Human rights community
Even though mechanisms exist to protect human rights defenders, many continue to face harassment, intimidation or other abuses. Defenders who work in such situations develop strategies and tactics to protect themselves and others, based on their daily experiences. But they also need to be able to call on a wider human rights community for support.
This community includes:
- international non-governmental organizations
- inter-governmental organizations
They work together in a number of different ways.
Local, national, regional and international networks take many forms and act in different ways. By creating or participating in networks, human rights defenders are able to:
- establish patterns of abuse
- find solutions to shared problems
- strengthen advocacy and build capacity.
Networks also provide greater opportunities for:
- monitoring the safety of human rights defenders
- rapidly disseminating information about defenders at risk
- greater mobilization and political pressure on behalf of their members
- learning from members’ experiences and find solutions to common problems
- providing protection for human rights defenders at risk
- accessing regional and international protection mechanisms
- raising the profile and increasing the legitimacy of human rights defenders and their organizations, in particular those working on issues that have traditionally been ignored by the human rights movement, or those facing discrimination by national authorities.
New technology provides new opportunities for human rights defenders to communicate. The speed of the Internet and its ability to reach a wide audience means that local human rights issues can become international concerns very quickly.
However, a number of governments, with the help of some of the biggest IT companies in the world, have tried to limit free expression. In China, Vietnam and Tunisia, for example, human rights defenders have been harassed and imprisoned for their Internet activism.
International organizations have spoken out on behalf of human rights defenders in countries such as Myanmar (Burma) where calls for even the most basic rights are likely to be silenced.
Because they carry political weight, international organizations can:
- mobilize effectively to raise awareness about individual cases, as well as more systemic violations, laws and practices
- lobby to ensure that governments understand the important role of human rights defenders in the defence of human rights
- campaign for the protection of human rights defenders at risk and for the right to defend human rights
- pressurize key officials, when it would be too risky for local or national human rights defenders to do so.
Along with Amnesty International, a growing number of international NGOs have units working specifically for the support, promotion and protection of human rights defenders and the right to defend human rights. They include:
- Civil Society Watch
- Front Line
- Human Rights First – Defenders Alert Network
- International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
- International Service for Human Rights
- The Observatory
- Peace Brigades International
- Reporters sans Frontières
- Scholars at Risk Network
- Urgent Action Fund for Women's Human Rights
- Women Human Rights Defenders Action Alerts
Some international NGOs provide training that specifically addresses protection of human rights defenders and their work. Such training programmes include:
- awareness-raising about the content of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders
- how to access international and regional protection mechanisms
- information security
- risk assessment and developing strategies for minimizing risk.
For example, after evictions in Zimbabwe in 2005, Amnesty International facilitated a workshop for local activists to develop strategies on how to work with national and international human rights organizations. When a community was threatened with eviction the following year, they were able to mobilize these networks and prevent eviction.
This demonstrates how Amnesty International, community activists and national human rights organizations, can work together to strengthen effective activism.
Some organizations, such as Peace Brigades International, have established a physical presence in areas where human rights defenders work, which can decrease the risks they face and enable them to continue their work.
The effectiveness of international accompaniment depends on a range of local and international factors. However, human rights defenders in countries including Colombia, Guatemala and Indonesia have repeatedly requested such accompaniment as an element of their security strategies.
The role of governments
Governments can all take steps to protect human rights defenders and their work. They can:
- raise concerns about the situation of human rights defenders s in other countries in bi-lateral or multilateral fora
- provide support to international and regional mechanisms
- include protection of local human rights defenders in their contingency plans for emergency situations
- speed up the visa process for human rights defenders who have to relocate due to serious threats
- through their diplomats, visit the offices of human rights defenders or invite them to meet at theirs.
These measures send a strong signal that violations against defenders will have international repercussions.
The role of donor agencies
Donor agencies can also help protect human rights defenders by:
- including issues related to human rights defenders in all stages of project development, implementation and assessment
- prioritizing capacity building of human rights defenders.