salvador. Yet it made a fatal error by choosing its mining operations in The Philippines as an example of its environmentally pristine practices. Robin Broad knew otherwise, and along with other international allies had cultivated a professional relationship with the governor of the Philippine province where OceanaGold had its mine. Governor Carlos Padilla arrived in El Salvador on the eve of the crucial legislative vote on the mining bill and presented a “before and after” slideshow to the Environmental Committee. He pictured a lush landscape before the mining, contrasted with images of waste-filled “tailings ponds,” dead trees, dried-up springs and rivers, dead fish on river banks, and, as he explained, “No access to water for drinking or for irrigation.” He ended with an appeal to future generations. “Grandpa,” he imagined them asking. “Why did you allow mining?” 

His presentation was “sort of a clincher,” Cavanagh told me. “It raised the level of indignation.” The legislative vote followed soon afterwards, on March 29, 2019. The results were stunning, with 69 votes tallied against OceanaGold, zero nays and zero abstentions. Shouts of Sí, Se Puede!—“Yes we can!”—erupted from the floor, as members of La Mesa waved banners that read, “No a la Minería, Sí a la Vida”—No to Mining. Yes to Life!

Children performing on the 10th anniversary of Marcelo Rivera’s assassination
Children performing on the 10th anniversary of El Salvadorean water defender Marcelo Rivera’s assassination / credit: John Cavanagh

Today, the water defenders remain cautiously optimistic, though constantly on guard. In the past, mining corporations have been able to convince even leftist governments that mining is good for the economy. Cavanagh speculates mayors of small towns, pressured to provide jobs, may have been behind the assassination of Marcelo Rivera and other water defenders.

But to date, Marcelo’s killers have never been identified. On an equally sobering note, he and Board remind us in the book that “over 1,700 environmental defenders had been killed across 50 countries between 2002 and 2018.”

I asked John for an update since finishing his book in mid-2020. Nayib Bukele, El Salvador’s “new Trump-like president,” he wrote, “hasn’t raised mining, and it doesn’t look like he is personally interested. He knows the public opinion polls that showed that the overwhelming majority of Salvadorans are opposed to mining.”

However, he added, “We remain worried. El Salvador, like all developing countries, is suffering economically after the pandemic, and other countries have increased mining to get more revenues. So, La Mesa remains vigilant against any actions that could indicate that the government wants to mine.”

We can only hope that water defenders around the world will strengthen their alliances. Fortunately, they now have a handbook that will help them in their journey of resistance.

Charlotte Dennett is the co-author with Gerard Colby of Thy Will be Done. The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil. Her new book is The Crash of Flight 3804: A Lost Spy, A Daughter’s Quest, and the Deadly Politics of the Great Game for Oil.

The Water Defenders: How Ordinary People Saved a Country from Corporate Greed by Robin Broad and John Cavanagh. Boston: Beacon Press; 2nd edition. March 23, 2021.

For a bit more critical review see: https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/el-salvador-s-water-defenders-and-fight-against-toxic-mining