Gonzalo Cardona Molina was a Colombian conservationist who saved the yellow-eared parrot from extinction. Frozan Safi was a young feminist activist in Afghanistan who used her voice to advocate for women’s rights. K Za Win and Myint Myint Zin were two poets from Myanmar who used the power of the pen to protest the military coup. 

These are just four of the 358 human rights defenders murdered in 2021. They used their voices to advocate for a better world, and paid the ultimate price. 

That’s because the world is getting more dangerous for activists and freedoms are under attack globally. From Nicaragua to Afghanistan, authoritarian rule is spreading like wildfire all over the world, which is why it’s more important than ever to defend advocacy and protect civil liberties. Read our article about how to help the world’s advocates to find out more about what that means and how we can all get involved in the fight.

Advocacy is at the heart of Global Citizen’s mission, underscoring everything we do, from empowering girls across the world, to fighting climate change, to breaking the systemic barriers that keep people trapped in poverty.

To help demonstrate the urgent need to protect and amplify the voices of the world’s advocates and human rights defenders, here are eight stunning facts about advocacy, the freedoms that protect it, and why taking action cannot wait. Join our campaign to defend and uplift the world’s advocates and activists by taking action.  

1. Just 3.1% of the world’s population lives in ‘Free’ countries.

According to the CIVICUS Monitor — a nifty research tool that gives real-time data on the state of civil society and civic freedoms in 196 countries — just 3.1% of the global population live in a country with the highest level of civic freedom. 

But what does civic freedom mean? It’s when citizens and civil society organizations are able to organize, protest, dissent, and have their voices heard without fear of violence, reprisal, or intimidation. You can find out if civic space is open in your country by taking our quiz.

2. Freedom is declining globally.

A number of governments (including Chile, Ecuador, Iraq, and the US) used the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on rights such as free speech and peaceful protest, beyond science-based and proportionate limitations and without providing other avenues (such as online) for these rights to be exercised.

But the assault on freedom predates COVID-19. The last 16 consecutive years have seen global freedoms squeezed. As of February 2022, around 38% of the world’s population live in “Not Free” countries, the highest proportion since 1997. 

3. The number of protests has tripled in under 15 years. 

If it seems like there are more protests than usual, it’s because there are — three times as many, in fact, according to one study. From Africa to the Americas and from Asia to Europe, people have taken to the streets to demand gender equality, greater democracy, social justice, civil rights, and an end to state violence, among many other things. 

In the last few years alone, we saw farmers come out in their thousands in India in 2020 to protest new laws they feared would undermine their incomes and hollow out the farming sector, facing water cannons and tear gas from police. The same year saw the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd and, in 2021, the upset with Brazil’s President Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic boiled over into the streets.

Of course, protest doesn’t always have to look like a huge march on the streets. Sometimes, it can take just a handful of people to make some real noise.

4. The top violation to civic freedom was detaining protesters.

Other violations to civil liberties among the top 10 in 2022 so far include intimidation, harassment, censorship, excessive force, and restrictive laws. 

But the most common was the detainment of those taking to the streets, a phenomenon seen in Sudan, in Russia which increased after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, in Angola, and in Turkey. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are all countries with autocrats at their head where democracy is either non-existent or a mere pretense.

5. Coups were more common in 2021 than in any of the previous 10 years.

In February 2021, the Myanmar military declared election fraud had made the result invalid, and installed their commander in chief as acting president as a “temporary measure.” That was over a year ago. The country was put into a “state of emergency” and thousands of people have been killed as armed forces cracked down on peaceful protests with thousands more thrown into jail and tortured. 

In Sudan, the military seized power in October 2021 under the pretext that the country was under a “state of emergency”. Although Abdalla Hamdok was later reinstated as the country’s prime minister, the military has kept an iron grip on the government. Huge protests against the coup erupted and the subsequent violent response from security forces has left scores of people dead. 

West Africa suffered a similar fate with Guineans left under the rule of entirely unelected officials, while Mali experienced its second military coup in less than a year. 

6. At least 358 human rights defenders were murdered in 2021.

Across 35 countries, 358 human rights defenders were murdered in 2021. But experts believe the real number is much higher due to the fact that so many deaths go unreported.

7. Land, environment and Indigenous peoples’ rights defense is the most dangerous sector in which to be a human rights defender.

Accounting for 59% of the total figure, 211 of the activists killed in 2021 were land, environment, and Indigenous peoples’ rights defenders, making it the most dangerous type of activism there is.

A deeper dive into the numbers reveals that 93 of those killed (26%) were specifically working on Indigenous peoples‘ rights. This is particularly stark given that Indigenous people make up just 6% of the global population while also making up 19% of those living in extreme poverty. 

8. Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world to be an activist.

Activists are still routinely targeted by the remaining armed groups in Colombia for their work defending human rights and the planet. Of the 358 killings in 2021, 138 of them occurred in Colombia. 

One of those murdered was a 14-year-old Colombian environmental activist called Breiner David Cucuñame, who was shot while on patrol with an unarmed group in January 2022. 

The second deadliest country is Mexico with 42 deaths, where there is increasing cartel violence, followed by Brazil, India, the Philippines, and Afghanistan, where the Taliban wasted no time in stamping out human rights.

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." A threat to freedom anywhere — from Colombia to Sudan — is a threat to freedom everywhere. Join the fight for freedom by heading to our Defend Activists NOW campaign page for more actions you can take to help defend and protect advocates, activists, and civic spaces around the world — and keep checking back in to see the latest actions you can take with us. 

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