Introduction: Protecting human rights defenders at risk


People, rather than states, are the most critical actors in advancing human rights. All over the world, people promote and protect human rights in diverse ways. Some do so by creating, developing and shaping state institutions, policies and practices; some by challenging them and calling for their reformation. People advance human rights through ordinary practices, such as service provision, educational programmes, artistic engagement and quiet diplomacy, as well as through contentious or adversarial means, such as public denunciations, street protests and litigation. Their backgrounds and causes are diverse - they include human rights lawyers who irse the courts to protect the rights of clients, journalists who publicise human rights violations, anti-corruption activists who demand accountability from public officials, government officials who enact rights-based policies, indigenous peoples who defend their rights to land, LGBTIQA*1 activists who advocate for eqirality and non-discrimination, families who call for justice for the disappeared and women who seek freedom from violence. The United Nations (UN) refers to these diverse actors as “human rights defenders”.

While many people can engage in human rights activism without fear or want, a significant number face risks to their life, liberty, security and reputation. The threats and attacks they experience vary, depending on their identity, their sociopolitical location, where they live, the issues they advocate for, their tactics and strategies for activism, the motives and actions of perpetrators and the political, social and economic environments in which they act. As the previous UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst, highlighted in his World Report of December 2018, the risks, threats and attacks that defenders face are varied, ranging from harassment, stigmatisation, surveillance, criminalisation, judicial investigations, arrest, unlawful detention, beatings, torture and kidnapping, to killings, murders and disappearances.2 In 2019, the international NGO Front Line Defenders docrunented the killing of 304 human rights defenders around the world, of whom 40 percent were defending land, environmental or indigenous peoples’ rights.3 Perpetrators of such threats and attacks against hitman rights defenders comprise state authorities - such as the police, security forces or the military - as well as non-state actors - such as corporations, criminal gangs, paramilitaries and fundamentalist groups. In a significant number of cases, the identity of perpetrators is unknown.4

The declaration on human rights defenders

In 1998, the UN General Assembly marked the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) by adopting the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Gr oups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.5 Commonly referred to as the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, this Declaration was developed through years of what Amnesty International described as “tortuous negotiations”6 beginning in 1985. The Declaration affirms the right of everyone to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, calling on states to respect, protect and fulfil these rights.

The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders recalls the rights of everyone errgaged in the promotion and protection of human rights, including the right to be protected, the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of association, the right to access and communicate with international bodies, the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, the right to protest, the right to develop and discuss new hitman rights ideas, the right to an effective remedy and the right to access funding.7 The Declaration recognises that human rights defenders work individually as well as in groups (formal and informal), and that the defence of rights is not subject to geographical restrictions but occurs at multiple levels, including national and international levels. The Declaration recognises the right to defend human rights as comprising acts to promote and protect rights as well as the right to refuse to violate human rights and fundamental freedoms.8 It also calls for states to ensure that these rights are protected in domestic laws and to create conditions so that people can exercise these rights freely.

Protecting human rights defenders

Since the adoption of the Declaration, there has been growing momentum amongst diverse actors to build an international protection regime for human rights defenders.9 The aim of this regime is to “protect and support defenders who operate in their own contexts in the face of threats and risks”.10 Protection actors - state and non-state actors that act to protect human rights defenders at risk - have been creating, developing and sustaining nonns and standards of protection around the figure of the human rights defender. They have been involved in agenda setting and resource mobilisation, calling for states and donors to prioritise and fund protection practices. They have been socialising states, institutions, civil society groups and defenders themselves to recognise and protect the right to promote and protect human rights.

Over the past decade in particular, significant resources have been devoted to supporting defenders at risk in managing their security, protecting them from harm, and building a “safe and enabling environment”11 for the defence of human rights. Protection actors have developed a diverse range of responses aimed at protecting defenders at risk12 - such as the provision of emergency giants, the use of awards to strengthen the legitimacy and visibility of defenders at risk,13 the practice of international accompaniment as a peacefill deterrence tactic,14 temporary relocation,15 trial monitoring, public advocacy and quiet diplomacy.16 Paradoxically, however, as state and non-state actors invest more in building this transnational multi-level protection regime, numerous reports highlight increasing attacks and reprisals against people engaged in human rights activism.17

Building upon recent scholarly work on the security and protection of defenders at risk,18 this book assesses the construction, operation and effects of the international protection regime for human rights defenders by drawing upon the experiences of 407 human rights defenders at risk in five countries - Colombia, Mexico, Kenya, Egypt and Indonesia - examined through an international research project called “Navigating Risk, Managing Security, and Receiving Support”.19 The chapters in this book explore the ways in which human rights defenders navigate risks, and how these impact on their activism, relationships and quality of life. They assess the protection practices enacted by state actors and civil society groups locally and transnational^, highlighting ways in which these practices affected the lives of human rights defenders and intersected with their self-protection practices.

In the next section of this chapter, I examine the global context for the defence of human rights, highlighting key developments that shape the risks that human rights defenders face. I discuss scholarly critiques of the effectiveness and relevance of human rights activism. I then provide an overview of the protection regime for human rights defenders, noting its actors, institutions, norms, principles and resources. I discuss key debates related to the protection of human rights defenders at risk: the meaning of protection, the definition of human rights defenders, the acceptability of risk and risk-taking in activism, and conceptualisations of (in)security. I then introduce the Navigating Risk study, before setting out the organisation of this book.20

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