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MRG statement to mark International Human Rights Day – minority rights defenders need increased international support and protection

10 December 2010

Minority and indigenous human rights activists face exceptional levels of risk because they are targeted for their identity as well as for their work, Minority Rights Group International (MRG) says on International Human Rights Day. These threats range from killings, physical attacks, arrest and detention to everyday harassment and hate campaigns.

The theme of International Human Rights Day 2010 is ‘Human Rights Defenders Acting to End Discrimination’.

MRG says increased and targeted international attention and action is needed to ensure protection of these activists, who work in dangerous situations.

‘Minority and indigenous activists are on the frontline of the fight against discrimination and often face multiple levels of threat.  They are not always recognised as human rights defenders. When they are, the specific threats they face are not necessarily known,’ says Carl Söderbergh, MRG’s Director of Policy and Communications.

MRG’s partner organisations representing ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples, such as, Christians in Iraq, Tamils in Sri Lanka, Maasai in Kenya or Afro-descendants in Colombia, are routinely confronted with security risks. In some countries ethnic and religious groups are not formally recognised by the state, which means working to secure the rights of these communities could lead to prosecution.

‘Fighting discrimination, whether with regard to access to education, gender or religious practice, is an integral part of the work of minority rights defenders. These can be very contentious issues in some countries, increasing risk levels for activists working on them,’ Söderbergh adds.

Some of these minority rights defenders may also be working in situations of conflict, where they not only face armed violence but could also be targeted by state agents or militants because the community they represent or work for is drawn into the conflict.

Women minority and indigenous rights defenders are under added threat. They risk attacks and discrimination from both the majority society as well as from within their community, in addition to gendered cultural practices.

Many of the communities MRG works with across the world are marginalised, excluded and neglected by the state, which not only makes human rights work more dangerous but also leads to less protection for these activists.

While international organisations and governments in some instances are willing to help human rights defenders, the threats faced by minority and indigenous rights defenders are less likely to be known and they are more difficult to reach. They also often face problems of access to justice and have little or no recourse to legal help in their own countries.

‘The UN and other international organisations need to do more to support and help people working in human rights. In some cases, by the time help reaches them it is too late. But these support systems must also specifically consider the way in which minority and indigenous rights activists are affected. They should be supported and protected accordingly,’ Söderbergh says.