LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A leading British Catholic charity is calling on businesses and governments to do more to protect human rights defenders in Latin America.

CAFOD, the international development agency of the bishops of England and Wales, said both governments and businesses “act with disregard for human rights and the environment” in the region.

In a new report released on Tuesday, the agency added the COVID-19 pandemic has “exacerbated the deep inequalities across the region” and has led to more and more threats and actual violence made against human rights defenders.

“Much of this is intrinsically linked to access and control over land and territories. Against a backdrop of limited state presence, huge power asymmetries between companies, states and local communities, and widespread impunity, HRDs often have nowhere to turn to for protection,” said the report, Protecting our common home: land and environmental human rights defenders in Latin America.

Emily Mulville, the co-author of the report and CAFOD’s Latin America representative, said land and environmental human rights defenders are under attack in every corner of the globe, “but these attacks are particularly acute in Latin America.”

“Faced with massive inequality and widespread impunity, [human rights defenders] suffer violence, criminalization, and stigmatization, often with nowhere to turn for protection. This reality is unacceptable, outrageous and deadly,” she said in a statement released at the launch of the report.

The report defines human rights defenders as “ordinary people who, individually or together with others, act peacefully to protect their homes, communities, livelihoods, lives and the health of our planet from human rights and environmental impacts of industries and business operations.”

These “defenders” could be faith leaders, farmers, environmental activists, journalists, lawyers, or members of indigenous and minority communities.

The report claimed attacks against human rights defenders in Latin America have increased every year since 2015, and noted Front Line Defenders recorded 264 killings in the region in 2020, with 40 percent of the deaths being linked to issues around land, indigenous rights and the environment.

The report highlighted six key areas that contribute to the threats against human rights defenders in Latin America: 1) Unequal control over and access to land and natural resources; 2) a hostile environment in which civic space is restricted, with limited spaces for communities to contribute to decisions that affect them; 3) a failure by states and governments to protect human rights defenders, against a background of widespread corruption and impunity; 4) the use of “stigmatization and criminalization” by states and business to target activists; 5) the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, as states prioritize extractive industries for economic recovery; and 6) state economic models that strongly favor the expansion of large agribusinesses, mining and big infrastructure projects.

“Human rights defenders help to keep governments and businesses in check, ensure that models of development put people ahead of profit, and protect our planet,” Mulville said. “And, only by tackling the drivers of these attacks – including the powerful political and economic forces profiting from their land, water and forests – can we protect these courageous men and women who are risking their lives to save the planet for us all.”

The report also called out international businesses for their role in contributing to the attacks on human rights defenders, illegal land seizures, and environmental destruction in Latin America.

“In some cases, multinational companies are involved at arm’s length through a subsidiary company, promising investment in infrastructure, employment and social services in return for access to natural resources. In reality, these activities often enrich political and economic elites, while communities face the damaging repercussions of these activities on their land, water and forests, deepening inequalities with impunity,” the report says.

“In cases where there is no direct or tangible link to specific multinational companies, these businesses are often involved in driving the demand for raw materials and commodities that underpins environmental and human rights violations: resources extracted from Latin America are part of a supply chain of commodities that often end up as products on the shelves of UK and European markets. These supply chains rely on so-called sacrifice zones in the global south where the negative impacts and costs are borne. Financial organisations are also implicated through investments which facilitate these activities,” it continues.

CAFOD is calling on the UK government and European Union to implement existing guidelines on human rights defenders and introduce legislation targeting companies that fail to protect human rights and the environment. In addition, the Catholic aid agency asks Latin American government to end the criminalisation and stigmatisation of human rights defenders, while protecting the independence of the judiciary and national human rights public institutions.

The report also says businesses and investors should respect the rights of indigenous and other communities in the areas in which they work.

“International governments, bodies, and businesses all have a responsibility to prevent and end abuses in the supply chains of multinational companies operating in Latin America,” Mulville said.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome