"It's like a silent epidemic that is being used as a way to oppress land rights defenders"
By Astrid Zweynert
STOCKHOLM, Oct 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Land rights activists are facing a "silent epidemic" - criminalised and gagged by companies eager to exploit the wealth of natural resources in indigenous territories, a United Nations expert said on Thursday.
Measures include false charges such as trespassing, incitement to commit a crime and illegal assembly; activists also face arbitrary detention, said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
"Many activists who are devoting their lives to defending indigenous and community lands face trumped-up criminal charges which prevent them from pursuing their advocacy," Tauli-Corpuz told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at an international conference on land rights in Stockholm.
Killings of land rights defenders, such as prominent Honduran activist Berta Cáceres who was gunned down last year, have made headlines, as the murder of activists hit a record high in 2016, according to advocacy group Global Witness.
But the criminalisation of land rights activists and a growing number of civil cases by governments and companies seeking to silence them is receiving less international attention, said Tauli-Corpuz.
"It's like a silent epidemic that is being used as a way to oppress land rights defenders," she said.
She said lawyers and judges were often complicit but increasingly lawyers defending land rights activists had also been criminalised.
It is hard to determine how many activists are affected but Tauli-Corpuz said she had received an increasing number of reports and is planning a major report into the issue next year.
Tauli-Corpus said the United Nations had enshrined the right of indigenous people to oppose activities that impact their land and resources, free from reprisals or undue pressures, and urged the international community to speak out against such abuse.
In Latin America, nearly all criminal cases against defenders are initiated by businesses, which request the use of emergency laws such as anti-terrorism legislation, said a 2016 report by the Worldwide Movement For Human Rights.
In Chile, the government has applied anti-terrorism laws to criminalise the Mapuche, the country's largest ethnic group, which is trying to regain land lost during settler's expansion into their territory in the 19th century.
But Tauli-Corpuz said the criminalisation of land rights activists was increasingly becoming a global issue, citing Cambodia and India as countries where activists had been threatened with false charges and arbitrary detention.
(Reporting by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert , Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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