#Light4Ramos Lawyer Benjamin Ramos stood up for human rights – it cost him his life

He died too soon. Gunned down by two men on a motorcycle. Benjamin Ramos from the Philippines was a human rights lawyer fighting for causes related to democracy, human rights and the environment.

What happened to him is far from an isolated event – environmental defenders and people standing up for human rights are still threatened, harassed, beaten and murdered all over the world. On December 10, exactly seventy years after the adoption of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, we commemorate all those defending human rights and the environment who were murdered this past year. This is done under the slogan of #Light4Ramos

Benjamin Ramos was working late on November 6 earlier this year. As he left for the day just after 10 p.m., a motorcycle with two masked men drove up beside him. Four rounds were fired and Ramos fell to the ground. Saving his life was not possible. Ramos, a father of three, is mourned by his family, friends and colleagues, who gathered for a funeral ceremony soon after his death. At the ceremony, unknown men on motorcycles once again appeared. They kept themselves at a distance but sent a clear message to Ramos’ loved ones by openly displaying their automatic weapons. The police were called to the scene and the two men, who were later found to belong to the national military, were apprehended. They were released on bail the very next day. Benjamin Ramos lived to be 56 years old.

Stood up for the rights of vulnerable groups

Ramos was engaged in defending the rights of vulnerable groups – farmers and environmental defenders. He was well-known in the Philippines and stood up against corrupt decision-makers and the exploitation of natural resources by large corporations. Ramos was involved in the Philippine farmer association Masipag, which has been a collaboration partner of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation for two decades. The situation in the Philippines is alarming and at least 34 lawyers have been killed in this island nation since Rodrigo Duterte became president two and a half years ago. There is widespread impunity and Duterte has personally singled out “obstructive” lawyers as legitimate targets for the police and the military.

A challenge to democracy

At least 60 human rights defenders were murdered in the Philippines in 2017. Farmers fighting for the right to their own land, indigenous peoples who have tended to forests and land for generations and who have been caught up in conflicts with corporations seeking to exploit their natural wealth. Unfortunately, developments in the Philippines follow a global trend. According to the organization Global Witness, 207 environmental defenders were killed globally last year. Unrecorded incidents mean that the real figure is probably much higher. Violence is increasing each year and there are no indications that this trend will improve. Many are also exposed to threats, extortion and harassment by powerful economic interests and corrupt decision-makers. There is cause for grave concern – democracy is losing ground in many parts of the world and the space for civil society e is shrinking. People working for democracy, human rights and the environment find it increasingly difficult to organize themselves, while those already living under oppression and discrimination are increasingly pushed back.

A few voices on Benjamin Ramos

On December 10, exactly seventy years after the member states of the United Nations adopted the Declaration of Human Rights, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation celebrates the environmental defenders of the world. We light a candle for each individual who, just like Benjamin Ramos, has been murdered for standing up for issues concerning human rights and the environment. This is done under the slogan - #Light4Ramos. “Benjamin Ramos was a true servant of the people. His death is a terrible loss for his family as well as the farmers and organizations he was working for. We will do everything in our power to honor his legacy and convey his message,” says Dr. Chito Medina, friend and former colleague. “The assassination of Benjamin Ramos is an attack on people’s right to development. Killing a development worker and human rights defender further weakens the nation’s work toward real development, especially in rural areas where these types of development efforts are needed the most,” says Cris Panerio, country coordinator at Masipag, a collaboration partner of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation.

Demands by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation

  • Stand up for democracy. Sweden has good relations with several of the states where environmental defenders find themselves in a very vulnerable position. Fifty-seven environmental defenders were killed last year in Brazil alone, a country with whom Sweden has extensive trade relations. In multilateral as well as bilateral contexts, the government needs to highlight the negative trend we are witnessing globally, while at the same time putting pressure on countries moving in the wrong direction. 
  • Only sustainable investments. The Swedish publicly owned pension funds, the so-called AP Funds, currently invest in activities exceedingly harmful to both humans and the environment. Recently, parliament adopted a new regulatory framework for the AP Funds. The government now has to closely monitor compliance with the new legislation, with a particular focus on human rights and the environment. 
  • Tougher requirements for corporations. Swedish corporations operating overseas must be very careful when entering hazardous environments. A recent review by the Swedish Agency for Public Management showed that the guidelines used by Sweden in relation to corporations operating overseas contain more limited requirements regarding impact analyses compared to the rules developed by the UN. We are calling for legislation on compulsory risk analyses and dialogs with local communities so that they can decide how their land and resources are to be used. 
  • Increased support for environmental defenders. Swedish development cooperation needs to adopt a holistic approach in order to address the particularly vulnerable position of environmental defenders. For example, there is a need for instructions on how Swedish embassies and Sida offices should act. This issue also needs to be a key aspect in terms of how the governmental agency Sida collaborates with corporations.