International and regional instruments on human rights defenders

In this chapter:

UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders helps define both who a human rights defender is and what their fields of activity are. It also recognises their value to society. Furthermore, it sets out that human rights defenders should be entitled and free to:

  • protect rights at the national and international levels;
  • carry out human rights activities individually or in association with others;
  • form associations and non-governmental organisations;
  • assemble peacefully;
  • seek, retrieve, obtain, and possess information related to human rights;
  • develop and discuss human rights ideas and principles and advocate for them;
  • criticise state agencies and address them with relevant proposals, as well as draw attention to the aspects of their activities that hinder the realisation of human rights;
  • appeal against such official policies or actions related to human rights;
  • offer and provide professional and qualified legal assistance or other advice and support in the field of human rights protection;
  • attend public hearings, proceedings and trials to assess their compliance with national law and international human rights obligations;
  • have unhindered access to and communication with NGOs and intergovernmental organisations;
  • enjoy effective remedies;
  • be effectively protected by national law when criticising the state through peaceful means for its actions or misconduct, which are manifested in human rights violations; and
  • request, receive and use resources to protect human rights (including receiving funding from foreign sources).

The Declaration does not create new rights, but articulates existing ones in a way that makes it easier to apply them to the practical role and situation of human rights defenders.

The Commentary to the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders clarifies that, although the Declaration is not a legally binding instrument, it contains rights that are already recognised in many legally binding international human rights instruments. It also specifies how these apply to human rights defenders in particular.

Enabling environment for human rights defenders

The Declaration contains provisions on the responsibilities of states to facilitate the work of and to ensure an enabling environment for human rights defenders.

States should:

  • create a favourable environment for human rights defenders, including by passing laws that aid their work as opposed to hindering it;
  • carry out enquiries promptly when violations occur;
  • protect human rights defenders against threats, retaliation, violence, or any arbitrary action by the state or any other groups or individuals;
  • train state officials on human rights;
  • create and support an independent national institution for the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, for instance an ombuds or a human rights commission.

The state’s responsibilities to ensure an enabling environment were further detailed in the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Margaret Sekaggya. They were described as:

  • creating a supportive legal, institutional and administrative framework;
  • ensuring access to justice and eliminating impunity for crimes committed against human rights defenders;
  • establishing and supporting a strong and independent NHRI;
  • putting in place effective protection policies and mechanisms that focus on at-risk groups;
  • devoting special attention to women working on gender issues and women’s rights;
  • respecting and backing work by non-state actors in support of human rights defenders;
  • securing and maintaining access to international human rights bodies; and
  • supporting a strong and dynamic community of human rights defenders.

In line with the above, an enabling environment for human rights defenders requires the protection of their physical and psychological integrity and liberty; ensuring their security and dignity; and the realisation of other fundamental rights. These include freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, freedom of movement, the right to participate in public life, and the right to privacy.

Council of Europe declarations and recommendations

The Council of Europe has stepped up its efforts to protect and promote the rights of human rights defenders. Over time, it has developed a series of instruments to ensure that they and civil society organisations can continue doing their vital work.


Declaration of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on action to improve the protection of human rights defenders and promote their activities (2008)

The Declaration calls on Council of Europe Member States to:

  • consider giving or strengthening competence and capacity to independent commissions, ombudspersons, or NHRIs to receive, consider and make recommendations for the resolution of complaints by human rights defenders about violations of their rights;
  • ensure that human rights defenders have effective access to the European Court of Human Rights, the European Committee of Social Rights, and other human rights protection mechanisms;
  • provide measures for swift assistance and protection of human rights defenders in danger in third countries, such as (and where appropriate) attendance at and observation of trials and/or issuing of emergency visas.

Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on the need to strengthen the protection and promotion of civil society space in Europe (2018)

The Recommendation contains detailed recommendations to Member States of the Council of Europe on:

  • The national legal framework and political and public environment to protect and promote civil society space;
    • e.g.: “f. ensure timely and transparent public consultations in policy development and draft legislation, especially where it may affect civil society”;
  • National measures to protect civil society space;
    • e.g.: “a. prevent violations of the rights of human rights defenders including smear campaigns, threats and attacks against them, and other attempts to hinder their work”;
  • National measures to promote civil society space;
    • e.g.: “b. ensure women human rights defenders are able to access specific support, funding, and protection, including against gender-based violence, and guarantee an environment in which they can work free from violence and discrimination”;
  • Support from Council of Europe bodies and institutions.

Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on the protection of journalism and safety of journalists and other media actors (2016)

The Recommendation provides guidelines to Member States in the areas of prevention, protection, prosecution, promotion of information, education and awareness raising. Specifically, Member States must put in place comprehensive legislative frameworks for the protection of the physical and moral integrity of journalists.

For instance: “As part of the reviews of laws and practices, Member States which have defamation laws should ensure that those laws include freedom of expression safeguards that conform to European and international human rights standards, including truth/public-interest/fair comment defences and safeguards against misuse and abuse, in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights and the principle of proportionality”.

Tips for NHRIs:

NHRIs can monitor the state’s implementation of the Council of Europe Recommendations on civil society space and protecting journalists and other media actors.

In particular, they can monitor and report if they as institutions have the adequate mandate and resources to promote the work of and protect human rights defenders effectively.

Alongside this, NHRIs should monitor and report on whether human rights defenders in their respective countries enjoy access to the European Court of Human Rights and other Council of Europe human rights mechanisms.

They are also well placed to monitor if national authorities are implementing relevant judgements and decisions of the European Court of Human Rights and other Council of Europe mechanisms and if national protection mechanisms for human rights defenders are in place.

OSCE Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

Following a call by civil society during the 2012 OSCE Ministerial Council in Dublin, ODIHR created the ODIHR Guidelines for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. While these do not set new standards or seek to create “special” rights for human rights defenders, they advise participating States on how they can protect them.

Among other things, the Guidelines:

  • detail how States’ obligations towards human rights defenders are grounded in international law, including treaties, commentaries, UN reports, court cases, jurisprudence and other sources;
  • reiterate that the primary responsibility for protecting human rights defenders lies with states, which have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of all, including human rights defenders;
  • request that OSCE States set up appropriate instruments and mechanisms to protect human rights defenders both domestically and abroad; and
  • request non-state actors are held accountable if they violate the rights of human rights defenders.

Tip for NHRIs:

NHRIs can use the Guidelines to see how different human rights and their promotion and protection support human rights defenders’ work. Elements of them can also assist NHRIs in monitoring whether an enabling environment for human rights defenders has been created and consolidated.

EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders

The EU adopted its Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders to strengthen EU action to support and protect human rights defenders in non-EU countries. They outline how the embassies of EU Member States and EU Delegations can do so together with human rights defenders directly; in the context of their work with countries outside of the EU; and within global multilateral arenas such as the UN.

In summary, the Guidelines propose the following actions:

  • monitoring and assessment of human rights defenders’ situations by EU officials (diplomats), with this reported to head office;
  • meetings between diplomatic personnel and human rights defenders;
  • elaborating local strategies to implement the Guidelines in collaboration with human rights defenders;
  • providing visible recognition and asserting the legitimacy of human rights defenders and their work;
  • observing trials against human rights defenders;
  • visiting human rights defenders in jail and at their place of work;
  • issuing emergency visas;
  • promoting and supporting networks of human rights defenders;
  • discussing specific cases and the general situation with host governments and in international fora;
  • funding human rights defenders;
  • promoting the establishment of NHRIs and their work to contribute to human rights defenders’ protection,
  • promoting regional and international mechanisms that protect human rights defenders; and
  • supporting the UN Special Procedures, such as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, and regional mechanisms that protect human rights defenders.

There is no specific EU policy on human rights defenders within the EU – the Guidelines only apply in non-EU countries. However, NHRIs in these countries can report to the EU and its delegation on the status of human rights defenders, discuss the Guideline’s implementation with the EU, and request EU protection when they face threats.

Example: EU action under the Guidelines in Turkey

This EU local strategy to support and defend human rights defenders was drafted on the basis of the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders. It includes input from human rights defenders and was agreed on by Member State embassies in Turkey. It contains operational guidelines on providing effective support to and a provision on monitoring the situation of human rights defenders in Turkey. Beyond this, it details the risks that human rights defenders face; gives guidance on accessing emergency EU assistance; stipulates meetings between EU officials and human rights defenders; and commits to observing trials of human rights defenders.

Challenge yourself!

Have a look at the example from the OSCE Guidelines below.

Physical integrity, liberty and security and dignity of human rights defenders

A. Protection from threats, attacks and other abuses

12. State institutions and officials must refrain from any acts of intimidation or reprisals by threats, damage and destruction of property, physical attacks, torture and other ill-treatment, killing, enforced disappearance or other physical or psychological harm targeting human rights defenders and their families. Participating States also have a duty to protect human rights defenders from such acts by nonstate actors and to take steps to prevent abuses. Public authorities should publicly condemn such acts and apply a policy of zero tolerance.

Has your NHRI monitored whether this has been respected in your country? If so, what recommendation(s) were made to the State? If it has not yet been done, can you think of cases where this analysis could be made in your country? What would the sources be and which actors would you consult?

Further resources

This resource is co-funded by the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.