Sur 30 – Letter to the readers

Maryuri Mora Grisales

Executive editor of Sur | International Journal on Human Rights

Denise Dora

Guest editor

Human rights defenders:
their roots, faces and stories

Producing an edition of Sur on human rights defenders in the midst of the global public health crisis caused by the new coronavirus was a challenge for Conectas. The effects of the pandemic in terms of violations of rights and freedoms and the mismanagement of the crisis by several states have made the work of people who defend rights around the world even more difficult and as a result, the task of addressing this issue all the more challenging.

In his most recent report, former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, expressed a constant concern during his mandate: the gap between the fundamental role of rights defenders in the advancement of civil, economic, social and political rights and the way they are treated, attacked and persecuted.11. Michel Forst, “Defending and Protecting The Defenders: Achievements, lessons learned and future perspectives.” Protecting Defenders, May 2020, accessed August 12, 2020, International human rights organisations focus all their expertise on the goal of bringing the importance and the urgency of this work to the forefront. Despite this, the number of violations is alarming and the situations, extremely precarious,22. See: “Enemies of the State? How governments and businesses silence land and environmental defenders”, Global Witness, July 30, 2019, accessed July 24, 2020,; FLD: “Dispatches: Informes Desde La Línea Del Frente,” Front Line Defenders, 2019, accessed August 14, 2020, which justifies the need to encourage the human rights movement and the multiplicity of its expressions and forms of action to continue.

Since the start, the objective of Sur 30 has been to present rights defenders from a different perspective – not the one focused on the number of deaths, risks and threats or the shrinking of democratic spaces that affects the daily lives of rights defenders everywhere. Being careful to avoid minimising realities of extreme inequality and violence and romanticising work generally carried out in situations where the lives of rights defenders are in danger, we sought to focus on their lives and the paths they have taken to celebrate their victories. We did so while also reflecting on an agenda that must urgently be pursued to ensure their well-being and protection.

The term “defender” was brought into question and often redefined in the different articles in this edition. Not everyone who defends life, seeks justice or denounces rights violations recognise themselves as defenders and/or enjoy the rights that they are entitled to. There is a certain institutional formality in the nomenclature – and the language – that seeks to characterise an activity that is much older and more diverse than what the UN Declaration on human rights defenders (1998) is able to cover.

In this edition, our readers will find the powerful stories of individuals, groups, organisations and movements that are part of the broad spectrum of actors engaged in the fight for human rights. The amount of people and situations and the wide geographical range of the contributions (15 countries) we managed to bring together here are the fruit of our efforts to be a space of convergence of voices from the Global South and our constant quest to amplify them through the use of various accessible languages and formats. As shown by the infographics to this edition. Furthermore, the editorial process of a journal that strives to be plural and diversified was even more challenging this time due to the numerous restrictions imposed on our team by the social isolation measures adopted in response to the current pandemic. It is worth noting that instant messaging tools were important allies in the 100% remote dialogue and exchanges we had with the protagonists of this edition of Sur.

It is also important to note that using more inclusive language in the Portuguese and Spanish versions to refer to all people who defend human rights was a challenge throughout the entire process of producing Sur 30, but also a commitment that the editorial team needed to make. We hope that everyone feel included in the articles published here and in future editions of the journal.

In this direct dialogue with our readers, we also reaffirm the Sur Journal’s commitment to fight racism and to the affirmative action policies adopted from this edition on. This includes, for example, the participation of more black professionals in our team of external collaborators.

1. The Historical struggles…

People have been defending human rights long before they existed on paper or anyone called or recognised them as such. Ancestral struggles in defence of the Earth and for the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights, the historical struggle against racism and the indomitable efforts of women, in all their diversity, to defend their freedom are all present in the testimonies in this first section. In a powerful interview, Angela Amanakwa Kaxuyana (Brazil), indigenous leader from the state of Pará, links her activism to a long history of struggle in defence of the territories of indigenous people in Brazil. She strongly denounces the impacts of colonisation and the extremely negative role of the state, particularly the Bolsonaro government, in the escalation of attacks on these peoples. Juan Carlos Chindicué (Colombia), a member of the national indigenous guard, tells his story, from the time he recognised his own ancestral roots to his actions to defend life and the territory in an urban context. Both texts bring to light not only a tradition of resistance, but also the important differences between the indigenous cosmovision, which is systematically rejected or ignored, and a Western concept of law and justice. Through the documentary film project that she is currently working on, Erika González (Colombia) seeks to raise the awareness of a broad audience on the struggle of women environmental defenders in Latin America.

In a conversation between Luiz Franco and Iêda Leal (Brazil), structural racism – the legacy of the slavery period – is listed as the main barrier that black activists still face today. For Iêda, defending rights is a matter of survival in a country with an absurd amount of deaths and where the main target of this violence is young, black people living in the periphery.

Lesbian activist Indyra Mendoza (Honduras) tells us about her participation in the struggle for LGBTQI+ rights in one of the most dangerous countries in the world for this population. This interview confirms the idea, under debate in this edition of Sur, that activism is not the one and only thing in the lives of these people: in the case of Indyra, she is also a coin collector and a writer of children’s stories.

In general, women are one of the main at-risk groups all over the world. Women who fight for their rights are the target of violence and persecution, whether as a result of high migration flows, conflict and post-conflict situations or restrictions on civic spaces in the places where they live. Despite this, they are also important agents of change who are tireless in their search for new ways to rise above the multiple forms of patriarchy in their lives.

Women’s leadership in the struggle for rights is portrayed in the article by young activist Ashvini Rae (India/England) and the interview with Ilham Omer and Bahiya Murad (Syria), the founders of Mala Jin (the Women’s House) in the Jazira region in northern and western Syria, conducted by the Rojava Information Centre (RIC). Ashvini shares Indian women human rights defenders’ experience with social media and discusses the media’s ambiguous role, as it both facilitates coordinating and mobilising processes and creates opportunities for new on-line forms of violence and harassment at the same time. The Women’s House in Syria, for its part, is a clear example of women’s community organising and activism in a context of extreme violence and repression against women. Prioritising dialogue and reconciliation as their method, these women courageously face adverse situations arising from the political and religious traditions of their country.

2. Institutional perspectives and the work of activists

Twenty years after the adoption of the Declaration on human rights defenders, the United Nations (UN) still faces enormous challenges in promoting and guaranteeing the rights of defenders around the world. This is what Michel Forst shows in his last report. These challenges can also be seen in the journal’s interview with Mary Lawlor (Irland), the recently elected UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. In her responses, Mary affirms that there is a continuing need to recognise and legitimise the work of rights defenders and expresses concern with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on these people’s daily lives, the transition to online work and new risks related to digital security.

Also on this issue, Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky (Argentina) contributes with a text that, although not a part of this edition’s dossier, offers an important analysis of the impact of the coronavirus and Covid-19 on the global economy and human rights. He criticises the “economy first” approach that many governments have been promoting during the pandemic.

In addition to individual rights defenders and their struggles, there are many organisations that dedicate their work to conducting research, producing data, reporting and creating tools and strategies to give visibility and protect the lives of those who take action to defend human rights. The following section contains institutional contributions on the overall situation of defenders, the contexts of their work and the monitoring of the parties involved – state, business and civil society. They present valuable results and highlight the challenges that human rights still face.

Ali Hines (United Kingdom) describes the dire situation of human rights defenders who focus on the defence of land and the environment based on alarming data from Global Witness’s annual report. The data shows that clashes with private sector interests are one of the main reasons for the deaths of activists in various parts of the world. In light of this situation, Hines highlights the importance of holding companies accountable for their impacts on the economic, social and health rights and interests of the local communities where they operate.

Marianna Belalba Barreto (Venezuela) and Debora Leão (Brazil) draw our attention to the fact that 2019 was a year of intense repression, but also intense collective action by rights defenders. Using data from the CIVICUS Monitor33. CIVICUS Monitor, Homepage, 2020, accessed on August 14, 2020,, they identify global trends in the actions that state and non-state actors take to restrict the work of defenders all over the world. The article also seeks to recognise, celebrate and learn from the experiences of people involved in the defence of human rights by citing concrete cases and names from the victories won in several countries.

The article by Madeleine Sinclair (United States) discusses the International Service for Human Rights’ (ISHR) study on intimidation and its impact on engagement with the UN. This study is an important tool to help rights defenders make decisions about the risks they take and how to hold states accountable for all forms of intimidation.

Next, Todd Howland, Shelby Ankrom, Gonxhe Kandri, Paul Olubayo, Hannah Shireman, Allison Strong-Martin and Amelia Shindelar (United States) from the University of Minnesota present the “Minnesota Method for Human Rights Change”. Based on academic and practical knowledge, the method’s goal is to help human rights defenders develop strategies for change that have a good chance of success.

The thought-provoking article by Julia Neiva (Brasil) and Amanda Romero (Colombia) offers a different institutional perspective. Based on their experience as women with ties to organisations that address the impacts of business on human rights, the authors discuss the difficulties and ethical dilemma they face in their work. Although they are aware of the ambiguities and the contractions in the business-human rights relation and are the target of criticisms from both the victims’ organisations and the companies themselves, it does not stop them from believing in the potential of their work.

3. Care and self-care

Staying alive and safe is the main goal of human rights defenders today. This task is becoming increasingly complex and depends on elements such as geographical context, skin colour, nationality, religion, gender and sexual orientation, among other multipliers of oppression. It is by no means an easy task for people committed to the defence of rights, since they usually put the causes they defend first. In response to the tendency to do so and its negative effects for activists, efforts have been made in recent years to defend care and self-care as a right and essential practices within the movement. Here, we present two proposals inspired by the moving article published in Sur 26 entitled “Self-care as a political strategy”.44. Ana María Hernández Cárdenas and Nallely Guadalupe Tello Méndez, “Self-care as a political strategy,” Sur Journal 14, no. 26 (2017): 174.

Based on the concrete experiences of non-white feminists in Brazil, Simone Cruz (Brazil) and Jelena Dordevic (Serbia) emphasise the importance of thinking about sustainability and the protection of women rights defenders in the long term, while taking into account the ways racial and gender inequalities work and how they stop women from living a life free of violence. For Lisa Chamberlain (South Africa), there is a need to move beyond self-care to collective care. She affirms that the latter, when institutionalised, is more effective. For this change to happen, an institutional approach committed to a comprehensive concept of care is required.

4. New kinds of activism and unconventional experiences in the defence of rights

One interesting story in this section is that of Oren Yakobovich (Israel): this social entrepreneur and former army officer has years of experience in implementing strategies of resistance, documenting human rights violations and managing security protocols for rights defenders in places such as the West Bank and Cambodia. For Oren, the ongoing challenge of providing protection is knowing how to use ancestral knowledge (even on warfare) to implement new, comprehensive strategies that empower civil society and make it more efficient.

The remarkable text by Íbis Silva Pereira (Brazil), known as Coronel Íbis, who has a critical view of his own experience in Rio de Janeiro’s military police, reminds us that unlikely allies do exist in the fight for human rights. In a narrative that combines poetry, critical political thought and hope, Colonel Íbis shares his dream of a more humane police force committed to the defence of human rights, which is quite different from the daily experience of and with public security forces in Brazil.

And while we are on the topic of going against expectations, at first glance, the words “funny” and “amusing” do not appear to be part of human rights defenders’ regular vocabulary. It is not that they are absent from the daily lives of defenders who manage to smile, relax and have fun despite the difficulties, even in the midst of the worst situations. But these adjectives are clearly not part of the language traditionally used by the movement or in documents and official reports. Defending rights is not easy, safe nor is it restful. So, how do we use humour in the struggle for rights? In her captivating contribution to Sur, Ishtar Lakhani (South Africa) advocates for creative activism in the fight for the rights of sex workers in her country. She shares her story and the motives that led her to join the fight for social justice at an early age. Through a process of self-discovery and with a passion for politics, she discovered that the miraculous power of wit and humour is an ideal means for conveying messages on human rights.

PerifaConnection (Brazil) is an activist group made up of five young black people from the periphery of Rio de Janeiro (Raull Santiago, Nina da Hora, Salvino Oliveira, Wesley Teixeira and Jefferson Barbosa) who have come together from different backgrounds, struggles and even religious affiliations to converge as defenders from and for the peripheries. Black power and leadership are key words in the stories of these youth, who have become references in media activism in Brazil and continue strengthening a growing national network for action.

5. Art: Weaving together narratives, struggles and memories

For the artwork section of Sur 30, the inspiration for our decision to include works of art and projects that have a common narrative came from the first submission that we received in response to our call for papers. With this as our starting point, the team found an element at the intersection between dialogues that symbolically connects the themes of this edition to one another: the art of sewing together and arranging different narratives, perspectives and subjectivities to celebrate and protect human rights and those who defend them. Based on this, we identified three projects/artists/cultural expressions that, each in their own way, represent sensitive and collaborative artistic forms of the defence of human rights that involve sewing and embroidering by hand and are led specifically by women.

A photograph of a colourful patchwork quilt from the collection of the “Navigating Risk, Managing Security and Receiving Support” project at the University of York caught our attention and appears on the cover of Sur 30. Described in the article by Alice Nah and Juliana Mensah (United Kingdom), the project focuses on the experiences of human rights defenders from Colombia, Mexico, Egypt, Kenya and Indonesia and features stories on security and protection told through poetry, films, drawings, music and other art forms. Rosa Borrás (Mexico), one of the artists who participated in the project, contributed to the journal’s visual identity and art gallery by providing photographs of the quilt she made using pieces of clothing donated by rights defenders and poems written by Juliana to tell the stories of defenders.

The Chilean arpilleras technique has been used in several countries, primarily in South America, as a way of denouncing human rights abuses, violence and trauma and expressing resistance by speaking out and representing these stories visually through embroidery. Two groups of Chilean embroiderers – Bordadoras em Resistência (Embroiders in Resistance) and the embroiderers from Coyhaique (Chile) – share the stories of their personal lives and their collective struggles (which we have turned into a profile), as well as photos of their main works and the process used to engage in this beautiful and powerful form of textile activism.

Finally, we present visual artist Mônica Nador (Brazil), founder of Jardim Miriam Art Club (JAMAC), a cultural centre located in the periphery of São Paulo. She moved to the area to be able to work directly with the local community. In her work, Mônica uses individual stories in workshops and collective projects to demystify the idea that “art” is not for everyone. In an interview with Sur, the artist talks about the right to culture and describes old and new projects developed throughout her career.


Conectas would like to highlight that this edition of the Sur Journal was made possible with the support of the Mott Foundation. We would also like to thank the Open Society Foundation, the Oak Foundation, the Sigrid Rausing Trust and individual donors who institutionally support our organisation’s work.

We extend our thanks to the people who helped us with this edition: Adriana Guimarães, Arianne van Andel, Barney Whiteoak, Bruno Gomes de Oliveira, Carlos José Beltrán Acero, Celina Lagrutta, Claudia Sander, Fernando Campos Leza, Fernando Sciré, Humberto Ramos de Oliveira Junior, Jane do Carmo, Jeff Nascimento, Júlia Neiva, Karen Lang, Letícia Coelho, Lucas Gomes, Luis Misiara, Luiz Henrique Cavalcante, Maria Bitarello, Mariana Giorgetti Valente, Morgan Faske, Naiade Rufino Silva, Pâmela Almeida, Pedro Maia Soares, Raquel Lima Catalani, Saulo Padilha and Sebastián Porrua Schiess. We also thank the Rojava Information Centre (RIC) and Daniel Stefani for putting us in contact with this organisation.

Furthermore, we express our deepest gratitude to all members of Conectas’ team, especially Arquias Sófocles Guimarães Soares, from the journal’s editorial team, and the communications team for their contributions and constant collaboration in the production of this edition of the Sur Journal.

Finally, Renato Barreto, our dear editorial consultant, deserves a special mention, not only for his excellent and impeccable work, but this time as an expression of our affection, as he suffered the loss of his mother towards the end of the editing process… Mrs. Célia is also part of this edition of Sur.