factsheet29Not all human  rights work places human rights defenders at risk, and in some States defenders are generally well protected. However, the severity and  scale of reprisals committed  against  defenders were  one  of the primary motivations  behind  the  adoption of the  Declaration  on human rights  defenders and  the  establishment of the  mandate of the  Special Representative  of the Secretary-General  on human  rights defenders. 

The Special Representative has  expressed  concern  for  the  situation  of human  rights defenders in all countries, including both emerging  democracies and  countries  with long-established democratic  institutions,  practices and  traditions.  Nevertheless,  special emphasis  has been  placed  on countries  where:  (a) internal  armed  conflict or severe civil unrest  exists; (b) the legal and institutional protections  and guarantees of human  rights are not fully assured or do not exist at all.

A great many human  rights defenders, in every region of the world, have  been  subject  to  violations of their  human  rights.  They have been the target  of executions, torture,  beatings,  arbitrary arrest and detention, death  threats, harassment and  defamation, as well as restrictions on their freedoms  of movement, expression, association and assembly. Defenders have been the victims of false accusations and unfair trial and conviction.

Violations most  commonly  target  either  human  rights  defenders themselves  or the  organizations and  mechanisms  through  which they  work.  Occasionally, violations target  members  of defenders’ families, as a means  of applying  pressure  to  the  defender. Some human  rights defenders are at greater  risk because  of the nature of the rights they seek to protect. Women human rights defenders sometimes  confront  risks that  are gender  specific and  require particular attention.

In most cases, acts committed  against  human  rights defenders are in violation of both  international and national  law. In some countries,  however,  domestic   legislation  which  itself  contravenes international human rights law is used against  defenders.

A.     Examples  of acts committed against human  rights defenders

The following paragraphs describe  some  of the  human  rights violations and  obstacles  faced  by human  rights  defenders in the  course  of their work. While some of these  acts may occur only once, they often  continue to have an impact on defenders and their families for months  or even years afterwards. Death  threats, for example,  can  oblige  human  rights defenders to change  their daily routines  completely,  as well as those  of their immediate  family, or even to leave their country to seek temporary asylum abroad.

Many  human  rights  defenders have  been  the  victims of  killings  as  a direct response  to their human  rights work. They have been abducted by unidentified  persons  and  sometimes  by confirmed  members  of security forces and later been found dead or made to disappear completely. Assassination attempts have left defenders seriously injured and requiring hospitalization  and surgery.

In some regions of the world, death threats are used widely as a means of threatening  and  intimidating  human  rights  defenders into  stopping their work. Threats are often anonymous, made by telephone or letter. In some instances,  however,  the threats are made  by persons  known  to the defenders, but  who  are not  investigated  or charged  by the  police. The lack of effective police or judicial response  to killings and  death  threats creates a climate of impunity that encourages and perpetuates these  vio- lations.

Human  rights  defenders are  sometimes  kidnapped, for short  or long periods, and beaten during their captivity. Military personnel,  police and security force officials have resorted  to severe beatings  in an attempt to torture   defenders into  making  false  confessions  or  in  reprisal  for  a defender’s denunciation of violations committed  by security forces. Arbitrary arrest  and  detention of human  rights defenders are common,  and  most  often  conducted without   arrest  warrants   and  in  the absence  of any official charge.  Periods of preventive detention, without any judicial review, are sometimes  very long and occur in very poor conditions of detention. Human rights defenders can be particularly vulnerable to beatings,  ill-treatment  and torture  while in detention.

In some instances,  human  rights defenders are the object of criminal or other  charges leading to prosecution and conviction. Peaceful demonstrations, lodging  an  official complaint  against  ill-treatment   by police, participation  in a meeting  of indigenous  rights activists or unfurling a banner  commemorating victims of human  rights violations have all led to prosecution  on charges as varied as bribery, public disturbance and hooliganism. Court sentences in these  cases have included long terms of imprisonment, forcible commitment to  psychiatric institutions  and  “re-education through  labour”.

Harassment of human  rights defenders is commonplace and often goes unreported. It is almost always committed  by authorities  and can involve a wide variety of circumstances.  Human rights defenders are kept under surveillance and have their telephone lines cut or tapped. They have their travel and  identity documents confiscated,  preventing them  from going abroad to address human  rights forums. Human rights lawyers have been threatened with  disbarment or  placed  under  investigation.  Defenders have suffered administrative harassment, for example being forced to pay heavy fines for trivial administrative  transgressions  or to report  repeatedly over extended periods to an administrative  office for no clear reason. Judges  have been  removed  from presiding over particular cases or have been suddenly transferred  from one jurisdiction to another,  requiring the whole family to move to another part of the country.

Human  rights  defenders have  been  the  victims of  defamation  campaigns,  with slanderous  allegations  appearing in State-controlled media attacking their integrity and morals. Complaints have been  fabricated  to discredit  independent  non-governmental organizations and  journalists exposing human  rights abuses. Defenders and their work have been publicly misrepresented, being  described  as, among  other  things,  terrorists, rebels, subversives or actors for opposition  political parties. State authorities and State media have equated human  rights defenders with the persons whose  rights they seek to protect;  for example, defenders acting in support of the rights of persons from armed opposition groups have themselves  been  described as being affiliated to those  groups.

Policies, legislation and procedures described as “security” measures are sometimes  applied  in such a way as to restrict the  work of human rights defenders and sometimes  target  the defenders themselves.  Under the  pretext   of  security  reasons,   human   rights  defenders  have  been banned from leaving their towns, and police and other members  of security forces have summoned defenders to their offices, intimidated  them and ordered the suspension  of all their human  rights activities. Defenders have been prosecuted and convicted under vague security legislation and condemned to harsh sentences of imprisonment.

In addition  to violations targeting individuals, there are clear trends illustrating  a strategy,  in some  States,  of restricting the  environment in which   human   rights  defenders operate. Organizations   are  closed down  under  the  slightest  of pretexts; sources  of funding  are cut off or inappropriately  limited;  and  efforts  to  register  an  organization   with  a human   rights  mandate are  delayed  by  intentional   bureaucracy.  State authorities  obstruct the  holding of  meetings between human  rights defenders and  prevent  defenders from  travelling to  investigate  human rights concerns.

The  enactment and  enforcement of  laws   curtailing  the  legitimate exercise and enjoyment  of the rights to freedom  of opinion and expression, religious belief, association  and  movement, such as laws on registration  and  regulation  of the  activities of non-governmental organizations, or legislation banning  or hindering  the  receipt  of foreign funds  for  human   rights  activities,  have  all been  used  to  harass  and obstruct  the work of human  rights defenders.

Some efforts to hinder the work of human  rights defenders have focused on their place or means  of work. The offices and/or  homes of defenders are the  subject  of attacks,  burglary  and  unauthorized searches. Premises from which human  rights defenders operate have been  closed by authorities,  and defenders have had their bank accounts  frozen. Their equipment and files, including computers, documents, photographs and diskettes,  have  been  stolen  or confiscated.  Access to  the  Internet  and international e-mail facilities has been  restricted or prevented altogether.

All the  above  violations of the  rights  of human  rights  defenders have been  compounded by a culture of impunity which exists in many countries in relation to acts committed  against  human  rights defenders.

B.    The situation of women human  rights  defenders

Women  human  rights defenders have faced  all the  acts described in  section  A above.  However,  their  particular  situation  and  role require special awareness  and sensitivity both  to the ways in which they might  be affected  differently by such pressures  and  to some additional  challenges.  It is essential  to ensure  that  women  human rights  defenders as well as men  are  protected and  supported in their work and,  indeed,  that  such women  are fully recognized  as human  rights defenders.

The  following  paragraphs provide  a  few  examples  (by no  means  an exhaustive list) of ways in which women  human  rights defenders can face different pressures from those  confronting  men and so require particular protection.

As discussed in section  C below, the  State  is the  primary perpetrator of violations against human  rights defenders. Women human  rights defenders,   however,    have   often   found   that   their   rights   are   violated by members  of their own communities,  who may resent and oppose their human  rights activities, which some community leaders may see as challenging  their perceptions  of the  traditional  role of women.  In such cases, State authorities  have often  failed to provide adequate protection for women  defenders and their work against the social forces that threaten them.

In  many   parts   of   the   world,   the   traditional   role   of   women   is perceived  as integral  to  a society’s culture.  This can  make  it especially hard for women  human  rights defenders to question  and oppose  aspects of their  tradition  and  culture  when  they  violate human  rights.  Female genital mutilation is a good example of such practices, although there are many others.

Similarly, many women  are perceived by their communities  as an extension of the  community  itself. If a woman  human  rights defender is the victim of a rape because  of her human  rights work she may be perceived by her extended family as having brought shame on both  the family and the  wider  community.  As a human  rights defender she  must  carry the burden  not only of the trauma  of the rape, but also of the notion within her community  that,  through  her human  rights work,  she has brought shame  on  those  around  her.  Even where  no  rape  or other  attack  has occurred,  women  who choose  to be human  rights defenders must often confront  the anger of families and communities  that consider them to be jeopardizing  both  honour   and  culture.  The  pressures  to  stop  human rights work can be very strong.

Women  human  rights defenders having day-to-day  responsibility for the care of young children or elderly parents  often find it very hard to continue  their  human  rights  work  knowing  that  arrest  and  detention would prevent them  from fulfilling that  role in the family.

This remains a concern for women  human  rights defenders even though, across the world, men are increasingly sharing responsibility for the care of dependants. However, women  have also used  this role to strengthen their work as human  rights defenders, for example  where  “mothers of disappeared persons” have formed human  rights organizations. The fact that  they are mothers  of victims of human  rights violations has provided a very strong  rallying point and advocacy tool for these  defenders.

The complexities that influence a particular human  rights issue can sometimes  impose  unique  pressures  on  women  human  rights  defenders. In many cultures, the requirement for women  to defer to men in public can be an obstacle to their publicly questioning action by men in violation of human  rights. Similarly, certain interpretations of religious texts are often used to determine laws or practices having a major influence on human rights. Women human  rights defenders who wish to challenge such laws or practices and their negative impact on human  rights are often barred, because  they are women,  from acceptance as an authority  qualified to interpret such religious scriptures. These  women   defenders  are  thus excluded  from addressing,  on equal  terms  with men,  the  primary arguments  being used against  them. Again, they may also face hostility from the community in which they must continue  to live.

The  challenges  faced  by  women   human  rights defenders  sometimes require  a  broader  analysis and  understanding than  those  confronting men.

C.    Perpetrators of violations against human  rights defenders

State authorities  are the most common  perpetrators of violations against human  rights defenders yet also bear the primary responsibility for assuring their protection. However, a variety of “non-State” actors also commit, or are implicated  in, acts against  human  rights defenders and  it is important to note  their responsibility.

1.      State authorities

It is not possible to list here the full range  of State authorities  that have been  implicated in violations against  human  rights defenders. It is useful, however, to note some examples and to emphasize that, most  often,  where  one  State  authority  is a perpetrator then  other State  authorities  are often  complicit in the  violation because  they have not prevented or reacted  to the acts committed. State author- ities,  in  this  context,   should  be  understood to  include  multiple types  of authorities  at  the  bureaucratic  as well as political levels, and  to  include especially local authorities  as well as those  at  the national  level.

Police and other  security forces are the most visible perpetrators of acts such as arbitrary arrests, illegal searches  and physical violence. However, other authorities are usually also implicated. For example, where an arrest in violation of international standards  is conducted with an arrest warrant issued  by  local  authorities   and  leads  to  prosecution   and  conviction, police, members  of the judiciary and State lawyers may all be complicit in the violation of a human  rights defender’s rights.

Where  laws or administrative  regulations  are inappropriately  applied  so as to  prevent  human  rights  defenders from  registering  as non-governmental  organizations or from  meeting  together, the  civilian authorities responsible  for applying those  rules carry major responsibility. It is common for some State authorities  falsely to push defenders into administrative “illegality”  and  to  use  this  as  the  basis  for  a  subsequent arrest, detention and conviction.

It can be difficult to identify with certainty the perpetrators of some acts committed against  human  rights defenders, such  as anonymous death threats.  In these  situations,  as  with  every violation,  the  relevant  State authorities  bear  responsibility for investigating  the  acts committed, providing temporary protection  if needed and prosecuting  those responsible. Where State authorities  do not fulfil this responsibility they are in breach of  their  obligations.   In practice,  police  in  some  countries   sometimes refuse to act on, or even to register, complaints of attacks against human rights defenders, and courts are reluctant  to put the perpetrators on trial. Inaction by the authorities  has sometimes  allowed a violation to continue or be repeated and to worsen,  with successive death  threats eventually leading to the actual murder of a human  rights defender.

2.      Non-State actors

The group  of “non-State” actors  is very broad  and  extends  to  armed groups,  businesses  such  as transnational corporations, and  individuals. While the State bears the primary responsibility to protect  human  rights defenders, it is essential to recognize  that  non-State actors can be implicated in acts committed  against them,  both with and without  State com- plicity.

Armed groups  have used  killings, abduction and  death  threats, among other acts, as regular tactics to silence human  rights defenders. Some of these  groups  operate in active collusion with Governments, for example as  a  paramilitary  force,  while  others  are  in conflict  with  the  State  as armed  opposition  groups.

Private  economic  interests—such  as  transnational  corporations or major landowners—have an increasingly recognized  impact on the economic and social rights of people from the community in which  they  are  based.   In some  countries,   where  human   rights defenders have  conducted peaceful  protests  against  the  negative human   rights  impact  of  transnational  corporations, the  security forces have used violence to repress the protests.  In other cases, the authorities  have failed to intervene  when  unidentified  individuals, suspected of acting  on behalf  of private economic  interests,  have attacked human  rights defenders. The Special Representative  of the Secretary-General  on  human  rights  defenders has  noted  that,  in some  of these  attacks,  the  complicity and  responsibility of private sector entities are clear and must be recognized.

In other  examples of non-State acts, human  rights defenders have been the  victims of killings, beatings  and  intimidation  instigated  by religious associations,  community or tribal elders, and even members  of their own family, in direct reaction  to their human  rights work.

3.      Positive role  of State and  non-State actors

In many States, the obligation to respect,  protect  and implement  human rights is generally fulfilled effectively; and in almost every State there are, at  the  very least,  individuals within  the  security and  civilian authorities who  work very hard to protect  human  rights and  who  themselves  fulfil the role of human  rights defenders. In some cases, police officers, judges, civilian members  of the  State  bureaucracy  and  politicians have  placed themselves  at  great  personal  risk so as to  protect  the  human  rights of others,  to support  justice and to end corruption.

Similarly, although some  private  actors  are  perpetrators of  violations against  human  rights defenders, others  provide fundamental support  in addressing  such acts. Transnational corporations  can be a powerful  force in assuring that  rights are respected, and some corporations  have adopted good employment  policies and contributed to the economic and social rejuvenation  of the communities  in which they are established.  Religious leaders  have  often  been  at  the  forefront  of  action  to  defend  human rights and human  rights defenders themselves.

In some cases, there may be no clear-cut separation between positive and negative non-State actors. Business interests may contribute positively to some human  rights but have a negative  impact on others.  It is essential, therefore,  to look at how businesses and other actors respond  to human rights defenders who draw their attention to the negative  human  rights impact of their activities.

(Source: Fact Sheet No.29, Ch. 2, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights)