In recent years, there has been increased recognition of threats and intimidation of human rights defenders worldwide, from increased criminalization to violence and online smear campaigns aimed at undermining the legitimacy of their work and isolating them from their communities. At the same time, there has been a global movement to support the rights of human rights defenders and to mobilize resources for their protection. The Justice Defenders Program, at the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Center for Human Rights coordinates pro bono legal support, monitors trials, and engages in advocacy on behalf of at-risk human rights defenders around the world.
As a general matter, global attention on the rights of human rights defenders has been focused on countries such as Colombia, Brazil, and the Philippines, which were among those countries where the highest number of defenders were killed in 2018. It is important to also be vigilant about more subtle forms of intimidation. They are similarly aimed at silencing those who speak out against human rights abuses and often precede an escalation of threats and violence. For example, Frontline Defenders reports that at least 49% of those who were killed were subject to other types of threats prior to the killing.
In January 2019, the Center for Human Rights investigated reports that activists and community members who objected to the proliferation of hydropower plants (HPPs) in Valbona, Albania were facing consistent harassment from local state and company actors. Its report, “Communities under Pressure – Findings from Valbona, Albania,” describes instances of alleged harassment as reported by those who were interviewed by its investigator. As in the rest of the world, the forms of harassment reported included arrests or threats of arrests, apparently selective prosecutions of activists, threats to job security for activists or their family members, judicial harassment, anonymous threats, and smear campaigns that undermined familial and communal relationships.
Each of the reported incidents of harassment would be serious on its own, but cumulatively they represent a situation where individuals feel constant pressure for wanting to be informed about their environment, a right guaranteed by the Albanian Constitution. As described in the report, the construction process of HPPs have impacted people’s livelihoods, their safety and security. As more HPP are scheduled to be constructed this impact will only increase. And yet, none of the community members who were interviewed were a part of the consultation process or were even informed prior to issuance of permits and concessions.
As signatory to the Aarhus Convention, and under its own domestic laws, the Albanian government is obligated to provide access to information and engage the impacted communities in the decision making of environmental projects. The government also has an obligation to protect the human rights defenders and community members who are threatened and attacked as a result of their activism.
The Center for Human Rights calls on the Albanian Government to investigate the reported incidents against activists and community members in Valbona and to hold accountable those responsible. The Center also calls on Gener 2 and other companies to comply with all the applicable laws and respect the human rights of those impacted, to institute due diligence mechanism to avoid further violations and put in place grievance mechanisms to compensate those who have already been affected.