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


In-depth interview with Ron Deibert, Citizen Lab’s founder

May 31, 2021
a smiling man in a collared shirt standing in front of a staircase

Ron Deibert is director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. (Courtesy of Ron Deibert)

On 25 May 2021 Nathaniel Basen for TVO.org spoke with professor Ron Deibert about internet censorship, espionage, and getting threats from authoritarian regimes. It is a long but rich interview: In 2001, Ron Deibert, a professor at the University of Toronto, founded Citizen Lab to help understand and track the spread of digital human-rights abuses around the world. 

In the 20 years since, the interdisciplinary lab has made headlines for protecting journalists and human-rights defenders from digital attacks; one of its researchers helped identify members of the group that attacked the United States Capitol earlier this year.

TVO.org: Let’s start at the beginning. How and why did Citizen Lab start, and what did it look like at the time? 

Ron Deibert: Back in the late 1990s, I was doing what I would consider to be conventional academic research — the lone professor studying a topic. A lot of desktop research. A student was taking a course of mine proposed doing a paper where he would explore censorship in China. This was a new topic back then — there was not any evidence really that China was censoring the internet — but people assumed they would, and there was a lot of uncertainty about what was going on there. 

He was kind of a self-taught hacker, and he put together this research paper where he connected to computers in China using some proxy servers and started comparing the results he got to what he could see here in Canada, doing it very systematically. It opened my eyes to the ways in which methods from computer science and engineering science — technical interrogation tools and techniques — could be used to surface real primary evidence about what’s going on beneath the surface of the internet around information control. Especially what governments, and also private companies, are doing that isn’t in the public domain. No one was really doing that at the time, and a lightbulb went on, where I realized that this is a really powerful way of surfacing primary evidence and data in a way that really no one else was doing. 

So I put together a prospectus for a lab that would be interdisciplinary, that would bring together people who have these skills to work systematically on uncovering information-control practices and look at surveillance and censorship and information warfare, from the standpoint of risks to citizens from a human-rights perspective. I was very fortunate at the time to get support from the Ford Foundation — I got a grant from them in 2001 — and I put the proposal together for the Citizen Lab from that. 

TVO.org: And at the time you were in a pretty small basement lab.

Deibert: Actually, it was my office in political science where it all got started. When I got the grant, the Munk Centre was just being established, and the building at Devonshire [at the University of Toronto] was under construction. I went over to that building and scoped out what I thought would be a room that no one else would want, to increase my chance of getting approval. I found this space, and I went to Janice Stein, the director, and said, “Hey, I’ve got this grant. I’ve got this idea. I need some space.” And she said, “Okay, you can have it.” 

So she supported the idea and took a risk. Space is a very valuable asset on campus. And even though it sounds less glamorous, we were really happy to have that room.

After 10 years, we moved to the new Munk building, the observatory, where we’re located now, and that was really great, because we needed more space. Security is not perfect — where we are there are lots of problems — but it is much better than it was in the old building, where people would just wander in and could easily locate us. Now we’re wrapped behind several layers of access control…..

TVO.org: Let’s talk a little bit about your process. How does Citizen Lab decide what to look into next?

Deibert: It’s a combination of factors. First and foremost, we are looking at the topic, at the domain, broadly speaking, which for us is global in scope. We don’t have a particular regional focus. We’re looking at risks to human rights that arise out of information technology: that’s the broadest possible definition of what we do.

That also limits our selection of cases that we want to examine. We assume that, however problematic cybersecurity is for big banks or government, they have resources — they can go hire a private company. But journalists, human-rights defenders, people living in the global south who are human-rights defenders and are advocating for policy change, they really lack capacity. So we put our effort into identifying cases that present the highest risk to human rights and, ideally, affect the most vulnerable parts of the population. 

We divide our work systematically. So there are certain teams that we organize around, though there’s a bit of overlap. It’s fluid, but we have some teams that are more interested in applying network-measurement techniques to uncovering internet censorship, let’s say, and that’s probably the area where we’ve doing the most work for the longest time. Then there’s what we call the targeted-threats group, which is really the most serious stuff around espionage, and it certainly has the highest risk and has gotten us in the crosshairs of some bad actors, to such an extent that we’ve now become a target. We also apply non-technical methods in an interdisciplinary way — we have people who are trained in law and policy. So we’ve done a lot of work around legislation of analyzing national security laws and practices in Canada. 

I would say how things are chosen depends on the opportunities that come up. We may hear about something, some preliminary evidence, perhaps a journalist tips us off or a victim comes forward. Or the team itself decides, hey, this is something we should look into. A good example of that is Zoom. We knew about Zoom: it was a kind of obscure business, networking-communications platform, until the pandemic hit. Suddenly, everyone was on Zoom. So our researchers got together and said, “Hey, we better take a look at this” and indeed uncovered some highly problematic security and privacy issues.

TVO.org: Your work with Zoom is a good example of getting immediate results from your work. If I’m correct, after a public outcry, Zoom cleaned up a lot of what you found. How does that feel to have an immediate impact on the world in that way? 

Deibert: It’s actually super-rewarding in a number of ways. First of all, there’s the gratification to get the message out. Ultimately, we see ourselves as a university-based watchdog group, so if you can publish something and the next day everybody’s reading about it because it’s on the front page of the New York Times? That’s phenomenal. We’ve been actually really fortunate to have high-profile coverage for our research. I think we’ve had, like, close to 30 front-page stories in the New York Times, the Washington Post, other global media, the Financial Times, about different reports of ours over the last 20 years. 

Going further, ultimately, we don’t just want to get attention for what we’re doing — we want to see some change. So there have been so many cases now where we’ve seen consequences, actions taken, policy changes, or advocacy campaigns started as a result of the work that we’ve done. 

Probably the biggest one was back in 2016, when we investigated a targeted espionage attack against a human-rights defender in the United Arab Emirates. He shared with us an SMS message that was tainted with malware that the UAE government was using to try to hack his phone, and when we reverse-engineered it, that malware infected our own device, our own iPhone. We realized that it was so sophisticated and involved what were then three software flaws in the Apple operating system, that even Apple itself didn’t know about. We did a responsible disclosure to them and, within two weeks, they pushed out a patch that affected directly the security of more than 1 billion people. So, to be able to say, “Hey, we were responsible for that” is, I think, quite an accomplishment.

TVO.org: On the flip side, there are people that don’t like the work you do. What has it been like for you to become a target? I can’t imagine when you started this thing that you pictured yourself coming under threat. 

Deibert: Well, first of all, you’re right. I grew up studying world politics as something out there, and I’m a spectator. There were a couple of instances before this, but, really, when we published the GhostNet report in 2009, which was the first public-evidence-based report on cyber espionage, it was the one that involved the hacking of the office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and we uncovered this massive Chinese espionage operation. 

It suddenly dawned on me, okay, we’ve gone from kind of just observing and recording to becoming a factor, because very quickly thereafter, we had all sorts of inquiries and veiled threats and concerns about physical security. From that point on, from 2009 to today, they’ve really only amplified. The worst is probably when we were targeted by Black Cube, the same private-intelligence firm made up of ex-Mossad agents that notoriously went after the accusers of Harvey Weinstein. Now, that’s really frightening to be in their crosshairs. We ended up actually exposing that operation, but to know that something like that is going on, frankly, is very disturbing. It really forces you to change your behaviour, think about practical issues: when you’re travelling, hotels, getting into elevators, who’s accessing the same building as you. 

At the same time, though, I think it’s a mark of success. If we’re not successful, those people wouldn’t care. It’s just something you have to factor into your risk calculation and take all the precautions, and we’re most concerned about the risks to the subjects of our research. Frankly, we go to extraordinary lengths to protect the security in terms of the data we handle, how we interact with them and interview them. But, yeah, it’s just constant. Actually, every day there’s something, ranging from people who, unfortunately, maybe are mentally disturbed, and they read about us and want to visit us, all the way to, you know, the world’s worst authoritarian regimes that are trying to threaten us. 

TVO.org: A lot of this work is global in nature, but some Ontarians might be surprised to know a lot of it is quite local. I’m thinking about your work with internet-filtering technology and Waterloo-based Netsweeper. What makes filtering technology so important, and what was Netsweeper up to? 

Deibert: As the internet evolves, there are all sorts of reasons why people want to control access to certain content online — beginning, I would say, with schools and libraries. There are legitimate concerns among parents and teachers that children have access to pornography or other types of content. Service providers like Netsweeper fill the market niche, providing filtering technology to those clients. 

But, very quickly, there grew a need among governments — national-level internet censorship. In the beginning, like I talked about with the Chinese, it was very rare in the 1990s or 2000s. I could count on one hand the number of governments that were doing this sort of thing. Now, it’s routine, and it’s big business. So with a company like Netsweeper, for us, it was, frankly, a no-brainer to zero in on it, and not even because they’re based in our own backyard. There’s certainly a motivating factor there because we’re Canadians, and we want to make sure that, as best we can, we identify businesses operating out of Canada to see if they’re in compliance with Canadian law or Canadian values. Here, we had a company that seemed to be not just kind of stumbling into selling internet-censorship services to some of the world’s worst violators of human rights, but actively courting them. 

They were showing up all over the world, especially in the Middle East. The Middle East is where Netsweeper really profited from selling internet-censorship services to governments that routinely violate human rights and block access to content that would be considered protected legally here in Canada. And they were also doing this in a non-transparent way. 

This is not something they openly advertised, and yet we knew, from our research and technical investigation, we could identify basically unquestionable proof that their technology was being used to filter access to content that would be legally protected here in Canada, in places like Bahrain and Yemen and in the Gulf. 

So we did a report about Netsweeper’s technology in Yemen, and at this time, the main telco, YemenNet, was controlled by Houthi rebels, and of course there’s an ongoing civil war, which at that time was really quite intense. We simply documented that Netsweeper’s technology was being used to actually block the entire Israeli top-level domain — the only time we’d ever seen that in the world, with the exception of Iran. 

We published this report, and we mentioned in the commentary around it that, in providing services to one participant in an armed conflict, who is censoring information, including information related to international news, they’re effectively inserting themselves in an armed conflict, and it raises all sorts of ethical, moral, and potentially even legal issues. Netsweeper sued me and the University of Toronto for defamation for over $3 million. Of course, we thought that was entirely baseless, and six months later, they simply withdrew the suit. 

Coincidentally, their suit came shortly before the Ontario government passed anti-SLAPP legislation to prevent lawsuits that chill free expression, which in our opinion, is very much what it is, because as we were going through the litigation, we couldn’t report on Netsweeper. After the lawsuit was dropped, we then published several subsequent reports on Netsweeper…..

TVO.org: In your 20 years, what is the work you’re most proud of?

Deibert: What I’m most proud of is the staff. I’d say a skill that I have is, I think I would make a good NHL scout or a band manager. I have the ability, for what it’s worth, to identify talented people and give them the support they need. So there’s not a particular report that I’m proud of; I’m most proud of the people who work at the lab. I’m so fortunate to be surrounded by these extremely talented, ethical, dedicated people, most of whom have been with me for over 10 years. It’s rare to have that in a small university. And that’s what I’m most proud of.

TVO.org: The lab itself, as we talked about a little bit, is somewhat unique: you’re working outside of government or corporations and working in the interest of human rights. Others around the world have taken note of your model. Do you hope to export it? 

Deibert: It’s beginning to be surprising to me that there aren’t more Citizen Lab–like organizations at other universities. To me, this is a field with such endless opportunity. There’s so much unfortunate malfeasance going on in the digital world. 

And, yet, you have these extremely powerful methods and techniques, as we’ve demonstrated, that, by way of analogy, act like an X-ray on the abuse of power. That’s the way I think about it. It’s astonishing. 

Sometimes I sit back and shake my head. A lot of the stuff we don’t even publish. It’s remarkable what you can see when you use these very precise, careful methods to uncover and track abuses of power. Why haven’t other university professors jumped on this and tried to mimic it? I don’t really know. I suppose there’s no one answer. There are risks involved with it, and it’s actually not easy to cross disciplinary boundaries. 

So I think that we’re helping to build the field, at least I hope, and you’re right that there are a few other places where I’m seeing either professors or, in some cases, human-rights organizations, attempting to build something like this. That is fantastic. That’s really where my effort and the next phase of my career is, around really field-building by promoting that model and hoping that others build up centres like the Citizen Lab at other universities, while also ensuring the sustainability of the lab.

This is a bit “inside university,” but the reality is, as the only professor in the lab, I’m the weakest link. So if something happens to me, the lab would really fall apart. Not because I’m the wizard directing everything — purely because I’m the responsible principal investigator for the grant, and you need that at a university. What I hope to do is ensure the sustainability of the lab outside of me, and that means recruiting other professors to the lab. We’re actively fundraising to do that and to try to get more tenure-track positions connected to the lab so that it can continue once I move on.

TVO.org: And what will the next 20 years hold for the lab itself?

Deibert: Hopefully, we ‘ll be able to continue. We know we have the support from the University of Toronto; they’ve been incredible in a number of ways. We live in a time when big university bureaucracies are criticized, sometimes rightfully so — I’ve been critical of my own university in various areas. But one thing I can say, they have been so supportive of work that we do in a variety of real practical ways, including legal support. 

I just want the lab to not be something that is tied to one profession. I want it to continue and to duplicate what we do globally. If we had 25 Citizen Labs sprinkled around the planet, it would be better for human rights overall, because there would at least be another protective layer, if you will, of dogged researchers who aren’t afraid to uncover abuses of power, no matter where they are.

https://www.tvo.org/article/x-ray-on-the-abuse-of-power-citizen-labs-founder-on-fighting-for-human-rights


30 NGOs call on Google to drop plan for a Cloud region in Saudi Arabia

May 27, 2021
Groups call on Google to drop out of Saudi project over human rights concerns

© Getty Images

The Hill of 26 May 2021 reports that a coalition of more than 30 human rights and digital privacy rights groups called on Google to abandon its plans to establish a Google Cloud region in Saudi Arabia over concerns about human rights violations.

The groups, which include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and PEN America, wrote in their letter that Saudi Arabia’s record of tamping down on public dissent and its justice system that “flagrantly violates due process” made it unsafe for Google to set up a “cloud region” in the kingdom.

While Google publishes how it handles government requests for customer information and reports when requests are made through formal channels, there are numerous potential human rights risks of establishing a Google Cloud region in Saudi Arabia that include violations of the rights to privacy, freedom of expression and association, non-discrimination, and due process,” the groups said. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/03/08/saudi-arabia-for-first-time-openly-criticized-in-un-human-rights-council/

The letter also pointed to Saudi authorities who have routinely sought to identify anonymous online dissenters and spy on Saudi citizens through digital surveillance. The groups also pointed to how they themselves are believed to have been put under surveillance by the Saudi government.

“Google has a responsibility to respect human rights, regardless of any state’s willingness to fulfill its own human rights obligations,” the letter continued, pointing to Google’s statement in which it expressed its commitment to human rights and to “improve the lives of as many people as possible.”

In order to address these concerns, the groups called on Google to conduct a “robust, thorough human rights due diligence process” and to “draw red lines around what types of government requests concerning Cloud regions it will not comply with” due to human rights concerns.

“The Saudi government has demonstrated time and again a flagrant disregard for human rights, both through its own direct actions against human rights defenders and its spying on corporate digital platforms to do the same,” the letter read. “We fear that in partnering with the Saudi government, Google will become complicit in future human rights violations affecting people in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East region.”

https://thehill.com/policy/technology/555597-groups-call-on-google-to-drop-out-of-saudi-project-over-human-rights


William Zabel Human Rights Award 2021 to Philippines NGO Karapatan

May 27, 2021

Human Rights First announced that it will present Karapatan, Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights, with its annual William D. Zabel Human Rights Award in recognition of its commitment to human rights in the Philippines. For more on this award and its laureates, see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/awards/984CA015-FE02-4992-8AED-4EB1AEC7D0EE

Karapatan is a Philippines-based alliance of human rights organizations, programs, committees, and individual advocates that have been at the forefront of the struggle for human rights in the country since 1995. 

Human Rights First has tremendous respect and admiration for Karapatan and the work done by Tinay Palabay,” said Michael Breen, president and CEO of Human Rights First. “They are human rights defenders whom the government of Philippines regularly targets, and we hope this award, and our ongoing partnership, helps shine a bright light on their efforts and shields them from additional threats.”

With more than forty member organizations and sixteen regional chapters across the country, Karapatan addresses extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, political prisoners and militarization all across the Philippines. The Alliance helps organize mass actions that expose human rights violations and challenge State policies and actions that promote the culture of impunity.

Karapatan documents human rights violations through fact-finding missions; files cases through courts, even quasi-judicial bodies like the Commission on Human Rights, the United Nations, and other international human rights bodies. It also refers victims to medical professionals and groups for psycho-social and additional assistance; and organizes victims of human rights violations and their families.

It also monitors peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines and the nation’s adherence to the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law and other agreements.

Fifteen human rights workers of Karapatan have been killed in the past five years, nearly 70 since 2001, and many more are imprisoned or are facing judicial harassment and threats because of their work in defending human rights,” said Tinay Palabay of Karapatan. “This recognition is an homage to their memory and legacy of selflessness, compassion and service to the poor and oppressed and we continue to honor them every day as we do the best that we can in advocacy, documentation, direct services and movement-building in the Philippines.”

Human Rights First and Karapatan are currently working on a pilot project testing “Digital Shield,” an application that tracks threats of violence and harassment made against the organization and its members online. 

For last year’s award: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/10/07/human-rights-first-to-present-saudi-organization-alqst-with-william-d-zabel-human-rights-award/

https://www.humanrightsfirst.org/press-release/human-rights-first-present-philippines-organization-karapatan-william-d-zabel-human


“Uluru Statement from the Heart” winner of the 2021 Sydney Peace Prize

May 26, 2021

On 26 May 2021 the ongoing campaign for First Nations recognition in the Constitution has been awarded Australia’s Sydney Peace Prize.

Proud First Nations leaders and drivers of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Professor Megan Davis, a Cobble Cobble woman from the Barunggam Nation in South East Queensland; Pat Anderson AO, an Alyawarre woman from the Northern Territory; and Noel Pearson, a Guugu Yimidhirr man from Hopevale on the Cape York Peninsula, jointly welcomed the announcement and will receive the prize together at an official event later in the year.

Delivered in May 2017 at the National Constitutional Convention, the Uluru Statement from the Heart is a ‘historic offering of peace’ that calls for the establishment of a ‘First Nations Voice’ in the Australian Constitution.

Professor Davis, Ms Anderson and Mr Pearson worked tirelessly to deliver the statement in 2017 and have spent the past four years leading the campaign for a referendum to change the constitution. The announcement of their win coincides with National Sorry Day, and marks four years since the Uluru Statement was originally endorsed by First Nations people from across Australia.

The Uluru Statement was the culmination of a dialogue process designed to take agreement and disagreement and elicit a pathway forward on the vital question of recognition,” Professor Davis said.

This is a tribute to the men and women of the dialogues who crafted a roadmap to peace for the nation. We are accepting this prize on behalf of all of the First Nations that participated in the Uluru Dialogues and the National Constitutional Convention at Uluru in 2017.”

Uluru Statement
The Uluru Statement from the Heart.

For more on the Syney Peace Prize and its laureates see: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/awards/7E938842-91DB-A3FD-EDF6-7143BA02216B

https://www.sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2021/05/26/uluru-statement-from-the-heart-wins-2021-sydney-peace-prize.html

https://ulurustatement.org/


Reminder: Call for Nominations MEA closes on 30 May

May 26, 2021

Only a few days remain to submit candidates for the 2022 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. For detials see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/04/15/call-for-nominations-martin-ennals-award-2022-with-a-focus-on-digital-rights/


10th edition of CIVICUS’s State of Civil Society Report (2021)

May 26, 2021

Protests prove the power of collective action as states fail pandemic test, says new report

As COVID-19 swept the globe, deepening existing fault-lines in societies and generating fear and uncertainty, many governments used the pandemic as a pretext to clamp down on civic freedoms, sparking protests in many countries. The annual State of Civil Society Report 2021, by global civil society alliance CIVICUS, shows that despite the odds, millions of people around the world mobilised to demand more just, equal and sustainable societies during the pandemic.

Mobilising against the odds

Globally, the mass mobilisation that made headlines and changed the conversation was the resurgence of demands for racial justice under the Black Lives Matter banner in the USA and beyond following the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020. People from all walks of life came to the streets to demand an end to systemic racism and police brutality.

The scourge of racism was highlighted in places as diverse as Colombia, the Netherlands and South Africa. The determination to end police brutality resonated widely, encouraging uprisings against police violence, notably in Nigeria.

Even in highly repressive countries, people bravely put their bodies on the line to oppose abusive power and demand democratic freedoms.

India witnessed the largest coordinated strike in world history as farmers defied brutal tactics to protest against corporate capture and elite collusion. Exposure of grand corruption in authoritarian Russia brought people to the streets, where they were met with more repression.

Bold civil disobedience against military might was offered in Myanmar. Dreams of democracy were deferred in Algeria, Belarus and Hong Kong, among others, but people showed extraordinary courage, taking to the streets in the face of great odds, keeping alive hopes for change.

Proving the power of collective action

The success of collective action led to breakthroughs in democracy and human rights across the globe.

In Chile, concerted street protests led to a commitment to develop a new constitution through democratic processes, with gender parity and Indigenous representation guaranteed. Sustained mobilisations in Argentina resulted in abortion being legalised, while in several countries young environmental activists took action to keep climate change in the spotlight.

Civil society’s collective action forced an election re-run in Malawi, and overcame systematic voter suppression in the USA. In Thailand, tens of thousands of protesters called for democratic reforms, including, for the first time, demanding a curb on the powers of the monarchy; activists used many creative forms of protest, including using giant inflatable ducks during mobilisations and holding ‘Runs Against Dictatorship’.

Following civic actions, same-sex relations were decriminalised in Bhutan and Gabon and same-sex marriage legalised in Costa Rica.

Many states failed the pandemic test

The pandemic offered a stress test for political institutions, and most were found wanting. The inadequacy of healthcare and social support systems was revealed. International cooperation was lacking as governments asserted narrow self-interest, birthing the dismal practice of vaccine nationalism by wealthy industrialised countries.

Many governments poured out official propaganda and sought to control the flow of information, ramping up censorship and criminalising legitimate inquiry and commentary. China was in the front rank of states that expanded surveillance practices and trampled on the right to privacy.

During the pandemic, several states increased their coercive power. In the Philippines, people were put in dog cages for breaking pandemic regulations, while in several Middle Eastern and North African states, including Bahrain, Egypt and Iran, human rights defenders remained in crowded jails, at risk of contracting COVID-19.

Some countries – notably New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan – got the virus under control, won public trust and communicated pandemic response measures clearly, while largely respecting rights and democratic freedoms. This shows that the path of repression taken by many was not a necessity but a choice.

Pandemic proves the need for civil society

When states failed to respond effectively to the pandemic, civil society stepped up, providing help to people most in need and defending rights. Civil society organisations responded swiftly with vital support, distributing cash, food, medicines and sanitary supplies, sharing accurate information on the virus and providing healthcare and psychological services.

Looking forward

CIVICUS’s report calls on states to reverse rights restrictions imposed under the pandemic at the earliest opportunity. It urges them to respect human rights and democratic freedoms, and listen to the voices of protesters. It asks the international community to do more to uphold norms on civic freedoms and support peaceful assembly.

The great current wave of protests is sure to continue. People are brave to protest, but they should not have to do so at the risk of being thrown behind bars, or facing brutal, even lethal, violence.

https://reliefweb.int/report/world/state-civil-society-report-2021-enarpt

https://civicus.org


Coming up: Voices of Uyghur camp survivors – a conversation with Gulbahar Jalilova

May 24, 2021

The Voices of Uyghur camp survivors : a conversation with Gulbahar Jalilova, is organised by the International Service for Human Rights and the World Uygur Congress. This event will be held in English, with Uyghur and French interpretation. Time 25 May 2021 11:00 AM in Zurich

Description Over a million Uyghurs and Turkic Muslims people are held in internment camps in the Uyghur region, exposed to harsh detention conditions, sexual violence, and the suppression of culture and
religious practice.

Gülbahar Jalilova was arbitrarily detained for sixteen months: now in exile, she’s decided to speak out on what she’s been through as a woman detainee despite the very high risks she faces.

Last February, ten UN independent experts wrote to the Chinese government about her case, raising grave concern about violations of international human rights and requesting explanations. What is the impact of this letter? What can the United Nations do to push for greater documentation, accountability, and justice for victims?

An event with Gülbahar Jalilova, Elizabeth Broderick (Chair of the UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls), and Zumretay Arkin (Program and Advocacy Manager, World Uyghur Congress). Moderation by Raphael Viana David (ISHR).

https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_aTNzmcMfTVqxuhkLNoqTsw


5th China Human Rights Lawyers Day on 9 July 2021

May 24, 2021


The fifth China Human Rights Lawyers Day will be held virtually on July 9, 2021. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/07/12/china-five-years-after-major-crackdown-international-community-must-support-to-human-rights-lawyers/]

The China Human Rights Lawyers Day was created on July 9, 2017 in acknowledgement of the tireless efforts of Chinese human rights lawyers in their struggle for justice and the rule of law. It commemorates the mass arrest of lawyers that occured on July 9, 2015, and celebrates the ideals, courage, and tenacity of human rights lawyers in China. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/12/18/chinas-continuing-crackdown-on-human-rights-lawyers-shocking-say-un-experts/]

Most human rights lawyers are not famous, nor are they wealthy, but they have irrefutably stood out in the Chinese legal community, elevating the profession to a worthier height. Over the past two decades, they have represented clients in all aspects of human rights and public interest, including but not limited to freedom of speech, freedom of belief, political dissent, property rights, women’s rights, labor rights, minority rights, anti-discrimination, food safety, and redress of wrongful convictions and other grievances. Their clients are from all walks of Chinese society, including political dissidents, religious believers, human rights defenders, civil society activists, farmers who lost land to illegal appropriation, factory workers, NGO practitioners, private entrepreneurs, writers, journalists, ordinary netizens, street vendors, victims of miscarriage of justice, and even Chinese Communist Party officials who have become prisoners in the so-called anti-corruption campaign. Their clients are often either opponents of the authoritarian regime or those whose rights and dignity are trampled.

Human rights lawyers have performed their duties in the process of defending their clients under the law, but precisely because they take both the law and their duties seriously, they have been subject to increasingly strong hostility from the authorities. Since the emergence of the legal rights defense movement in the early 2000s, these lawyers have only faced worse repercussions for their work; many have been arrested and tortured, suspended and disbarred. But the mass arrests on July 9, 2015, marked the beginning of a broader persecution of human rights lawyers by the Chinese authorities. Dozens of human rights lawyers and their assistants were suddenly arrested and hundreds of lawyers were threatened across the country. The jailed lawyers were subjected to harrowing physical and mental abuse. They were deprived of legal representation, forcibly injected with unknown drugs, forced to make confessions. Over the past two decades, more than 70 human rights lawyers have been disbarred, and about 40 of them have had their licenses revoked or cancelled in the past five years. At least 50 human rights lawyers have been illegally barred from leaving the country.

Even though most of the 709 detainees have been released, imprisonment of human rights lawyers has not ceased. Today, 13 human rights lawyers remain in prison in China, and one has been missing for more than three years.

Although human rights lawyers are a small group among China’s half-million lawyers, they are among those holding a torch lighting the road to rule of law and freedom for the Chinese people. They emerged during the most dynamic period of China’s reform and opening up, and now face hardship and great danger. In a totalitarian state in possession of an overwhelming state apparatus, they have opted for a challenge that few of their peers would be willing to take, but they have no regrets and hold their heads high in their vocation. They and their families have endured sufferings and setbacks, but have remained resilient and steadfast. They have been writing history and they are paving the road to the future. More than 15 human rights lawyers figure in the Digest of Human Rights laureates: see https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest.

For this special day, we call upon members of the public, whoever and wherever you are, to send a message of appreciation and encouragement to human rights lawyers in China by:

·  Printing or handwriting your message on a sheet of paper (or displaying it on your laptop screen);

·  Taking a photo of yourself with your message (group photo is welcome); and

·  Sending it to humanrights.lawyers.day@gmail.com with your name, profession, and location. Your email address will be carefully guarded and not shared or used for any other purposes. Deadline: June 10, 2021

We will play your message in a video collage called “Messages to Human Rights Lawyers in China.” 

Organizers:

Humanitarian China (U.S.), ChinaAid (U.S.), China Change (U.S.), Judicial Reform Foundation (Taiwan), New School for Democracy (Taiwan), Taiwan Support China Human Rights Lawyers Network

https://chinachange.org/2021/05/22/announcing-the-5th-china-human-rights-lawyers-day-calling-for-one-person-one-photo-messages/


Ocen Ivan Kenneth from Uganda is Human Rights Defender of the Month

May 24, 2021

Ocen Ivan Kenneth is a Program Director at Foundation for Development and Relief Africa (FIDRA), with more than 10 years of experience working in the human rights field. Ivan’s ambitions for change focus on building inner peace, defending human rights and empowering local communities using theatre and storytelling. He creates a space where people from the community share their personal stories of trauma and resilience as well as identify mechanisms of healing.

There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to defend justice.” Ocen Ivan Kenneth Tweet

As an activist, Ivan has faced several challenges including personal threats that sometimes extend to his family and colleagues. His work with victims of conflict related sexual violence also at times takes a toll on him.

“I get moved when speaking to people whose human rights have been violated in some way, or those who have survived sexual violence, or those brutalised by militia. I can see the trauma in their eyes and hear it in their voices. It has always been the most difficult aspect of my job.”

Just like many other human rights defenders, the lack of adequate equipment and limited resources coupled with limited capacity and skills, plus legal restrictions curtail his ability to efficiently execute his work. Despite all these challenges, Ivan’s commitment to keep protecting and promoting human rights remains unwavering.

After decades of armed conflict, now we are facing another attack, this time affecting our health and life. I am motivated because we are strong resilient workers. We keep resisting this new attack as we have always done by staying together, helping each other, and keeping our spirits high,” he says.

He believes that there should be more work done to support human rights defenders through building their capacity and expertise, strengthening their recognition, and protecting them from threats, risks, and reprisals particularly those who are marginalised or most at risk.

I believe that current protection measures for human rights defenders in Uganda are insufficient. Particularly protection offered from the government mechanisms towards human right defenders is insufficient. A mechanism needs to be created and developed, and people working on other protection mechanisms for human rights defenders should truly address the different vulnerabilities for male and female human rights defenders.” Ocen Ivan Kenneth