FAQ

Who is a human rights defender?
What do human rights defenders do?
Who benefits from the work of human rights defenders?
What obstacles do human rights defenders face?
Who obstructs human rights defenders?
Are some human rights defenders more vulnerable to obstacles than others?
Who are women human rights defenders?
What can be done to support human rights defenders?
How does Amnesty International support human rights defenders?

Who is a human rights defender?

According to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, human rights defenders are people who "individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights".

They may defend human rights in either a professional or voluntary capacity, and are identified primarily by their actions, rather than by their occupation, job title or the organization they belong to. Human rights defenders can include:
  • journalists exposing human rights violations
  • trade unionists defending workers’ rights
  • environmentalists highlighting the impact of development projects on indigenous peoples’ land rights.
Human rights defenders are also characterised by the values they promote and adhere to. For all their diversity, all human rights defenders respect the universality and indivisibility of human rights: the notion that all human rights should be enjoyed by all people, regardless of gender, race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation or any other such distinction. Human rights defenders are those who promote and protect human rights through peaceful, non-violent means.

What do human rights defenders do?

Human rights defenders work towards the realisation of any or all of the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international standards. They work across the spectrum of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights in many different ways.

Some human rights organisations contribute to the implementation of human rights standards by:
  • documenting human rights violations
  • campaigning to ensure that governments fulfil their legal obligations
Some human rights organisations publicly condemn failures to protect people’s rights by:
  • organising peaceful demonstrations
  • publishing articles exposing human rights violations.
Other human rights defenders:
  • provide practical support to the survivors of human rights abuses or their families, such as legal representation or shelter from domestic violence
  • start projects to realise a community’s economic and social rights, for example by providing access to education or housing
  • use human rights education or awareness-raising to empower people with an understanding of their human rights.
Human rights defenders operate at local, national or international levels, lobbying institutions from village councils to UN mechanisms to ensure the full implementation of everyone’s human rights. Some work for the fulfilment of particular rights, such as the right to food, others against particular violations, such as torture or forced evictions.

Some human rights defenders promote and protect the rights of particular groups denied equal access to rights because of systematic discrimination such as women, indigenous people or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Human rights defenders work for the protection of human rights for all.

Who benefits from the work of human rights defenders?

By exercising their right to defend human rights, human rights defenders help to strengthen civil society and to create a legitimate space for the protection and promotion of everyone’s human rights. Human rights defenders may campaign towards an end to torture across a whole region or defend their own land rights.

What obstacles do human rights defenders face?

Human rights defenders in many countries have been subjected to the following in order to obstruct their human rights activism:
  • death threats
  • arbitrary detention
  • torture
  • murder
  • surveillance
  • blocking of telephones and Internet access
  • being discredited through bogus criminal charges or fabricated scandals.
Between 2000 and 2005 Amnesty International issued over four hundred Urgent Actions on behalf of human rights defenders believed to be at immediate risk.

According to the UN Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders, legislation is becoming widely used to limit:
  • freedom of association
  • travel to international human rights forums
  • access to funding.
In recent years the fight against terrorism has led to the introduction of draconian security legislation in many parts of the world, which has negatively affected human rights defenders. While governments have an obligation to protect all members of the population against abuses, including the deliberate killing of civilians, many measures supposedly taken to improve security have in fact been intended to prevent the revelation of human rights abuses and used against human rights defenders to deter the defence of human rights.

Discrediting the promotion and protection of human rights is often used to obstruct defenders. Examples include:
  • senior officials presenting the protection of human rights as jeopardising the safety of the general public
  • attempts made to personally discredit human rights defenders who may face bogus criminal charges based on accusations of links to armed groups or implication in fabricated financial scandals, sexual assault or human rights abuses
  • human rights defenders being undermined by government-sponsored NGOs, known as GONGOs, which disseminate a misleadingly favourable view of the human rights situation in their country and discredit independent human rights groups.
Because of persecution and retaliation against their promotion of human rights, many human rights defenders risk the loss of their jobs and reduced professional or educational opportunities for themselves or their relatives. Human rights defenders may become estranged from their families who may see their human rights work as bringing shame or danger to their relatives.

Who obstructs human rights defenders?

Across the globe, obstacles are put in the way of human rights defenders by:
  • governments
  • security forces
  • business interests
  • armed groups
  • members of their community.
This is because they think that the protection and promotion of certain rights challenges the existing political economic or cultural power structures and the social status quo. A range of pretexts or justifications are invoked to curb the legitimate work of human rights defenders, including the protection of national security, public order or morality.

Are some human rights defenders more vulnerable to obstacles than others?

The work of all human rights defenders can entail considerable risks and challenges. In many parts of the world, defenders working on particularly contested issues, such as women’s right to be free from violence in the home or the rights of LGBT people, are particularly vulnerable because they are often isolated, not only from their families and communities but also from the wider human rights community.

Who are women human rights defenders?

Women human rights defenders is a term referring to women who, individually or with others, act to promote and protect everyone’s human rights, and any individual working specifically to promote women’s rights. Women human rights defenders face particular risks of harassment, abuse and marginalization by both state and non-state actors, including their families and communities. This is because they may challenge and defy cultural, religious or social norms about the role of women and their status within society.

What can be done to support human rights defenders?

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, everyone has a role to play in the realization of human rights. Everyone should recognise and respect the role of human rights defenders in the protection of all our rights and call on their political representatives to ensure that human rights defenders are supported and their rights protected.

In the face of obstacles to their work, human rights defenders have developed support tools and techniques that enable them to continue their human rights work. A vital source of support from within the human rights defenders community is the development of networks at local, national, regional and/or international levels. These networks take many forms and act in different ways, including:
  • providing information on human rights violations
  • sharing and learning from their members’ experiences
  • providing protection for human rights defenders at risk.
The integration into these networks of groups such as LGBT or women’s groups is particularly important to enhance their protection.

Many international NGOs have units working specifically for the support, promotion and protection of human rights defenders and the right to defend human rights. They are able to lobby to ensure that governments understand the important role of human rights defenders and campaign for the protection of the right to defend human rights and human rights defenders at risk.

In 1998 the UN adopted the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which, although not legally binding, draws together provisions from other legally binding conventions and covenants most relevant to human rights defenders. The Declaration sets out the prime responsibility of states to take all necessary steps to ensure the protection of everyone who exercises their right to defend human rights. Amongst other things, the Declaration affirms the rights to:
  • defend human rights
  • freedom of association
  • document human rights abuses
  • seek resources for human rights work
  • criticize the functioning of government bodies and agencies
  • access international protection bodies.
A Special Representative of the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders was appointed in 2000 to oversee the implementation of the Declaration, assess the situation of human rights defenders through country visits and receive information from defenders including details of obstacles to their human rights work and threats made against them.

Regional mechanisms have also been established to provide support. In 2001 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights established a special unit on defenders, the Human Rights defenders Unit, and in 2004 the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights appointed a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa.

In 2004 the European Union adopted Ensuring Protection - European Union Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders, which express the commitment of the EU to enhance its ongoing efforts to support and protect human rights defenders in third countries. As part of its mandate, the Office for Democracy Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe maintains a special focus on NGOs and human rights defenders, particularly in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

How does Amnesty International support human rights defenders?

Amnesty International believes that working with human rights defenders to support and legitimise a safe space in society for the defence of human rights work is one of the most important ways to protect and promote the human rights of everyone.

Since its creation in 1964, the organisation has worked with or on behalf of thousands of human rights defenders and much of the organisation’s work has benefited from information and insights contributed by human rights defenders.

Amnesty International continues to work in solidarity with human rights defenders and calls on governments to adopt all legislative, administrative and other steps as may be necessary to ensure the rights and freedoms for the defence of human rights as set out in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

 

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