Taking Responsibility for Others, Refusing to Turn Away

By Mary Lawlor (UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders)-

Pictured: Mary Lawlor

There was a time when being kind to people was seen as a good thing. Now, across the world, I see people being attacked and targeted for helping those in need, for bringing food, medicine and water to people who are freezing in forests or dehydrating in deserts.


I’ve heard from people in many countries targeted for their work helping migrants. Human rights defenders working at Colombia’s border with Venezuela report that those assisting migrants are operating in a highly dangerous context where armed groups involved in drug trafficking are directly attacking them and the migrants they are trying to help.


Across the world acts of humanity end in court cases against people whose conscience tells them it’s not okay to leave children and families to suffer and die in desperate conditions.


These people are human rights defenders, peacefully supporting the rights of others. As UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, I’ve been mandated to advise UN member states on how to better protect them, as they have promised to do.


I’m presenting my latest report to the United Nations General Assembly this week (October 2022). Called Refusing to Turn Away, it details cases from every continent of people who don’t ignore what’s happening, sometimes on their doorsteps, to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. But it shows too how, when people offer help, they risk being prosecuted, even jailed, for giving this help.


I’m telling governments that they should stop harassing and criminalising those who are helping migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Some of these defenders are lawyers providing legal advice to asylum seekers, some are doctors who provide medicine; others are those who provide soup to hungry people they see at the bottom of their garden.


Baptist pastor and human rights defender Lorenzo Ortiz has been providing food and shelter to migrants on the US-Mexico border for five years. On 2 June 2022, he was kidnapped by members of a local cartel. They threatened to kill him and his family and held him for a ransom of US$40,000. After a strong reaction from local communities and the deployment of the Mexican National Guard and members of the army, Mr. Ortiz was released two days later without ransom.


Although he remained at extreme risk, the Government of Mexico reportedly did not take much further action, nor did it respond to me when I wrote expressing my concern about his situation. Subsequently, in early October 2022, the cartels closed the shelters that Mr. Ortiz manages and started pursuing him again. The pastor now finds himself in a life-threatening situation.


Both the actions Ortiz decided to take and the consequences to which he has been exposed are representative of the experience of many human rights defenders working on these issues. Many of them take great personal risks and are accused of being migrant smugglers, foreign agents, traffickers and terrorists. They are attacked by public authorities, violent extremists and organised criminal gangs.


I’ve heard from defenders working on these issues who have been jailed, smeared, deported, and physically attacked. Many are forced to do these acts of kindness in secret, and some have been killed for their work.


Despite this, human rights defenders continue to offer legal advice, and lifesaving medical and humanitarian aid, to those in desperate need. I’ve heard from many people living close to various sea and land borders who have decided, at great risk to themselves, to defend the rights of others. These people ought to be applauded, not vilified, for their work.


Migrants who help other migrants face increased risks. Some jeopardise their own legal status in a country by helping others, and are particularly vulnerable to attack. There should also be a special focus of our attention for the work they do.


One glimmer of good news in all this is that some courts are throwing out cases brought by the authorities against human rights defenders for doing this work. Some Nicaraguan defenders are finding refuge in Costa Rica, where they are still managing to carry out their human rights work, although long waits for legal status still somewhat hinder their work.


But people acting in solidarity with others shouldn’t have to rely on courts to protect them (and even for defenders who are eventually exonerated and vindicated, court cases can be long, stressful and expensive experiences). Governments should stop penalising people for peacefully protecting the rights of others, stop targeting those who give food to the hungry, or medicine to the sick, and stop prosecuting people for basic acts of kindness and decency.


To hear more from Mary Lawlor, listen to the LatAm Dialogues podcast episode here.