Human rights defenders need stronger international support and protection

The deteriorating security and working conditions of human rights defenders are a threat to democracy. The Human Rights House Network and the conference participants urge governments worldwide to develop and follow comprehensive policies to enhance their support to and protection of human rights defenders, nationally and internationally.

Respect for universal human rights depends on a vibrant civil society. Worldwide, human rights defenders protect individuals from human rights violations and thus promote democracy and the rule of law. Through peaceful means, such as education, advocacy, free legal aid, dialogue, and monitoring, they strive to ensure that human rights are known, implemented and respected. In doing so, many human rights defenders face a number of obstacles and acute personal risks.

In 1998, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the “Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”. It emphasizes the duty of states to protect human rights defenders. The appointment of the UN Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders, Ms Hina Jilani, in August 2000, and the extension of her mandate until 2006, enhance the declaration’s implementation.

According to the Special Representative, many human rights defenders, in every region of the world, have been subject to violations of their human rights . They have been the target of executions, torture, beatings, arbitrary arrest and detention, death threats, harassment and defamation, and have suffered restrictions on their freedoms of movement, expression, association and assembly. Defenders have been the victims of false accusations and unfair trial and conviction.

The Special Representative observes that violations most commonly target either human rights defenders themselves or the organizations and mechanisms through which they work. As a means of applying pressure to the defender, perpetrators occasionally target members of defenders’ families. 

In most cases, acts committed against human rights defenders are in violation of both international and national law. In some countries, however, domestic legislation which itself contravenes international human rights law is used against defenders.

The enforcement of security legislation and special measures for countering terrorism have in many places served to deteriorate the security and working conditions of human rights defenders. Playing an important role in monitoring the use of such legislation, human rights defenders have been targeted as a result. Under the pretext of national security, activities protected by the Declaration have been criminalized.

In short, those who defend the rights of others frequently become victims of human rights violations themselves. Defending them is defending human rights. Further, when defenders are silenced, there is a risk that human rights violations will be left unexposed and unopposed.

To prevent the perpetration of violations against defenders and the consequent worsening of human rights situations, the Human Rights House Network and the participants at the conference address national governments, regional bodies (such as the European Union (EU), the Council of Europe, the Organisation of American States (OAS), the African Union (AU), etc.), and international organisations including the United Nations, with a number of urgent recommendations.

The recommendations are:

1. Ensure that the UN Declaration on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (1998) is known and implemented by governments at all levels, including the local, across the world; 

2. Support the Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders and other Special Procedures of the UN Commission on Human Rights, through:

  • allocation of adequate resources
  • ensuring that standing invitations are issued to the Special Representative and the Special Procedures

3. Develop clear guidelines and reporting procedures, at home and abroad through Embassies and Delegations, on how to support human rights defenders, including both proactive and reactive measures. For example: 

  • during state visits and in the context of bilateral relations, establish and maintain suitable contacts with human rights defenders (receiving them, visiting them, etc.)
  • appoint permanent contact persons to support human rights defenders
  • share information and provide recognition 
  • attend and observe trials of human rights defenders
  • promote the development and strengthening of mechanisms for the protection of human rights defenders
  • issue statements and demarches and ask relevant questions to the apporpriate authorities regarding the safety of the human rights defenders concerned, and
  • in the context of development activities, include practical support and an appreciation of the role and situation for human rights defenders

4. In urgent situations, offer immediate protection to human rights defenders, such as: 

  • granting of temporary (emergency) visas to human rights defenders at grave risk or facilitation of asylum procedures and temporary admission programmes 
  • provide sanctuaries, for example within Embassies

5. Ensure that national, regional and international programmes to combat terrorism do not impinge on or threaten the security or working conditions of human rights defenders

6. Ensure a clear distinction between military and humanitarian personnel in areas of war and conflict, in order to avoid putting humanitarian workers and human rights defenders at risk

7. Support, in the fight against impunity, the establishment of independent judicial systems and call for, and actively support, independent investigations of human rights violations

8. Facilitate the strengthening of human rights defenders’ working conditions, safety, cooperation, networking, and capacity building through policy measures and funding, including of infrastructure, and ensure the contextual space in which defenders operate

9. Support human rights education to stimulate a culture of human rights and strengthen public awareness

In accordance with the “Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”, we pledge to follow up the statement of this conference, including through monitoring and reporting on governments and regional and international organisations.

Further, we urge human rights defenders and relevant NGOs to strengthen their networking on all levels, to improve the coordination of human rights activities including the active support to human rights defenders in danger, to provide reliable documentation, and to nurture credibility, accuracy, transparency, and accountability.