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UN Cites Increasing  Threats Against Defenders of Human Rights - 2003-04-14


A U.N. special investigator says threats against people who work to defend the human rights of others have increased and become worse since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. The investigator says human rights defenders in all regions of the world are subjected to violations ranging from executions and torture to restrictions on their freedom of expression and association.

U.N. investigator Hina Jilani said that since the September 11 attacks, an increasing number of countries have adopted laws described as security or counter-terrorism measures. But, she says, these measures very often are used to restrict the work of human rights defenders and, in some cases, to target the defenders themselves.

She said government actions that previously would have been considered illegitimate now are viewed as legitimate.

"In many contexts, arbitrary detentions are being sanctioned by laws. Torture has become something that can be acceptable in certain situations," she said. "And many of the actions that were totally unacceptable previously have become acceptable only because they target either terrorists or those who are declared arbitrarily terrorists."

In the past year, the investigator said she has received reports of human rights defenders who have been executed, and of others who have received death threats, been kidnapped, beaten or arbitrarily arrested.

She says paramilitary groups in a number of countries are responsible for these acts. And in many cases, she said, the paramilitary operate with the cooperation of state forces.

She said countries where some or all of these forms of intimidation occur include Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

Human rights defender Dismas Kitenge Senga says he has been on the receiving end of many such threats. Mr. Senga represents Groupe Lotus, an organization of more than 200 human rights defenders. It is based in Kisangani, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, an area controlled by five different rebel groups.

Mr. Senga says the rebels do not see human rights defenders as people working for peace, but consider them to be a direct challenge to their power.

"With respect to the type of repression we are subject to, first, there are death threats put forward by the official media and defamation campaigns led by the authorities," he said. "Also, restrictions in terms of freedom of movement. For example, in order to be able to leave one city and go elsewhere, we need a special authorization."

Mr. Senga says the threats also come from Ugandan and Rwandan forces that occupy parts of eastern Congo. Despite the risks, he adds, his group is determined to do what it can to bring peace to the Congo and construct a country based on the rule of law.