A new report by Amnesty International says that health workers, lawyers, journalists and rights activists in several countries including Egypt have failed to get support or funding from British embassies during the coronavirus pandemic.
The report was published amid a surge in attacks on human rights defenders and calls on the UK government to do more to protect them, including developing a strategy to guide its global work on rights advocates.
Interviews with 82 human rights defenders from Egypt, Afghanistan, Libya, Colombia, Russia, Zimbabwe, and the Philippines revealed that they were targeted because of their work protecting and promoting human rights. It found that only six per cent had been offered help in response to threats against them.
Human rights defenders have been charged with anti-terror laws and are detained in endless cycles of pretrial detention, with new charges brought against them just before they are about it be released.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated human rights abuses including the overcrowding of prisons or using COVID-19 as a pretext to prolong pretrial detention without a hearing.
One female human rights defender and journalist from Egypt was quoted in the report saying: “I want to know that other entities, embassies, and organisations at least see that value of what I’m doing – that it’s valued and important and needed. We really need this legitimacy, and we need our government to see us as seen by the outside world – that we do important work.”
The report found that the UK’s support for human rights defenders was variable and inconsistent across both embassies and government departments. Lack of action damages the UK’s credibility when advocating for the rule of law.
An example of good UK practice was in November 2020 when the UK foreign secretary spoke out publicly about the detention of three senior EIPR staff in Egypt and they were released two weeks later.
Outspoken UK government diplomacy can lead to better recognition and protection for rights advocates in general from their governments, explained the report.