Who needs protection?

Image: Roon Z.


Notes for a new Program for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Communicators and Environmentalists

Among the democratic reconstitutions that the Lula government needs to face after the fascist avalanche, a much needed one is the Program for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Communicators and Environmentalists. The return to a progressive course involves the opportunity to re-elaborate previous legal and administrative devices, including an assessment of the policies implemented by previous PT administrations and incorporating updates, raised from emerging needs and comparative approaches with other national and international dispositives.

In this text, I discuss some proposals for these updates by focusing on human right defenders linked to land and territory struggles and by considering the subjects of collective rights, psychosocial care, risk prevention and resolution of the causes of perpetuation of the threat situations. For doing this, I synthesize conclusions taken from references that comes from reports made by specialized organizations, by my own research in the context of Manau and surroundings and by a comparative perspective with other international programs.

First, it is worth asking: who needs protection? The right to protection for people at risk was regulated on the global scenario in 1998 with Resolution 53/144 from the General Assembly of the United Nations, better known as the Declaration of Human Rights Defenders. This dispositive highlighted a long-known and globally disseminated problem: the persecution, violence and murder of people who raise their voices and exercise leadership in the defense of human rights causes. As such, therefore, several fields of struggle are included: territorial, ethnic-racial, labor, housing, feminist, LGBTQI+, environmental, freedom of expression and religious rights, anti-globalization, among many other.

Reinforcing international instruments, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and resolutions of the Inter-American System of Human Rights, this UN resolution determines that the protection and risk prevention are each State responsibility, establishing a positive proposition on the right to demand rights.

In Brazil, the National Program for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders was created in a pioneering way in Lula's first presidency, in 2004, and implemented in the so-called Special Department for Human Rights (SEDH), together with the Brazilian Committee of Human Right Defenders (CBDDH). The institution of a state policy came a little later, in 2007 with the enactment of Decree n. 6.044, which establishes the National Policy for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (PNPDDH).

Among many other factors, the elaboration of the Protection Policy was marked by two almost simultaneous facts. The first was the murder of the missionary Dorothy Stang committed in 2005. A strong activist for the rights of settlers, squatters and communities in the west region of the Amazonian state of Pará, one of the zones with the highest density of acts of violence related to territorial conflicts, the commotion over the death of sister Dorothy reverberated towards the urgent need for institutionalized politics.

The second milestone was the Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in the Americas, produced by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which exposed the seriousness of this situation throughout Latin America and the pressing need for public protection policies. The recommendations and political advocacy of the IACHR echoed not only in Brazil. Although the response was slower, other countries enacted laws and established mechanisms: Colombia in 2011,[I] Mexico in 2012, Honduras in 2015, Ecuador and Peru in 2019. There are currently ongoing debates in Chile and Paraguay, while projects or policies are staunched in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Uruguay. That said, if we consider only from the Rio Bravo down, as similar policies extend to many other countries in the Global South.[ii].

Far from being a consolidated topic, in each of these countries the legal and institutional provisions have been discussed by civil society for alterations and additions on nuances and edges that had not been integrated in the initial projects. The case of Brazil has a particularity. In the six years between the parliamentary coup suffered by former president Dilma Rousseff and the recent election of president Lula, we have a reversal gap that we need to recover. The need is clear: data from the United Nations report that between 2015 and 2019 we had 1,323 women human defenders murdered, with 174 of them located in rural areas.[iii] This places Brazil in the fourth position in the global ranking of murders of defenders, men and women.

If we use numbers as an index of social suffering and injustice, in addition to murders, we must also consider statistics that account for direct death threats, assaults, arbitrary arrests, rapes and attempted murders. Going beyond the numbers and expanding to a holistic view and thinking about the set of acts of violence practiced by the private and public sectors, inflicted in a physical, psychological and moral way, not only on the people most visible for their leadership role and public representation, but for all the communities impacted by the conflict, we have an even denser panorama and, therefore, more demanded for justice.

Nowadays, apart from the national Program, only nine states have state programs that can endorse a more individualized action, focused on local needs. It is worth noting that the largest number of cases attended in all these programs refers to people who are victims of violence due to the exercise of their right to political participation in indigenous, environmental and territorial struggles, such as quilombolas and other traditional communities, settlers and land occupants. The Amazon region, where the largest number of occurrences in this context is concentrated,[iv] has only two consolidated state programs: in Pará and Maranhão.

In 2019 and 2021, two decrees on the subject were approved, which may even give the appearance of progress, when in fact it constituted a dismantling. The first decree, nº 9.937, was enacted during the Temer government. At that time, there were drastic budget cuts and withdraws of the benefiting people. The second decree, nº 10.815, changes the name of the Program to include communicators and environmentalists, which was not, however, accompanied by effective measures for its retrieval. On the contrary, several articles and paragraphs were excluded from the previous law, reducing rights and making people at risk more vulnerable.

In these years, the abysmal budget cuts continued to the point of making it inoperable. The commissioned positions were occupied by professionals without training and professional experience in the field of human rights or related areas. The coordination and specialized technical staff were composed of people from the areas of agribusiness and administration. If the president at the time, Bolsonaro, was one of the main persecutors of journalists and environmentalists, how can one expect effectiveness in the action of an institution of the executive branch, directly linked to his public authority?

And now, in 2023, what are the main approaches for rebuilding the Program? I think that first it is necessary to consider that in addition to strengthening the protective measures focused on individuals who are under higher risks, it is necessary that these are extended according to the needs of collective subjects as well. Despite the definition of a human rights defender as “a natural or legal person, group, institution, organization or social movement”, the dispositives are focused on protective measures for the individual without considering social groups in a situation of threat.

Every human rights defender is incited and acts together within a collective subject. Equally, even in urban contexts or in struggles where there seems to be a greater dissolution on the formation of political communities, the defender will most likely have direct family members who will also be affected. This approach must be a priority when dealing with indigenous peoples, traditional communities or environmentalists in territorial conflicts.

Acts of violence and damage perpetrated against the entire community constitute threat situations whose impacts on psychosocial, health, labor and reproduction of life can no longer be made invisible or even naturalized. This ordinary and everyday violence, structural and pillar of our historical formation, needs once and for all to be brought to light and questioned as intolerable.

This approach is not new. In Colombia, for example, the mechanism managed by the National Protection Unit (UDN) recognizes the existence of three types of risk: ordinary, extraordinary and extreme. While the last two refer to individualized and specific risks, the extreme being the one inflicted by the imminence of the possibility of death, the ordinary risk is the one that all people suffer for forming part of a community under threat.

Another important reference can be found in the sentence issued in the trial for the murder of Julián Carrillo, leader of the Raramúri people and his son Victor Carrillo, from the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The sentence for the homicides involved not only sentencing the material perpetrators to prison, but also the obligation to repair damages for human rights violations inflicted on their close relatives and on the entire community of Coloradas de la Virgen, in the Sierra de Tarahumara.

In court, in addition to the testimonies of the victims, a technical expert document prepared by researchers linked to one of the advisory organizations was also considered. It was an unprecedented sentence in Mexico because, for the first time, the State's responsibility for the murder of a human and environmental rights defender was recognized; it also recognized the existence of indirect victims, formed by the entire community, and their right to reparation due to the inflicted moral, physical and material damages.

It is noted, therefore, that an openness to more precise approaches regarding the denaturalization of violence is not only necessary, but also possible. The same is true for the inclusion of a gender, ethnicity, race and class approach in an intersectional perspective. Recognition of structural and gender inequality needs to be aligned with the understanding of the most severe aspects of the threat over the more vulnerable people and their repercussions on specificities regarding the acts of violence committed. This perspective should guide risk analyses, prevention and protection plans.

As mentioned before, the importance of empirical knowledge about the reality of human defenders and communities in a situation of threat makes essential the contribution of grassroot organizations or those that monitor and advise on their political struggles. Risk analyzes and the design of protection and prevention plans need to be carried out in dialogue with organizations that already work directly with the defender person and in their geographic region through technical cooperation agreements. It is necessary to recover the sole paragraph of Art. 2 of Decree No. 9.937 of 2019, revoked in 2021, so that the public administration can establish covenants, partnerships and technical cooperation agreements with public and private entities for the purposes of implementing the Program.

Correspondingly, it is necessary to revert the Provisional Measure no. 870/2019, which regulates and controls the action of international organizations and non-governmental organizations, as well as the reestablishment of participatory parity in the Deliberative Council between representatives of the State and civil society and the organic institutionalization of state programs in all 27 states.

A strategic and empirically based action plan can avoid measures, use of technical and safety equipment that are not applicable or that do not have any effect. Also, injustices such as those practiced from 2016 onwards, such as, for example, removing the defender from the Program because she/he no longer resides in the territory in conflict. Forced displacement is one of the possible consequences of situation of threat and it does not mean the end of risk and the need for protection. It is essential to consider the cases in which public security force employees are agents participating in situations of threat, therefore the use of police escort must not be implemented in any way.

While in some situations it is essential to implement digital protection measures, in others access to digital tools for alert communication in urgent situations may be impracticable. Refuge and temporary shelter actions for people who are at extreme risk may be necessary; It may even be considered evaluating the possibilities of temporary allocation in other countries, strengthening networks for denunciations and advocacy. Psychosocial support from a political perspective can be an instrument to mitigate victimization, health affections and the injunction of fear as an instrument for oppression and political immobilization.

The range of actions is wide, but it is tied to some common points, such as the need to understand the context that includes the translation between local meanings and legal categories related to threat, intimidation, aggression, attempted murder, property destruction, among others related to contexts of territorial conflicts. Paying attention to local expressions and categories will probably make it possible to become aware of a wider range of acts of violence than those addressed and formally denounced, revealing what is encrusted and naturalized in the daily lives of those who live in a territory under a situation of threat.

In order to gain knowledge, it is necessary that program technicians are able to frequently visit the defenders' areas for planning, follow-up and monitoring - and that a decent budget be established for hiring personnel and maintaining a level of quality. Embracing this perspective includes the possibility of carrying out technical expertise by competent professionals that can be used in judicial proceedings on conflicts that account for the threat situations and its impacts on the victimized collective in terms of ways of living, occupying, working and the health and psychosocial states, as it was carried out in Mexico, in the sentence for the violations perpetrated against the Coloradas de la Virgen community.

It is necessary to be critical about the abuses of a victims protection centered focus, overlooking the need to act on the structural causes of violence. In the specific case of territorial conflicts, these abuses, after all, can be only hot air, resulting at the end on more land invasion and deforestation. A possible strategy to reverse this is to consider that the decisions of civil litigation processes on land domain, possession and ownership cannot be taken without due diligence regarding physical, moral, psychological and symbolic violence.

In other words, it is imperative that it be possible to monitor inquiries, complaints, judicial and administrative processes in order to be able to face and dialogue with the legal bodies related to the resolution of conflicts. Courts, forums and public administration agencies may in no way apply judicial, mediation or negotiation actions of a coercive nature that ignore the existing threat situation or refer it to criminal proceedings that will be taken separately from the civil ones. In a truly fair system, the exercise of force should be an irrevocable impediment to the achievement of any claim for property.

Utopian ideas aside and thinking with pragmatism, a true human rights approach must consider measures to protect, prevent and mitigate violations, assuming proper procedures for collecting evidence, verifying and analyzing them, which should not be implemented only a posteriori of the investigations of the crimes through the usual criminal channels of the public security forces.

In other words, it should not be necessary to wait for the conclusions of criminal proceedings to establish protective measures for victimized groups. On the other hand, the possibility of an incisive and integrated agency of the Protection Program in monitoring these processes within a criminalistic approach can have the essential weight of strengthening the inquiries and investigations of the material and intellectual authors of the various crimes, their imputation and judgment. And, as mentioned earlier, reparation measures must also be established for all damage caused.

Over the last 20 years, a moral economy related to the protection of human rights defenders, as well as journalists and communicators, has fortunately emerged on a global level and established itself in the form of various programs, mechanisms and public policies, as well as organizations oriented towards applying protection measures, political advocacy, allocation of funds and financing, and instrumentalizing international and national networks for these purposes.

Let's take advantage of this legacy of good practices to use them as a reference in the slightly better winds of now to restore rights that were withdrawn and expand the range of action for the composition of a state policy for a structural and not just palliative action.

*Rosana Carvalho Paiva is PhD in Anthropology from the Federal University of Amazonas (UFAM). Author, among other books, ofIn the vicinity of death: situation of threat and state terror in territorial conflicts in the Amazon ( EDUA).


[i]In 2011, the National Protection Unit (UNP) was established in Colombia, but the first protection law dates from 1997.

[ii] Source: Protection International. Focus – Observatory on public policies for the protection of human rights defenders. https://www.focus-obs.org/es/

[iii] Source: Terra de Direitos and Justiça Global. Report “Beginning of the End? The worst moment of the Program for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Communicators and Environmentalists”, December 2021.

[iv] Data from the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) released annually in the Conflitos no Campo Brasil notebooks; and in the Mapa dos Conflitos, systematized together with the Agência Pública: https://mapadosconflitos.apublica.org.

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