Human rights defenders or human rights activists are people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights. They can be journalists, environmentalists, whistle-blowers, trade unionists, lawyers, teachers, housing campaigners, or just individuals acting alone. They can defend rights as part of their jobs or in a voluntary capacity. As a result of their activities, they can sometimes be the subject of reprisals and attacks of all kinds, including smears, surveillance, harassment, false charges, arbitrary detention, restrictions on the right to freedom of association, and physical attacks.
Declaration on Human Rights Defenders
The United Nations Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (A/RES/53/144) on December 9, 1998, commonly known as the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, marks a historic achievement in the struggle toward better protection of those at risk for carrying out legitimate human rights activities and is the first UN instrument that recognizes the importance and legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders, as well as the right and responsibility of all to protect human rights.
The Declaration codifies the international standards that protect the activity of human rights defenders around the world. It recognises the legitimacy of human rights activity and the need for this activity and those who carry it out to be protected. Under the Declaration, a human rights defender is anyone working alone, as part of group or an institution, working for the promotion and protection of human rights. This broad definition encompasses professional as well as non-professional human rights workers, volunteers, journalists, lawyers and anyone else carrying out, even on an occasional basis, a human rights activity.
The Declaration articulates existing rights in a way that makes it easier to apply them to the situation of human rights defenders. It specifies how the rights contained in the major human rights instruments, including the right of free expression, association and assembly, apply to defenders.
The rights protected under the Declaration include, among others, the right to develop and discuss new human rights ideas and to advocate their acceptance; the right to criticise government bodies and agencies and to make proposals to improve their functioning; the right to provide legal assistance or other advice and assistance in defence of human rights; the right to observe fair trials; the right to unhindered access to and communication with non-governmental and intergovernmental organisations; the right to access resources for the purpose of protecting human rights, including the receipt of funds from abroad.
States have a responsibility to implement and respect all the provisions of the Declaration. In particular, states have the duty to protect human rights defenders against any violence, retaliation and intimidation as a consequence of their human rights work.
Following the adoption of the Declaration on human rights defenders in 1998, a number of initiatives were taken, both at the international and regional level, to increase the protection of defenders and contribute to the implementation of the Declaration. In this context, the following mechanisms and guidelines were established:
- The mandate of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders (2000)
- The mandate of the Special Rapporteur of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights on human rights defenders (2004)
- The Human Rights Defenders Unit of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (2001)
- The European Union Guidelines on human rights defenders (2004)
- The Declaration of the Committee of Ministers on Council of Europe action to improve the protection of human rights defenders and promote their activities  (2008)
- The European Union Human Rights Defenders mechanism, which is implemented by civil society organizations, ProtectDefenders.eu (2015)
In 2008, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), took the initiative to gather all the human rights defenders' institutional mandate-holders (created within the United Nations, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union) to find ways to enhance coordination and complementarities among themselves and with NGOs. In 2010, a single inter-mechanisms website was created, gathering all relevant public information on the activities of the different human rights defenders' protection mandate-holders. It aims to increase the visibility of the documentation produced by the mechanisms (press releases, studies, reports, statements), as well as of their actions (country visits, institutional events, trials observed).
In 2016, the International Service for Human Rights published the 'Model National Law on the Recognition and Protection of Human Rights Defenders'. This document provides authoritative guidance to states on how to implement the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders at the national level. It was developed in collaboration with hundreds of defenders and endorsed by leading human rights experts and jurists.
Several countries have introduced national legislation or policies to protect human rights defenders, such as Colombia Brazil, Mexico, Guatemala, but key challenges in implementation remain.
In 2017, Human rights lawyer Emil Kurbedinov, a Crimean Tartar, won the 2017 Award for Frontline Human Rights Defenders at Risk. Kurbedinov has been an avid defender of civil society militants, mistreated Crimean Tartars, and members of the media. He documents violations of human rights during searches of activists' residences as well as emergency responses. In January 2017, the Crimean Center for Counteracting Extremism arrested and detained the lawyer. He was taken to a local facility of the Russian Federal Security Service for questioning. A district tribunal ruled that Kurbedinov was guilty of doing propaganda work for terrorist groups and organizations. He was sentenced to 10 days of imprisonment.
Also in the same year, female activists who were killed because of their advocacies and activities in defending human rights were honored during the International Women Human Rights Defenders' Day. Those murdered criticized corruption and other forms of injustice, protect their lands from governments and multinational corporations, and upheld the rights of lesbians, gays and transgender individuals.
Research conducted by the Business and Human Rights Resource Center documented a 34 percent increase worldwide in attacks against human rights activists in 2017. The figures included 120 suspected murders and hundreds of incidents that involved assault, bullying, and threats. There were 388 attacks in 2017 compared to only 290 in 2016. The same study identified human rights defenders connected to agribusiness, mining, and renewable energy sectors as those in greatest danger. Lawyers and members of environmental groups were also at risk.
Awards for human rights defenders
- The United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights in 1998.
- The Martin Ennals Award, a collaboration of several human rights NGOs. Martin Ennals was a renowned human rights defender and secretary general of Amnesty International. Its secretariat is located at the OMCT office in Geneva. The award carries a grant of at least 20,000 Swiss Francs (about 20,000 US dollars) to be used for further work in the field of human rights.
- The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, established in 1984.
- The Sakharov Prize, established in 1998 by the European Parliament. Laureates include: Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Raif Badawi.
- The Human Rights Defenders Tulip, established by the Netherlands government in 2008.
- Several human rights defenders have received the Nobel Peace Prize, such as imprisoned Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for his "long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China".
- The Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk, established in 2005 to 'honour the work of a human rights defender who, through non-violent work, is courageously making an outstanding contribution to the promotion and protection of the human rights of others.'
- The Ginetta Sagan award for Women Human Rights Defenders, established in 1997 "to help women throughout the world in their struggle to overcome oppression, to let them know that they are not alone". Awardees include Hina Jilani, Sonia Pierre, Lydia Cacho, Julienne Lusenge.
Transnational advocacy networks
Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, in "Activists Beyond Borders" define transnational advocacy networks as "…networks of activists, distinguishable largely by the centrality of principled ideas or values in motivating their formation." This definition can be seen in many human rights organizations.
Keck and Sikkink write from a context before the universal availability of information technology and at this point the main actors are the States. The boomerang pattern, argued by Keck and Sikkink, is a model of advocacy where a State A causes "blockage" by not protecting or violating rights. Non-state actors provide other non-state actors from a State B with information about the blockage and those non-state actors inform State B. State B places pressure on State A and/or has intergovernmental organizations place pressure on State A to change its policies.
In order to facilitate transnational advocacy networks, the network needs to have common values and principles, access to information and be able to effectively use that information, believe their efforts will cause change and effectively frame their values. Information use is historically very important to human rights organizations. Human rights methodology is considered "promoting change by promoting facts." By using facts, state and non-state actors can use that viable information to pressure human rights violators.
Human rights advocacy networks focus on either countries or issues by targeting particular audiences in order to gain support. To gain audience support human rights organizations need to cultivate relationships through networking, have access to resources and maintain an institutional structure.
Activists commonly use four tactics in their advocacy efforts: 1) Information politics provides comprehensive and useful information on an issue that otherwise might not be heard from sources who otherwise might be overlooked; 2) Symbolic politics uses powerful symbolic events as a way to increase awareness surrounding an issue; 3) Leverage politics utilizes material leverage (examples such as goods, money, or votes), moral leverage (the "mobilization of shame") or both in order to gain influence over more powerful actors; 4) Accountability politics holds those who make commitments to a cause accountable for their actions or lack thereof.
Information technology and networked advocacy
The widespread availability of the internet, mobile telephones, and related communications technologies enabling users to overcome the transaction costs of collective action has begun to change the previous models of advocacy.
Due to information technology and its ability to provide an abundance of information, there are fewer to no costs for group forming. Coordination is now much easier for human rights organizations to track human rights violators and use the information to advocate for those in need.
One effect is that it is harder for governments to block information they do not want their citizens to obtain. The increase in technology makes it nearly impossible for information not to penetrate everyone around the globe making it easier for human rights organizations to monitor and ensure rights are being protected.
In addition, the fact that the Internet provides a platform for easy group forming, the use of an institutional organization is not essential. With social networking sites and blogs, any individual can perpetuate collective action with the right tools and audience. The need for a hierarchy is diminishing with the great abundance of information available.
Electronic mapping is a newly developed tool using electronic networks and satellite imagery and tracking. Examples include tactical mapping, crisis mapping and geo-mapping. Tactical mapping has been primarily used in tracking human rights abuses by providing visualization of the tracking and implementation monitoring.
- List of human rights organisations
- Global Human Rights Defence
- Human Rights Logo
- Human Rights Without Frontiers
- International Federation for Human Rights
- International human rights instruments
- International Service for Human Rights
- Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders
- National human rights institutions
- Networked advocacy
- Protection International
- Youth for Human Rights International
- Amnesty International (2017). Human rights defenders under threat - A shrinking space for civil society.
- "UN Human Rights Defenders". Ishr.ch. 2013-11-20. Retrieved 2014-02-04.
- Amnesty International (2017). Americas: State protection mechanisms for human rights defenders.
- "In Russian-held Crimea, lawyer fights repression against Crimean Tatars - Apr. 03, 2017". KyivPost. 2017-04-03. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
- "Menacing FSB interrogations of Ukrainian Cultural Centre activists in Russian-occupied Crimea - Human Rights in Ukraine". Human Rights in Ukraine. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
- "Federal Security Service - The Russian Government". government.ru. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
- "Person of the Week: Emil Kurbedinov - Rights in Russia". www.rightsinrussia.info. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
- Sekyiamah, Nana Darkoa; Ford, Liz (2017-11-29). "Remembering women killed fighting for human rights in 2017". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-06-26.
- "Business and Human Rights Resource Centre | UN Global Compact". www.unglobalcompact.org. Retrieved 2018-06-26.
- Kelly, Annie (2018-03-09). "'Attacks and killings': human rights activists at growing risk, study claims". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-06-26.
- "Winner of the Martin Ennals Award 1994-2006".
- "The Front Line Defenders Award".
- Keck, Margaret E.; Sikkink, Kathryn (1998). Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Cornell University Press. p. 1. ISBN 9780801434440.
- Keck & Sikkink 1998, p. 12
- Keck & Sikkink 1998, p. 13
- Keck & Sikkink 1998, p. 2
- Keck & Sikkink 1998, p. 45
- Keck & Sikkink 1998, p. 7
- Keck & Sikkink 1998, p. 16
- Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations. New York: Penguin Group, 2008.
- Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations. New York: Penguin Group, 2008.
- Movements.org. “Maptivism: Mapping Information for Advocacy and Activism."
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Human rights activists.|
- United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner
- UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms
- Who is a defender (OHCHR)
- Civil Rights Defenders
- International Service for Human Rights: Working to support Human Rights Defenders
- Amnesty International: Protecting Human Rights Defenders
- Peace Brigades International
- Front Line: The International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders at Risk
- International Federation for Human Rights - Human rights defenders programme of FIDH
- The Human rights defenders programme of the OMCT
- One stop website for the protection of defenders- Protection International
- Martin Ennals Award
- The Carter Center's Human Rights Defenders Forum
- Human Rights Defenders Tulip
- Human Rights House Network: Protect, strengthen and support human rights organisations locally, and unite them in an international network
- The East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project