Overcoming a crucial gap: a collaborative approach to improving data on attacks against defenders

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 as outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

One indicator – 16.10.1 – of the Sustainable Developed Goals (SDGs), acting as benchmarks to the 2030 Agenda, is dedicated specifically to tracking violence against HRDs, journalists and trade unionists. The indicator represents the most urgent tip of the iceberg, as HRDs around the world continue to face systemic criminalization, discrimination and hostility. 

The violence perpetrated against this group has been widely recognized, as has the need for improved monitoring and reporting systems that would better protect defenders and help build safer, more enabling environments.

The people behind these numbers are who we want to better protect, but in the process of doing this, the data matters.

Between 2015 and 2019, the United Nations estimates that at least 1,940 human rights defenders were killed. Their reports estimate that half of all defenders killed were defenders of land, the environment and indigneous peoples' rights. In 2020, the United Nations tracked 331 killings of HRDs in 32 countries and territories, an 18 per cent increase on 2019, and 19 enforced disappearances in 14 countries and territories. Global Witness recorded the death of 227 land and environmental defenders in 2020, making it once again the most dangerous year on record for this group.

Official data on killings of defenders, however, remain extremely limited, while even less data is available on the physical and death threats that often precede lethal attacks.

In the recent publication A Crucial Gap, the Data Working Group of the Alliance for Land, Indigenous and Environmental Defenders (ALLIED), highlights the troubling limits to existing data, based on a review of Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) and data currently available in the Global SDG Indicator database. Of the 162 countries that have submitted VNRs since 2015 – used to report progress towards the SDGs at the annual High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) – only three countries, or 2% of the total, indicated that at least one HRD had been attacked or killed since 2015, far from what we know to be the objective reality.

The UN, working with national human rights institutions, national statistical offices, civil society and other stakeholders, is pursuing steps to report country data, which will represent a significant expansion from the current reporting of regionally aggregated data on the killings and enforced disappearances of HRDs. This will make it less challenging to discern country-level violence. In addition to existing gender disaggregation, additional information about affiliation, work, community or ethnicity needs to be collected more regularly and accurately to identify specific groups such as land, environmental and indigenous human rights defenders.

It is a series of tasks that has been taken up by OHCHR, which together with UNESCO and ILO, is working as custodian of indicator 16.10.1. And increasingly, it's become clear that coordinated action and cooperation from a number of actors is needed. In short: more sources of data are necessary.

In Colombia, for example, between 2016 and 2019, civil society data collectors Inepaz reported 805 killings of HRDs and social leaders across the country. In the same time, the Office of the Ombudsman reported 571 killings and OHCHR verified 398 deaths. Differing numbers reflect nuanced definitions and criteria, as well as different methods of verification. Unfortunately, they are all likely to be underestimations, as we know such violence is systematically underreported. In response, OHCHR, the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE), the Defensoria del Pueblo and various civil society organizations are working together to contextualize the methodological and data collection framework of indicator 16.10.1.

But the numbers also reflect the value in considering various datasets alongside one another, to better understand the depth and complexity of an issue in a local context. And they highlight the potential of indicator 16.10.1.

Without reliable state-reported data, OHCHR has turned to other sources – and overwhelmingly to civil society – to report cases that pass through an internal verification process before being reported as UN figures.

The process has highlighted the extent to which civil society – citizen science, highlighted across the UNWDF – has played an invaluable role as data sources for HRD monitoring. It has also shed light on the need for a joint and coordinated approach to data collection that could relieve pressure on under‑resourced national human rights institutions, valorize and support the role of civil society data collectors, while building important bridges with government and UN actors.

Key actors are on board. GANHRI, the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions, has formalized a global aspiration for NHRIs to develop capacity as data collectors – specifically in light of 16.10.1 – in the 2018 Marrakech Declaration. These intentions are further reinforced in the Global Action Plan, currently under development by GANHRI and OHCHR.

Civil society is also contributing. Among others1, the ALLIED Data Working Group, a group of 20 organizations, has been working to implement a joint incident reporting methodology for attacks on LED. Recently, the group submitted a definition of LED to OHCHR for consideration in the metadata of 16.10.1, which would call for data that make the specific risk to this sub-group of defenders more visible.

While official monitoring of violence against defenders has lagged, civil society has continued to work and organize among themselves, often under threat for the work they do. The unique role played by civil society data collectors in monitoring the situation of HRDs must be acknowledged and they should be directly engaged through official reporting mechanisms and supported in their capacity of advisors as these processes advance.

Protecting HRDs is the responsibility of the state, but broad partnerships, diverse data sources and shared objectives will be necessary as we move towards better monitoring systems and better data that ultimately works to protect defenders.


1 Including the work of Tierra de Resistentes and IMDefensoras in Latin America, as well as the Asian HRDs Portal, an initiative from the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (previously FORUM-ASIA), among others.