Around the world, in every region, in every country, there are people who work tirelessly to make human rights a reality. Without these people, who often put their life and liberty on the line, human rights would only be an abstract concept – something everyone has in principle or on paper, but not all have in reality.
Who are these people defending human rights? They include:
grassroots community activists who protest against companies which destroy their local environment and livelihoods;
the surviving families of people who have been forcibly disappeared who demand answers and justice;
people determined to bring to light the true scale of sexual violence against women, and who provide unconditional support to victims;
doctors who distribute essential medicines against the will of the government;
lawyers who defend human rights activists and provide legal support, often without fees;
journalists who risk their lives to uncover corruption and human rights violations;
trade unionists who campaign for workers' rights to live in dignity;
people who work for human rights for their families, communities and wider society.
These people do their work on the street, in the court room, in the hospital – everywhere human rights are abused or violated. Those who come to the defence of those whose very rights are at stake – and do so in a peaceful manner while respecting all human rights are those we call human rights defenders.
Defending human rights is essential work not only for others – by defending others they are exercising their own human rights -- such as the freedom of expression or association. To be a human rights defender is to demand that everyone's – including their own – rights must be respected and protected at all times. No matter what.
Yet it is this claim of their own human rights which causes many to want to silence them. Human rights defenders commonly face intimidation, threats and even death at the hands of those who disagree with them – both from state authorities and others. Sometimes members of their own family and/or their community isolate and try to silence them.
Ten years ago, all members of the United Nations committed to promote and protect the work of human rights defenders. The resulting UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders says we all have the right to defend human rights.
Ten years on, however, and 60 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, defending human rights remains a contested and sometimes dangerous business. Everywhere there are human rights defenders, there are states forgetting or wilfully ignoring what they agreed in 1998.
The future of everyone's human rights are inherently connected to the ability of human rights defenders to operate freely and without intimidation.
"In this anniversary year, let’s recommit to the legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders and celebrate their ongoing commitment to make human rights a reality," said Eleanor Openshaw, Human Rights Defenders Coordinator, from Amnesty International.