Human Rights Defenders at Risk: Twenty Years After

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a landmark resolution that was adopted after years of struggle by civil society actors around the world. The declaration defines a human rights defender as someone who “promote[s] and…strive[s] for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.” It recognizes the work of human rights defenders in the realization of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights and asserts the need to protect these defenders. Although it is not a binding treaty, it is still the first UN instrument to acknowledge the crucial role of human rights defenders in promoting and realizing human rights—those rights inherent to all human beings, that ensure that everyone is free from fear and free from want.

The declaration affirms the right of human rights defenders to hold their governments accountable for violations of human rights, to support efforts to strengthen conflict prevention, and to maintain peace and security. It establishes that states have the primary responsibility to protect defenders against violence, threats, retaliation, discrimination, pressure, or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of the legitimate exercise of their rights. Governments have an obligation to ensure an enabling environment for human rights defenders so they can do their work “without hindrance or undue restriction and free from fear of retribution against them and their families.”

Yet defenders promoting fundamental rights and freedoms, environmental rights, land rights, and refugee rights are increasingly the target of attacks by states and nonstate actors in the form of restrictive laws that undermine freedom of association, expression, and peaceful assembly; prosecution on false charges; smear campaigns; surveillance; abuse; death threats, arbitrary arrests, and detention; forced disappearance, torture, and assassination. Exacerbated by entrenched historical and structural inequalities and discrimination, women human rights defenders and those working on sexual and reproductive rights and on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and intersex people (LGBTI) are more at risk, facing gender-based violence, stigmatization, criminalization, and physical violence.

It is well established that human rights defenders in democratic and nondemocratic countries are subjected to these forms of intimidation simply for being critical of government policies. The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, noted in a statement at the end of his mission to Australia in August 2016 that there is a “frequent public vilification of rights defenders by senior government officials, in a seeming attempt to discredit, intimidate and discourage them from their legitimate work. The media and business actors have contributed to stigmatization. Environmentalists, trade unionists, whistleblowers and individuals like doctors, teachers, and lawyers protecting the rights of refugees have borne the brunt of the verbal attacks.”

The Bahraini government has charged citizens exercising their rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of peaceful assembly with terrorism and subjected them to torture and ill-treatment in the name of combating terrorism and protecting national security. Similarly, a Turkish court indicted 11 human rights organization representatives and workers—one of them is the director of Amnesty International’s Turkey branch—for membership in terrorist groups. Their real crime was demanding social justice. After a failed coup d’état in 2015, the Burundian authorities intensified their crackdown on civil society actors, charging human rights defenders with “attacking the internal security of the state” to silence them.

Journalists who investigate and uncover human rights violations or who otherwise inconvenience powerful interests are especially vulnerable. In India, at least 41 journalists have been assassinated since 1992 for challenging the nationalist narrative. In Malta, journalists have been killed for reporting on serious corruption cases by senior officials. These attacks are spurred on by hate speech by senior officials and politicians. Mexican authorities, also using the justification of “combating crimes and threats against national security,” have used spyware against human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists to monitor their activities in investigating the disappearance of 43 students who were instrumental in drafting the anticorruption law.

Human rights defenders who are calling for the preservation of indigenous peoples’ land in the Philippines have also suffered severe threats, often with the compliance and sometimes with direct support of the security forces. Land and environmental rights defenders in Brazil are similarly subjected to assassination by nonstate actors—an average of about one defender every week. Fifty-one Colombian human rights defenders were killed by paramilitary forces in the aftermath of the peace deal over a period of six months (January–July 2017); the defenders had been engaged in activities such as educating rural communities about their rights and documenting human rights violations.

Conflicts in Syria and Yemen have ravaged both countries, and while noncombatants in both countries are at risk of random violence, there is evidence that human rights defenders are singled out for kidnapping and possible assassination by all warring parties.

The impact of repression and the prevalence of impunity goes well beyond the murdered or imprisoned human rights defenders and their families. These actions have led to the breakdown of connections with local constituencies these defenders represent and decreased cross-sector collaboration. This has also adversely affected the general public’s level of engagement with human rights issues and organizations due to the fear of reprisal.

The Human Rights Council, alarmed by the global attacks on human rights defenders, has adopted numerous resolutions that have urged states to fulfill their obligations to ensure a safe and enabling environment for defenders, by protecting their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association, as well as by strengthening domestic accountability mechanisms. Norway recently advanced a draft resolution, “20th Anniversary Promotion of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,” at the Human Rights Council to renew states’ commitment to strengthen the protection of defenders in law and in practice. Countries including Russia, China, Cuba, Egypt, and Pakistan proposed amendments challenging the recognition, legitimacy, and integrity of the work of defenders. The draft resolution survived these amendments with the support of countries from the five regional groups at the Human Rights Council and is now scheduled for vote in the third committee of the UN General Assembly on November 22, 2017.

Twenty years have passed since the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, and governments and nonstate actors continue to suppress defenders as impediments to their agendas. To protect human rights defenders, we need an approach that recognizes the instrumental role that human rights defenders have in building societies that embrace democratic values and human rights principles and standards. Such an approach requires the acknowledgment of governments that “human rights are not luxuries we enjoy in times of prosperity and abundance, but inalienable entitlements which should be exercised everywhere by all members of the human family.”

Lana Baydas is a senior fellow with the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2017 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.
Lana Baydas
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Human Rights Initiative