On human rights, the US must repair, reflect, and re-engage

Vicki Gass Active citizenship, Land rights

On January 16, Julio David González Arango, an Indigenous land defender involved in peaceful resistance to a mining operation in Guatemala, was shot in his home. The next day, two other defenders – Juan Eduardo Donis and Pablo Adolfo Valenzuela – received text messages saying that “they would be next.”  
Tragically, this incident is all too familiar to activists and human rights defenders everywhere. Attacks against defenders increased last year amid a continuing global rollback of democratic rights. Seven out of ten of these attacks were in Latin America, where governments and their elite backers, including in the global north, are using every trick at their disposal to silence and intimidate people like Julio. Latin American defenders have been assassinated, jailed on spurious charges, had their reputations smeared, and faced harsher criminal charges for speaking truth to power. 

New rights mechanisms for a new administration 

It is past time to protect those who hold the powerful to account. Oxfam America, alongside Earthrights International and other organizations, are urging the Biden administration to step up support for human rights defenders. For the administration to defend “American” values while also promoting American interests, the State Department should provide stronger protections for human rights defenders and re-engage with regional bodies and the UN system that the prior administration spurned.  
In a recent joint letter to the State Department, Oxfam and other civil society groups called on the Biden administration to: 

  • Develop guidance for American businesses about the vital work of human rights defenders, focusing on responsible business conduct and support for defenders. 
  • Re-engage with the UN human rights system, including supporting the recommendations for the roadmap of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights. 
  • Collaborate with regional human rights bodies; and 
  • Apply the State Department’s commitment to protect human rights defenders in relation to the multilateral development banks, including in project implementation.   

Holding the powerful to account in Latin America includes addressing their connections to political and corporate interests in the global north. After all, Julio was attacked for protesting against the Escobal silver mine, previously owned by Tahoe Resources in the United States and now by Pan American Silver in Canada. No re-engagement in protecting human rights can happen without an honest look in the mirror and stronger accountability mechanisms at home. 

Clamp down in Latin America 

Of course, governments in Latin America bear responsibility, too. In Honduras, the National Assembly passed a new penal code that reduced jail time for corrupt politicians but increased time for peaceful protesters.  In Nicaragua, the government just passed a law requiring non-governmental organizations, such as Oxfam, to register as a foreign agent to exert more government control over how funds are used. Similarly, the Guatemalan congress passed a controversial bill increasing government control over non-governmental organizations and allowing the government to revoke the registration for any reason. Obviously, the intent is to stifle dissent of human rights defenders denouncing predatory activities in the extractive industries, agribusiness, and large-scale infrastructure projects that encroach on peoples’ land and livelihoods.   

A case in point: Escobal  

Since the beginning, the Escobal mine has faced widespread opposition by the Xinka people and surrounding communities. The mine is located on prime agricultural land, on which local communities depend to survive. Tests show high levels of arsenic in the water systems and community leaders have been threatened, kidnapped, and killed for defending their land. Seven community leaders who were violently attacked by mine security guards took Tahoe Resources to court in Canada and won a major legal settlement in 2019.  

The Guatemalan Supreme Court ordered the suspension of mining operations in 2017 for the government’s failure to consult local indigenous populations as required by national and international law. However, local civil society groups report that the mine’s new owner, Pan American Silver, is continuing its community outreach activities in the area, this risks  the creation of a coercive environment and is increasing local tensions. After reporting these company actions to authorities, Julio was shot and his colleagues received death threats. 

Repair, reflect, and re-engage 

Julio’s struggle for his people is far from over and is just one example of the many struggles taking place in Latin America – and across the globe – as defenders speak out against governments and international corporations.  As the Biden administration repairs damage from the last administration, it should look to adopt new human rights protection mechanisms, align America’s interests and values, and step up diplomatically to protect these courageous defenders who are bravely challenging major inequalities of power.  


Vicki Gass