Background

Amnesty International has been working with and for human rights defenders since its inception and believes that supporting the rights of human rights defenders is one of the most important ways to ensure human rights for all.

Human rights defenders include:

  • journalists exposing human rights violations
  • community workers teaching human rights education
  • trade unionists defending workers' rights
  • women working for the promotion of reproductive rights
  • environmentalists highlighting the impact of development projects on Indigenous Peoples land rights.

Human rights defenders are individuals, groups of people or organizations who promote and protect human rights through peaceful and non-violent means. They:

  • uncover violations
  • subject violations to public scrutiny
  • press for those responsible to be accountable
  • empower individuals and communities to claim their basic entitlements as human beings.

Throughout history, courageous and visionary people have sought to extend the boundaries of human rights protection to those outside its boundaries, whether it be those living in slavery, workers unprotected against exploitation or women denied the vote.

Today, despite international laws that protect them, human rights defenders are needed all over the world to monitor and challenge abuses and violations.

Obstacles

Because of this work, human rights defenders face a range of challenges. In many countries they are:

  • subjected to death threats and torture
  • persecuted through the use of the judicial system
  • silenced by restrictive laws
  • disappear or are murdered.

This is why human rights defenders need our support.

Who is a human rights defender?

Adonis Polanco is an HIV/AIDS treatment counsellor in the Dominican Republic who campaigns for access to adequate treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS. After testing HIV-positive in 2004, Adonis began receiving the necessary treatment only after telling his story in the media. Since then he has been the target of threats and intimidation.

Bhawani Rana lives in Nepalgunj, Nepal, where she founded the organization Saathi Banke. She helps women by providing training, micro-finance, psycho-social counselling and outreach to make them independent.

Gurbandurdy Durdykuliyev sent a letter to the authorities in Turkmenistan urging them to allow a peaceful two-day demonstration. Several days later he was taken from his house and forcibly confined in a psychiatric hospital.

Luan Srisongpong is a Thai farmer who travelled 450km to Bangkok as part of the Assembly of the Poor, convened to call for government action on the impact of development projects on the poor and disadvantaged.

Lohana Berkins is a transgender activist from Buenos Aires, Argentina, who helps sex workers protect themselves against the threat of violence or arbitrary arrest.

The term human rights defender is used around the world to describe people such as Adonis, Bhawani, Gurbandurdy, Luan and Lohana who act in many different ways and in different capacities to protect and promote human rights.

The term has been used increasingly since the adoption of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders alongside other terms such as human rights activist, human rights advocate or human rights worker. In keeping with the usage of the term within the UN system and among other organizations working with human rights defenders, Amnesty International uses it in an inclusive manner, and without prejudice to the use of other terms appropriate in specific countries or contexts.

Anyone, regardless of their occupation, can be a human rights defender: they are identified primarily by what they do rather than by their profession. Some human rights defenders are professional human rights workers, lawyers working on human rights cases, journalists, trade unionists or development workers. But a local government official, a policeman or a celebrity who actively promotes respect for human rights can also be a human rights defender.

Defenders may act on their own or in association with others, in a professional or personal capacity. Many defend human rights in their ongoing work, while others become human rights defenders because of one individual action or stance they have taken in favour of human rights.

Human rights defenders have several characteristics in common. They all:

  • uphold the fundamental principle of universality - that is, that all human beings are equal in dignity and rights, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or any other status
  • are committed to the realization of international human rights standards
  • respect the rights and freedoms of others in their own actions.

The actions taken by human rights defenders must be peaceful in order to comply with the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and to fall within the scope of the term as used by Amnesty International.

What rights do they defend?

Human rights defenders work for the realization of any or all of the rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or in the number of human rights standards which the Declaration has given rise to in the form of conventions, declarations, bodies of principles and authoritative interpretations.

The rights defended by human rights defenders may be:

  • civil and political rights (such as the right to be free from torture or the right to a fair trial)
  • economic and social rights (such as the right to the highest attainable standard of health or the right to education)
  • cultural rights (such as the right of indigenous people to have control over their land and resources).

Some defenders work against particular abuses, such as torture or forced eviction. Others work for the rights of specific groups or sectors of the population facing discrimination and disadvantage, such as indigenous people, rural women, street children, or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Responsibility to protect

Everyone has a responsibility to protect human rights. As the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders affirms:

"Everyone who, as a result of his or her profession, can affect the human dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms of others should respect those rights and freedoms and comply with relevant national and international standards of occupational and professional conduct or ethics".

Professional human rights defenders have many skills and years of experience, but there is no mystery to defending human rights. We all hold the potential to become human rights defenders.

How do human rights defenders work?

Human rights defenders promote and protect human rights in many different ways. This can include:

  • representation of victims and survivors of human rights violations in their fight for justice and redress
  • dissemination of information on human rights abuses
  • teaching human rights principles and values as part of the school curriculum
  • organizing communities to take a stand against a threat to their livelihood
  • grassroots campaigning
  • advocacy
  • lobbying of governmental or international institutions
  • building the capacity of local communities to understand and claim their rights
  • providing humanitarian relief services to people displaced by conflict or natural disaster
  • working through legal and quasi-legal processes.

Working through legal processes

Many human rights defenders work through legal process to claim justice and redress for people whose rights have been violated. There are countless examples of victories secured by defenders invoking the protective principles of international human rights standards in domestic courts.

An increasingly effective international legal system has also provided avenues for redress where justice is denied at home. The continents of Africa, the Americas and Europe have elaborate regional mechanisms where survivors of human rights violations and those working with them can hold their governments to account.

Thanks to the long-standing efforts of human rights lawyers from countries around the world working together in coalition, a global judicial infrastructure has begun to emerge in recent times, most notably with the adoption in 1998 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The Court has jurisdiction over the most serious crimes under international law, including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Universal jurisdiction

Another significant development brought about by defenders working together across borders is the evolution of universal jurisdiction, enabling the courts of one country to try such crimes even if committed elsewhere. Despite their advantages, court cases are, however, expensive, time consuming and can seem inaccessible, which often make other means of asserting rights more feasible.

Truth commissions

Defenders have also sought to find creative alternatives to criminal prosecution in situations where this was rendered politically or practically impossible. In many situations of transition from conflict or authoritarian rule, defenders have helped establish "truth commissions" aimed at bringing to light the experiences of victims and survivors, establishing who was responsible, and providing reparation. Despite their shortcomings, such commissions can represent important steps towards justice and reconciliation, and a powerful validation of the experiences endured by survivors.

The human rights agenda

The human rights agenda has always been a dynamic and constantly evolving one, with defenders applying the principles and tools of human rights to different contexts and struggles. At different points in history, courageous and visionary people have sought to extend the boundaries of human rights protection to those outside its boundaries, whether it be those living in slavery, workers unprotected against exploitation or women denied the vote.

Defending new and contested rights

In recent decades, defenders have fought to make the promise of the UDHR relevant to new and emerging threats to human dignity. They have:

  • brought human rights into the sphere of the home and the community through the struggle to halt gender-based violence against women
  • pushed for multinational corporations to be held morally and legally accountable when their actions or omissions deprive people of their basic human rights
  • framed the demand for universal access to primary education and to life-saving anti-retroviral treatment as fundamental entitlements rather than services conditional on economic growth or charitable benevolence.

Defenders forging new frontiers for human rights are often the most exposed to risk, ridicule and resistance. Those working to redress the historical neglect of economic, social and cultural rights risk making powerful enemies when they question the distribution of economic resources and call for greater accountability of those whose actions fuel poverty and inequality.

Similarly, women and men fighting for the right to have control over one's sexuality and reproductive capacity free from discrimination, coercion or violence may face formidable resistance from politically-motivated religious fundamentalists who deny that such a right exists in all cultures.

The fact that a huge variety of social movements increasingly use the language of rights to articulate their demands, and the vehemence with which such demands are challenged and suppressed, reflects not only the degree of moral authority attached to human rights claims; it highlights the extent to which the meaning and scope of human rights is still a battleground.

The boundaries of human rights change

Human rights is not a static project, its boundaries cannot be fixed for all time. Rights claims arise from the denial of human dignity in whatever form. The contours of human rights shift as patterns of oppression change. Their scope and content will therefore always be a matter for contestation.

The human rights agenda has always been built by its own critique. Those excluded from the way human rights are traditionally understood or interpreted in any given social or historical context - for example, women, Indigenous Peoples, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, or the disabled - have fought for inclusion and have enriched and transformed understandings of human rights as a result.

This evolution will continue and new generations of rights-defenders will continue to challenge orthodox interpretations of human rights and articulate new claims. Those alerting us to the impact of climate change on the sustainability of life on the planet, or to the implications of biotechnological and genetic advances on what it means to be human, are already pointing to some of the issues that may feature increasingly on the human rights agenda of the future.

Fighting the backlash

Human rights defenders have not only had to battle against static or restrictive understandings of human rights. In recent years they have had to guard against a more fundamental assault on the validity and relevance of the human rights framework.

The rules of the game have changed

Some governments, particularly in the US and Europe, have argued that "the rules of the game have changed" since the horrifying events of 11 September 2001 in the USA and subsequent acts of terror in other countries. They have called into question the extent to which human rights considerations should take precedence over the concern to protect their populations against attack. This has led to attempts to justify torture and other ill-treatment in the name of fighting terrorism effectively, and to the bypassing of basic due process guarantees by holding thousands of suspects indefinitely without charge or trial.

At the same time as expanding the boundaries of human rights, defenders have therefore had to fight to preserve long-recognized ethical values at the heart of the human rights framework, such as:

  • the complete and utter unacceptability of torture
  • the right of everyone - no matter what they are alleged to have done - to be treated with dignity and fairness at the hands of the state.

Their efforts to expose the practice of "extraordinary renditions" and the torturous conditions in Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantánamo and other "war on terror" detention sites have helped to resist this concerted attempt to erode the human rights framework.

Nevertheless, the backlash has prompted sober reflection among human rights defenders about the risk of complacency. The idea of human rights may have achieved near-universal endorsement, but it cannot be taken for granted that their primacy and legitimacy will always be recognized.

If the fragile "human rights consensus" is to withstand the vagaries of the political ebb and flow, future attacks on the authority and practical applicability of human rights will need to be anticipated and forestalled. Human rights defenders working in different contexts and cultures are striving to ensure that human rights does not become a reactive agenda, but a progressive proposition for a better future.

For information on challenges faced by human rights defenders, please click here.

 

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