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Human rights defender

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A human rights defender or human rights activist is a person who, individually or with others, acts to promote or protect human rights. They can be journalists, environmentalists, whistleblowers, trade unionists, lawyers, teachers, housing campaigners, participants in direct action, 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, human rights defenders (HRDs) are often subjected to reprisals including smears, surveillance, harassment, false charges, arbitrary detention, restrictions on the right to freedom of association, physical attack, and even murder.[1] In 2020, at least 331 HRDs were murdered in 25 countries. The international community and some national governments have attempted to respond to this violence through various protections, but violence against HRDs continues to rise. Women human rights defenders and environmental human rights defenders (who are very often indigenous) face greater repression and risks than human rights defenders working on other issues.

In 1998, the United Nations issued their Declaration on Human Rights Defenders to legitimise the work of human rights defenders and extend protection for human rights activity. Following this Declaration, increasing numbers of activists have adopted the HRD label; this is especially true for professional human rights workers.



The term human rights defender (HRD) became commonly used within the international human rights community after the UN General Assembly issued 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 (A/RES/53/144, 1998), commonly known as the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Prior to this Declaration, activist, worker, or monitor were more common terms for people working to defend human rights.[2] The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders created a very broad definition of human rights defenders to include anyone who promotes or defends human rights.[3][4] This broad definition presents both challenges and benefits to stakeholders and donors seeking to support HRD protection programs, as more precise definitions exclude some categories of HRDs, but such broad definition also leaves much room for interpretation and can make it difficult to establish HRD status for some at-risk individuals.[3]

In 2004, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued Fact Sheet 29 to further define and support human rights defenders. This document states that, "no 'qualification' is required to be a human rights defender," but that the minimum standards for HRDs are acceptance of the universality of human rights and non-violent action.[5]

Some researchers have attempted to demarcate categories of human rights defenders for the purpose of better understanding patterns of HRD risks. Such categorisation may discern professional vs. non-professional activity,[3] or differentiate based on the specific rights that are being defended such as the rights of women,[6] or indigenous land rights.[7]

Self identification


Self-identification as a human rights defender is more common among professional human rights advocates who work within established institutions, governments, or NGOs. Individuals who work outside of these systems commonly self-identify as 'activists', 'leaders', or by a broad range of other terms instead of human rights defenders, even when their activity falls clearly within the scope outlined by the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Use of the HRD identity could benefit human rights activists by legitimising their work and facilitating access to protective measures.[3] Use of the HRD identity can also be counterproductive by directing attention to particular individuals rather than focusing on the collective nature of their work, which may also have the effect of further endangering these individuals.[8]

Threats to human rights defenders


Human rights defenders (HRDs) face severe repression and retaliation from government and private actors including the police, military, local elites, private security forces, right-wing groups, and multi-national corporations. Abuses include threats, arbitrary arrest and detainment, harassment, defamation, dismissal from jobs, eviction, disappearance, and murder.[9] HRDs who work on women's rights (WHRDs) or who challenge cultural gender norms run increased risks compared to other HRDs, as do less prominent workers in remote areas.[9] Environmental human rights defenders (EHRDs) who work on environmental rights, land rights, and indigenous rights issues also face greater threats than other HRDs;[7] in 2020 69% of the HRDs killed globally were working on these issues.[10]

A report published by Front Line Defenders in 2020 found that at least 331 HRDs were murdered that year in 25 countries. Although indigenous people only account for about 6% of the global population, approximately 1/3 of these murdered HRDs were indigenous. In 2019, 304 HRDs were murdered in 31 countries.[10] Global Witness reported that 1,922 EHRDs were killed in 52 countries between 2002 and 2019. 80% of these deaths were in Latin America. Approximately 1/3 of the EHRDs reported killed between 2015 and 2019 were indigenous. Documentation of this violence is incomplete, and for every death there may be as many as a hundred cases of severe repression such as detainment, eviction, defamation, etc.[7]

Research conducted by the Business and Human Rights Resource Center[11] 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 (EHRDs) as those in greatest danger. Lawyers and members of environmental groups were also at risk.[12]

UN 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,[13] is the first UN instrument to legitimise and define human rights defenders, as well as the right and responsibility for everyone to protect human rights.

The Declaration is not legally binding, but it articulates rights established by existing human rights treaties and applies them to human rights defenders in order to legitimise their work and extend protection of HRDs. Under the Declaration, a human rights defender is anyone who works to promote or protect human rights: whether professionally or non-professionally; alone or as part of group or institution.

The Declaration articulates existing rights in a way that makes it easier to apply them to human rights 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; and the rights of free expression, association and assembly.

The Declaration indicates that states have a responsibility to implement and respect the provisions of the Declaration and emphasises the duty of the state to protect HRDs from violence, retaliation and intimidation as a consequence of their human rights work. The Declaration also places responsibility to protect human rights at the individual level and especially upon individuals in professions that may affect human rights such as law enforcement, judges, etc.[4]

Women human rights defenders


Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) are women who defend human rights, and defenders of all genders who defend the rights of women and rights related to gender and sexuality.[14][15][16] Their work and the challenges they face have been recognized by a United Nations (UN) resolution in 2013, which calls for specific protection for women human rights defenders.[17]

This is the logo for the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition that represents the coming together and discussing problematic issues dealing with human rights for all.

A woman human rights defender can be an Indigenous woman fighting for the rights of her community, a woman advocating against torture, an LGBTQI rights campaigner, a sex workers' rights collective, or a man fighting for sexual and reproductive rights.[14]

Like other human rights defenders, women human rights defenders can be the target of attacks as they demand the realization of human rights. They face attacks such as discrimination, assault, threats, and violence within their communities. Women human rights defenders face additional obstacles based on who they are and the specific rights they defend. This means they are targeted just because they are women, LGBTI people or for identifying with their struggles. They also face additional obstacles connected with Institutional discrimination and inequality and because they challenge, or are seen to be challenging, patriarchal power and social norms. They are more at risk of facing gender based violence in the home and the community, and sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, trans-phobic threats, smears and stigmatization, as well as exclusion from resources and power.[18][19][20]

International Women Human Rights Defenders Day has been celebrated each 29 November since 2006.[19]

In 2017, 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.[21]

Environmental human rights defenders


Environmental human rights defenders or simply environmental defenders, have been defined by the UN Environment Programme as, "defenders carrying out a vast range of activities related to land and environmental rights, including those working on issues related to extractive industries, and construction and development projects."[22] They also state that environmental defenders are, "defending environmental rights, including constitutional rights to a clean and healthy environment, when the exercise of those rights is being threatened whether or not they self-identify as human rights defenders. Many environmental defenders engage in their activities through sheer necessity."

The use of the term Environmental defender (or Environmental human rights defender) by human rights organizations, the media, and academia is recent and associated with the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.[23] However, the approach and role of environmental defenders is closely related to earlier concepts developed as early as the 1980s such as environmental justice and environmentalism of the poor.[23] Although these different terms have different origins, they converge around the re-establishment of land-based cultures, re-making of place for marginalized people, and protection of land and livelihood from activities such as resource extraction, dumping of toxic waste, and land appropriation.[24][23] Since the 1998 UN Declaration, the term environmental defenders is increasingly used by global organizations and media to refer to this convergence of goals and analysis.

Protection instruments


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:

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[25] 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'.[2] 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 including Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, and Guatemala; however, key challenges in implementation remain.[26]

Awards for human rights defenders


Electronic mapping


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.[30]

Examples of HRDs


In 2017, Human rights lawyer Emil Kurbedinov,[31] a Crimean Tatar, won the 2017 Award for Frontline Human Rights Defenders at Risk. Kurbedinov has been an avid defender of civil society militants, mistreated Crimean Tatars, 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[32] arrested and detained the lawyer. He was taken to a local facility of the Russian Federal Security Service[33] 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.[34][undue weight?discuss]

See also



  1. ^ Amnesty International (2017). Human rights defenders under threat – A shrinking space for civil society.
  2. ^ "About human rights defenders". OHCHR.
  3. ^ a b c d Malkova, P (2018). "Exploring the Term 'Human Rights Defender' through the Lens of Professionalisation in Human Rights Practice: A Case-Study of Russia" (PDF). Human Rights Defender Hub Working Paper Series 3. York: Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York.
  4. ^ a b "Declaration on Human Rights Defenders". OHCHR.
  5. ^ "Human Rights Defenders: Protecting the Right to Defend Human Rights" (PDF). OHCHR. 2004.
  6. ^ "Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya (2010)". United Nations. Retrieved 13 May 2018.[dead link]
  7. ^ a b c Larsen, Billon, Menton, Aylwin, Balsiger, Boyd, Forst, Lambrick, Santos, Storey, Wilding (2021). "Understanding and responding to the environmental human rights defenders crisis: The case for conservation action". Conservation Letters. 14 (3). Bibcode:2021ConL...14E2777B. doi:10.1111/conl.12777. S2CID 229390470.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. ^ Verweijen, Judith (2021). Menton, Mary (ed.). Environmental and Land Defenders: Deadly Struggles for Life and Territory. New York: Routledge. pp. 37–49. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  9. ^ a b Nah, A; Bennett, K; Ingleton, D; Savage, J (4 November 2013). "A Research Agenda for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders". Journal of Human Rights Practice. 5 (3): 401–420. doi:10.1093/jhuman/hut026.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  10. ^ a b Hodal, Kate (11 February 2021). "At least 331 human rights defenders were murdered in 2020, report finds". The Guardian.
  11. ^ "Business and Human Rights Resource Centre | UN Global Compact". www.unglobalcompact.org. Retrieved 26 June 2018.
  12. ^ Kelly, Annie (9 March 2018). "'Attacks and killings': human rights activists at growing risk, study claims". the Guardian. Retrieved 26 June 2018.
  13. ^ "UN Human Rights Defenders". Ishr.ch. 20 November 2013. Archived from the original on 1 October 2013. Retrieved 4 February 2014.
  14. ^ a b "About WHRDIC |". www.defendingwomen-defendingrights.org. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  15. ^ "Women Human Rights Defenders". AWID. 17 December 2014. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  16. ^ "Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya (2010)". www.un.org. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  17. ^ "UN adopts landmark resolution on Protecting Women Human Rights Defenders". ISHR. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  18. ^ "Document". www.amnesty.org. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  19. ^ a b "OHCHR | International Women Human Rights Defenders Day –29 November 2016". www.ohchr.org. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  20. ^ "Our Work |". www.defendingwomen-defendingrights.org. Retrieved 8 November 2018.
  21. ^ Sekyiamah, Nana Darkoa; Ford, Liz (29 November 2017). "Remembering women killed fighting for human rights in 2017". the Guardian. Retrieved 26 June 2018.
  22. ^ "Promoting Greater Protection for Environmental Defenders Policy" (PDF). UN Environment Programme. 2018.
  23. ^ a b c Scheidel, Arnim (July 2020). "Environmental conflicts and defenders: A global overview". Global Environmental Change. 63: 102104. Bibcode:2020GEC....6302104S. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2020.102104. PMC 7418451. PMID 32801483.
  24. ^ Anguelovski, Isabelle; Martínez Alier, Joan (June 2014). "The 'Environmentalism of the Poor' revisited: Territory and place in disconnected glocal struggles". Ecological Economics. 102: 167–176. Bibcode:2014EcoEc.102..167A. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2014.04.005 – via Science Direct.
  25. ^ "humanrights-defenders.org". Archived from the original on 26 October 2010. Retrieved 18 January 2020.
  26. ^ Amnesty International (2017). Americas: State protection mechanisms for human rights defenders.
  27. ^ "Winner of the Martin Ennals Award 1994–2006". Archived from the original on 8 February 2007. Retrieved 10 January 2007.
  28. ^ "The Front Line Defenders Award". Archived from the original on 26 January 2017. Retrieved 8 July 2016.
  29. ^ "The Ginetta Sagan Award". Amnesty International USA. Retrieved 11 April 2022.
  30. ^ Movements.org. “Maptivism: Mapping Information for Advocacy and Activism."
  31. ^ "In Russian-held Crimea, lawyer fights repression against Crimean Tatars – Apr. 03, 2017". KyivPost. 3 April 2017. Retrieved 25 June 2018.
  32. ^ "Menacing FSB interrogations of Ukrainian Cultural Centre activists in Russian-occupied Crimea – Human Rights in Ukraine". Human Rights in Ukraine. Retrieved 25 June 2018.
  33. ^ "Federal Security Service – The Russian Government". government.ru. Retrieved 25 June 2018.
  34. ^ "Person of the Week: Emil Kurbedinov – Rights in Russia". www.rightsinrussia.info. Retrieved 25 June 2018.