factsheet29Human  rights defender” is a term used to describe people who, individually or with  others,  act  to  promote or protect  human  rights.  Human rights defenders are identified above all by what they do and it is through a description  of their actions (section A below) and of some of the contexts  in which  they  work  (section  B  below)  that  the  term  can  best  be explained. The examples given of the activities of human  rights defenders are not an exhaustive list.

A. What do human  rights  defenders do?

1.  All human rights for all

To be a human  rights defender, a person  can act to address  any human right (or rights) on behalf of individuals or groups.  Human rights defenders seek the promotion  and protection  of civil and political rights as well as the promotion, protection  and realization of economic,  social and cultural rights.

Human rights defenders address  any human  rights concerns,  which can be as varied as, for example, summary executions, torture,  arbitrary arrest and  detention, female  genital  mutilation,  discrimination,  employment issues,  forced  evictions,  access  to  health  care,  and  toxic waste  and  its impact  on  the  environment. Defenders  are active in support  of human rights as diverse as the  rights to life, to food  and  water,  to the  highest attainable standard  of health,  to  adequate housing,  to  a name  and  a nationality,  to education, to freedom  of movement and to non-discrimination.  They sometimes  address  the  rights of categories  of persons,  for example  women’s rights, children’s rights, the  rights of indigenous  persons,  the  rights  of refugees  and  internally displaced  persons,  and  the rights of national,  linguistic or sexual minorities.

2. Human  rights everywhere

Human  rights defenders are active in every part  of the  world: in States that  are divided by internal armed  conflict as well as States that  are stable; in States that are non-democratic as well as those that have a  strong democratic practice; in States that are developing economically as well as those  that  are classified as developed. They seek to promote and protect human   rights   in  the   context   of  a  variety  of  challenges,   including HIV/AIDS,  development, migration,   structural   adjustment policies  and political transition.

3. Local, national, regional and  international action

The majority of human  rights  defenders work  at  the  local or national level, supporting  respect  for human  rights within their own communities and   countries.   In  such  situations,   their  main  counterparts  are  local authorities   charged   with  ensuring  respect  for  human   rights  within  a province or the country as a whole. However, some defenders act at the regional or international  level. They may, for example, monitor  a regional or worldwide  human  rights situation  and submit information  to regional or international human  rights mechanisms, including the special rapporteurs  of the  United  Nations Commission  on  Human  Rights and  United Nations treaty bodies. Increasingly, the work of human  rights defenders is mixed, with the focus being on local and national  human  rights issues, but with defenders making contact  with regional and international mechanisms   which  can  support   them   in  improving  human   rights  in their countries.

4. Collecting and  disseminating information on violations

Human  rights  defenders investigate,  gather  information  regarding  and report  on human  rights violations. They may, for example,  use lobbying strategies  to draw their reports  to the attention of the public and of key political and  judicial officials to  ensure  that  their  investigative  work  is given consideration and that human  rights violations are addressed. Most commonly, such work is conducted through  human  rights organizations, which periodically publish reports on their findings. However, information may also be gathered  and reported by an individual focusing on one specific instance  of human  rights abuse.

5. Supporting victims of human rights violations

A very large proportion of the activities of human  rights defenders can be characterized as action  in support  of victims of human  rights violations. Investigating and reporting  on violations can help end ongoing  violations, prevent  their repetition  and assist victims in taking their cases to courts. Some human  rights defenders provide professional legal advice and represent  victims in the  judicial process.  Others  provide victims with counselling and rehabilitation  support.

6. Action to secure accountability and  to end  impunity

Many human  rights defenders work to secure accountability  for respect for human  rights legal standards. In its broadest sense, this might involve lobbying authorities  and advocating  greater  efforts by the State to imple- ment the international human  rights obligations it has accepted by its ratification of international treaties.

In more  specific instances,  the  focus on accountability  can lead human rights defenders to bear witness, either in a public forum (for example, a newspaper) or before a court or tribunal, to human  rights violations that have already occurred.  In this way, defenders contribute to securing justice on behalf of victims in specific cases of human  rights violation and to breaking patterns  of impunity, thereby preventing future violations. A significant  number  of defenders, frequently  through  organizations established  for  the   purpose,   focus   exclusively  on   ending   impunity   for violations. The same groups of defenders might also work to strengthen the  State’s capacity to prosecute  perpetrators of violations, for example by  providing human rights  training  for  prosecutors,  judges  and  the police.

7. Supporting better governance and  government policy

Some human  rights defenders focus on encouraging a Government as a whole  to  fulfil its human  rights obligations,  for example  by publicizing information  on  the  Government’s record  of implementation of human rights standards  and  monitoring  progress  made.  Some defenders focus on good  governance, advocating  in support  of democratization and  an end to corruption  and  the  abuse  of power,  and  providing training  to a population  on  how  to  vote  and  why their  participation  in elections  is important.

8. Contributing to the  implementation of human rights treaties

Human rights defenders make a major contribution, particularly through their  organizations,  to  the   material   implementation  of  international human   rights  treaties.  Many  non-governmental  organizations (NGOs) and  intergovernmental organizations help  to  establish  housing,  health care and sustainable  income generation projects for poor and marginal ized  communities.   They  offer  training  in  essential  skills and  provide equipment such  as  computers to  give  communities   improved  access to information.

This group  merits  particular  attention as  its members  are  not  always described  as human  rights defenders and  they themselves  may not  use the term “human rights”  in a description  of their work, focusing instead on terms  such as “health”, “housing” or “development” which reflect their area of activity. Indeed, many of these activities in support  of human rights are described in general terms as development action. Many NGOs and  United  Nations  bodies  fall within  these  categories. Their work,  as much  as that  of other  human  rights defenders, is central  to respect  for and  protection  and  achievement of human  rights  standards, and  they need   and   deserve   the   protection   given  to  their   activities  by  the Declaration on human  rights defenders.

9. Human  rights education and  training

A further major action undertaken by human  rights defenders is the provision of human  rights education. In some instances,  education activities take the form of training for the application of human  rights standards  in the  context  of  a  professional  activity, for  example  by judges,  lawyers, police officers, soldiers or human  rights monitors. In other instances, education  may  be  broader   and  involve teaching   about   human   rights  in schools  and  universities or disseminating  information  on  human  rights standards  to the general  public or to vulnerable populations.

In summary, gathering  and disseminating  information,  advocacy and the mobilization of public opinion are often the most common  tools used by human  rights defenders in their work. As described  in this section,  however,  they  also  provide  information  to  empower  or train others.  They participate  actively in the provision of the material means necessary to make human  rights a reality—building shelter, providing food,  strengthening development, etc. They work at democratic  transformation in order to increase the participation  of people   in  the   decision-making   that   shapes   their  lives  and   to strengthen good  governance. They also contribute to the improvement  of social, political and economic  conditions,  the reduction  of social and political tensions, the building of peace,  domestically and internationally, and the nurturing of national and international awareness  of human  rights.

B. Who can be a human  rights  defender?

There is no specific definition of who is or can be a human  rights defender.  The Declaration  on  human  rights  defenders refers  to “individuals, groups  and associations  … contributing  to … the effective elimination of all violations of human  rights and  fundamental freedoms of peoples  and individuals” (fourth preambular  paragraph).

In accordance with  this broad  categorization, human  rights  defenders can be  any  person  or  group  of  persons  working  to  promote human rights,   ranging   from   intergovernmental  organizations  based   in  the world’s largest  cities to individuals working  within their local communities. Defenders  can be of any gender,  of varying ages,  from any part  of the world and from all sorts of professional or other backgrounds. In particular, it is important to note  that  human  rights defenders are not  only found within NGOs and intergovernmental organizations but might also, in some instances,  be government officials, civil servants or members  of the private sector.

1. Defending human rights through professional activitiespaid  or voluntary

The most  obvious human  rights defenders are those  whose  daily work specifically involves the  promotion  and  protection  of human  rights,  for example human rights monitors working with national human rights organizations, human  rights ombudsmen or human  rights lawyers.

However, what  is most important in characterizing  a person  as a human rights defender is not the person’s title or the name  of the organization he or she works for, but  rather  the  human  rights character  of the  work undertaken. It is not  essential  for a person  to  be known  as a “human rights  activist”  or  to  work  for  an  organization   that  includes  “human rights”  in its name  in order to be a human  rights defender. Many of the staff of the United Nations serve as human  rights defenders even if their day-to-day work is described in different terms, for example as “development”. Similarly, the national and international staff of NGOs around  the world   working   to   address   humanitarian  concerns   can   typically  be described  as human  rights defenders. People educating communities  on HIV/AIDS, activists for the  rights  of indigenous  peoples,  environmental activists and volunteers working in development are also playing a crucial role as human  rights defenders.

Many people  work in a professional  capacity as human  rights defenders and are paid a salary for their work. However, there are many others who work in a professional  capacity as human  rights defenders but  who  are volunteers  and  receive no remuneration. Typically, human  rights organi zations have very limited funding  and the work provided by these  volunteers is invaluable.

Many professional  activities do not involve human  rights work all of the time  but  can  have  occasional  links with  human   rights.  For example, lawyers working on commercial law issues may not often address human rights concerns and  cannot  automatically  be described  as human  rights defenders. They can nevertheless  act as defenders on some occasions by working  on  cases  through  which  they  contribute to  the  promotion  or protection  of human  rights. Similarly, leaders of trades  unions undertake numerous  tasks,  many  of which bear  no  relation  to  human  rights,  but when  they  are  working  specifically to  promote or  protect  the  human rights of workers they can be described as human  rights defenders. In the same  way, journalists have a broad  mandate to gather  information  and disseminate   it to  a  public  audience   through   print,  radio  or  television media.  In their general  role, journalists are not  human  rights defenders. However, many journalists do act as defenders, for example  when  they report  on human  rights abuses  and  bear  witness to acts that  they have seen.  Teachers who  instruct  their  pupils  in basic  principles  of  human rights fulfil a similar role. Doctors and  other  medical professionals  who treat  and  rehabilitate   victims of  human   rights  violations  can  also  be viewed as human  rights defenders in the context of such work; and doc- tors have special obligations  by virtue of the Hippocratic oath.

Those who contribute to assuring justice—judges, the police, lawyers and other  key actors—often have  a  particular  role  to  play and  may  come under considerable  pressure to make decisions that are favourable to the State or other powerful interests,  such as the leaders of organized  crime. Where these  actors in the judicial process make a special effort to ensure access to fair and impartial justice, and thereby to guarantee the related human  rights of victims, they can be said to be acting  as human  rights defenders.

A similar “special effort” qualification can be applied to other professions or forms of employment  that  bear no obvious relation to human  rights. The individuals who  hold these  jobs may sometimes  choose  to conduct their  work  in a  way  that  offers  specific support  to  human  rights.  For example, some architects choose  to design their construction  projects in a way that  takes  into consideration relevant  human  rights,  such as the right to adequate (temporary) housing  for the people  who will work on the project, or the rights of children to be consulted  on the design, if the building is of particular relevance to them.

2. Defending human rights in a non-professional context

Many people  act as human  rights defenders outside  any professional  or employment context.  For example,  a student who  organizes  other  students  to campaign  for an end to torture  in prisons could be described as a human  rights defender. An inhabitant of a rural community who coordinates  a demonstration by members  of the community against  environmental degradation of  their  farmland  by factory  waste  could  also  be described  as a human  rights  defender. A politician who  takes  a stand against   endemic  corruption   within  a  Government  is a  human   rights defender for his or her action to promote and protect  good  governance and  certain  rights that  are threatened by such corruption. Witnesses  in court  cases to prosecute  the  perpetrators of human  rights abuses,  and witnesses who provide information  to international human  rights bodies or domestic courts and tribunals to help them address violations, are also considered  to be human  rights defenders in the context of those actions.

People all over the world strive for the realization of human  rights according  to their circumstances  and in their own way. The names of some human  rights defenders are internationally recognized, but the majority of defenders remain unknown. Whether  an individual works  as a local government official, a policeman  upholding  the law or an  entertainer using  his or her  position  to  highlight  injustices, all can play a role in the  advancement of human  rights. The key is to look at how such people act to support  human  rights and, in   some    instances,    to    see    whether     a    “special    effort” is made.

Clearly, it is impossible to catalogue the huge  variety of contexts in which  human  rights  defenders are  active.  However,  common  to most  defenders are  a commitment to  helping  others,  a commitment  to international human  rights standards, a belief in equality and  in non-discrimination, determination and,  in many  instances, tremendous courage.

C. Is a minimum  standard  required  of human  rights defenders?

No “qualification” is required  to  be  a human  rights defender, and  the Declaration on human  rights defenders makes clear, as explained above, that   we  can  all be  defenders of  human   rights  if we  choose   to  be. Nevertheless,  the  “standard” required  of a human  rights defender is a complex issue, and the Declaration clearly indicates that  defenders have responsibilities as well as rights.  This Fact Sheet  draws  attention to the following three key issues:

Accepting the  universality of human rights

Human rights defenders must accept  the universality of human  rights as defined  in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A person  cannot deny some  human  rights and  yet claim to be a human  rights defender because  he or she is an advocate  for others. For example, it would not be acceptable to defend  the human  rights of men but to deny that  women have equal rights.

Who  is right  and  who is wrongdoes it make a difference?

A second  important issue concerns  the  validity of the  arguments being presented. It is not essential for a human  rights defender to be correct in his or her arguments in order to be a genuine  defender. The critical test is whether or not the person  is defending a human  right. For example, a group  of defenders may advocate  for the  right of a rural community  to own the land they have lived on and farmed for several generations. They may conduct  protests  against  private  economic  interests  that  claim to own  all of the  land in the  area.  They may or may not  be correct  about who owns the  land. However, whether or not  they are legally correct is not  relevant  in  determining whether  they  are  genuine   human   rights defenders. The key issue is whether or not their concerns fall within the scope of human  rights.

This is a very important issue because, in many countries,  human  rights defenders are often  perceived by the State,  or even the public, as being in the  wrong  because  they are seen  as supporting  one  side of an argument.  They are then  told that  they are not “real”  human  rights defenders.  Similarly, defenders who  act  in defence   of  the  rights  of  political prisoners or persons  from armed  opposition  groups  are often  described by State authorities  as being supporters of such parties or groups,  simply because  they defend  the rights of the people  concerned.

This is incorrect. Human rights defenders must be defined  and accepted according  to the  rights they are defending and  according  to their own right to do so.

Peaceful action

Finally, the actions taken  by human  rights defenders must be peaceful in order to comply with the Declaration on human  rights defenders.

(Source: Fact Sheet No.29, Ch. 1, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights)