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Only 14 countries have reported data on attacks against human rights defenders, six years after the SDGs, with an indicator monitoring this violence, were approved. Civil society is filling this gap, but state-led monitoring is required to develop better policies and protection mechanisms.
The killing of a human rights defender (HRD) represents a direct attack on civic space and an assault on the fundamental freedoms that underpin a sustainable, inclusive and peaceful society. It strikes at the heart of Agenda 2030 and Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16, which aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies, and more specifically indicator 16.10.1, which records killings and attacks on HRDs, including journalists and trade unionists, is the primary indicator of global enjoyment of these fundamental freedoms in the SDG framework.
Six years after the SDGs were approved, and despite growing recognition of the risks faced by human rights defenders – specifically those defending land and the environment – official data reported against indicator 16.10.1 remains woefully limited.
The recent report A Crucial Gap: The Limits to Official Data on Attacks against Defenders and Why It's Concerning, authored by the ALLIED Data Working Group, sheds light on the extent of the problem.
Through a review of data on indicator 16.10.1 available in the Global SDG Indicators Database and an assessment of the 195 Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) submitted since 2015 to the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), the group found that only 14 countries had reported any data on 16.10.1 in the last six years. Of the 162 countries that have submitted VNRs since 2015, only three – fewer than 2% – indicated that at least one HRD had been killed or attacked. Seven countries reported zero cases and 94% of countries did not report at all.
The reported numbers diverge dramatically from other accounts of such violence. In 2019, the most recent year for which data are available, the UN reported that 357 HRDs were killed, around half of whom could be considered to be land and environmental human rights defenders (LED). Since 2015, they report that at least 1,940 HRDs have been killed. The overwhelming majority of these cases do not come from government reporting, however, but from civil society data collectors. In absence of official data, civil society has filled this gap.
Systematic, state-led monitoring of the situations of HRDs, and specific attention to LEDs, is required in order to better monitor risks and threats that may precede more violent attacks. This data and information should be used to build better policies and protection mechanisms with the goal of better protecting those who defend human rights.
Head of Unit, INTPA G1- Gender Equality,Human Rights and Democratic Governance
Director of the Environmental Democracy Practice World Resources Institute
Data and Land Monitoring Lead, International Land Coalition
Indigenous Filipino human rights activist, UNEP Lifetime Achievement Award, Indigenous Peoples Rights International
Liberian environmental activist and lawyer, Goldman Environmental Prize, Green Advocates International