Why are national laws on human rights defenders important?

The legal recognition and protection of defenders is vital to ensuring that they can work in a safe, supportive environment free of attacks, reprisals and unreasonable restrictions.

Some countries have developed laws on human rights defenders. Such laws can transpose UN and regional commitments referred to previously into national law, set out country-specific priorities for protecting human rights defenders, and provide a legal basis for protection mechanisms.

However, passing the law is not enough to ensure a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders. Its proper implementation also requires:

  • high-level political support
  • adherence to human rights frameworks
  • adequate resources for its implementation
  • effective functioning of the judiciary
  • the establishment of and support for an independent NHRI
  • safe and open access to regional and international human rights mechanisms

What should a law on human rights defenders look like?

National laws on human rights defenders should:

✅ Include protection measures to guarantee that human rights defenders can receive funding for their work, including from abroad;

✅ Put in place a strong, independent and well-resourced institution – such as an NHRI – to receive information from human rights defenders on human rights violations they address, or violations that target them personally;

✅ Explicitly cover human rights violations by non-state actors, such as businesses, armed groups, the media, religious groups, or individuals;

✅ Stipulate that human rights defenders are involved in the implementation and monitoring of certain provisions of these laws, such as protection mechanisms;

✅ Consider proposing a ‘code of conduct’ for human rights defenders to adhere to;

✅ Include protection measures that cover the family and colleagues of human rights defenders;

✅ Assign protection responsibilities to local and regional government if needs be.

National laws on human rights defenders should not:

❌ Contravene international human rights standards;

❌ Limit the definition of human rights defenders to specific types of defenders or particular activities and areas of work;

❌ Restrict protection to specific sectors in which human rights defenders operate (e.g. civil society or the private or public sector);

❌ Limit the types of attacks that human rights defenders receive protection from, whether they are carried out by the state or other actors.

Mongolia: A New Law to Protect Human Rights Defenders

On 1 July 2021, a new law for human rights defenders entered into force in Mongolia to ensure that human rights defenders are legally protected.

The Law on the Legal Status of Human Rights Defenders is the result of a collective effort of the Mongolian government, civil society, the National Human Rights Commission of Mongolia (the NHRI), and the UN. This new law amended the existing one on the Mongolian NHRI and granted the Commission clear responsibility in this area.

However, civil society voices indicated that the vaguely worded provisions could be used against and to undermine defenders. For instance, one prohibits human rights defenders from receiving funds from any party to conduct activities deemed harmful to national unity or considered as terrorism (article 7.2.1). Another prohibits defenders from “defaming the honour, reputation and fame of others” (article 8.1.3).

A Model Law for Human Rights Defenders

A Model National Law on the Recognition and Protection of Human Rights Defenders was developed by the International Service for Human Rights in collaboration with over 500 defenders worldwide.

The Model Law is based on a comprehensive analysis of international and regional human rights instruments, face-to-face consultations with more than 500 human rights defenders from over 110 countries, and monitoring and field work.

It seeks to guide states and other actors to ensure full and effective implementation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders at the national level. It can inspire states, civil society, and human rights actors (including NHRIs) when they propose or advise on ways to enhance the protection of human rights defenders.

Tip for NHRIs:

NHRIs can draw on the Model Law when preparing a legislative proposal for a law on human rights defenders or advising on an existing legislative initiative. Additionally, they can use features of the Model Law more broadly when advising on legislation and policy related to the enabling environment for civil society and human rights defenders.

Challenge yourself!

Do you think a law on human rights defenders should be adopted in your country? Or would it be better to fund or reinforce existing institutions? Why?

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.