Why should European NHRIs work on the topic of human rights defenders?

National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) play a vital role in protecting, promoting and supporting individual human rights defenders and civil society organisations in their human rights work. They do this through a variety of functions embedded in the NHRI mandate given by the UN Paris Principles.  

In a time of increasingly restricted democratic space, NHRIs can help place human rights at the heart of public debate. NHRIs act as ‘bridge builders’ between international human rights standards and national realities. They engage with rights-holders and defenders and cooperate with government authorities, civil society, and international organisations.

Crucially, NHRIs and their staff are recognised as human rights defenders. The very nature of their work means they often come under threat or face challenges and pressure from the government. 

Protecting human rights defenders and civic space through the implementation of the Marrakech Declaration

The 2018 annual conference of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) was a pivotal moment. NHRIs worldwide agreed on the Marrakech Declaration on the role of NHRIs in expanding civil space and promoting and protecting human rights defenders.

It guides NHRIs in strengthening their human rights promotion and protection mandate and reinforcing cooperation and partnerships. This is with a view to promoting and protecting the rights of human rights defenders globally.  

ENNHRI’s Regional Action Plan aims to implement the Declaration in Europe. It sets out actions for NHRIs – acting nationally and collectively as a European network – under the areas of prevention (i.e. ensuring an enabling environment for human rights defenders) and reaction (i.e. continuous and rapid responses when democracy and defenders are at risk). The 2021 Implementation Report shows key activities conducted in 2019 and 2020 by European NHRIs (nationally) and ENNHRI (collectively). 

Monitoring and reporting on human rights defenders and civil society space

Some NHRIs conduct independent monitoring of and report on civil society space and the enabling environment for human rights defenders. By monitoring legislation and policies that impact human rights defenders’ work, NHRIs analyse their compliance with human rights standards, follow up on their implementation, and identify legal gaps in human rights defenders’ protection.  

NHRIs can develop a monitoring system to collect reliable data on human rights violations committed against human rights defenders in various contexts, including at public demonstrations, in detention centres, and in the digital sphere. These findings can be reported to national authorities to call for effective and tailored protection and prevention mechanisms, as well as shared with regional and international human rights mechanisms. 

NHRIs can: 

Develop a monitoring and reporting structure on human rights defenders and civil society

Monitor and report on the implementation of recommendations and judgments of regional and international mechanisms concerning human rights defenders

Monitor legislation and policies related to civil society and human rights defenders’ activities, including those that may impact on their work

Monitor the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression

Report to and engage with international and regional human rights mechanisms in support of human rights defenders

Report threats to human rights defenders in annual reports and other publications

Report on human rights impact of use of concept of ‘radicalism’ and radicalisation

Recommendations and advice on legislation, executive measures and public policies to enable and protect human rights defenders’ and civil society space

NHRIs are responsible for advising state authorities on human rights issues, either as a result of their status or through referral from the government. They advise on legislation, executive measures, public policies, and practices that concern human rights defenders and civil society space. Furthermore, they make recommendations in line with international and regional human rights standards and frameworks.  

Beyond this, NHRIs help ensure an enabling environment for human rights defenders. They do so by developing specific norms and guidelines; advocating for their participation in policymaking; and safeguarding appropriate funding for human rights defenders and civil society. 

NHRIs can:

Advise on laws prohibiting organisations inciting hatred, violence and discrimination

Encourage participation of human rights defenders and rights-holders in the policymaking and legislation process

Act as a party to the Constitutional Court on rights of human rights defenders

Issue expert opinions on upholding democratic values when combating extremism

Advise on application of international law in non-government controlled, non-recognised and other disputed territories

Draft recommendations to the governments in regional fora

See work of:

Ombudsman of Spain

Address the situation of human rights defenders in climate emergency

Ensure an enabling environment through appropriate civil society funding

Contribute to the development of national laws, policies or guidelines on human rights defenders

Facilitate access to justice for human rights defenders

Some NHRIs can assist individual human rights defenders by handling and investigating individual complaints, challenging rights violations before tribunals, and intervening before national and regional courts. NHRIs also support human rights defenders deprived of their liberty, in prisons and police stations, and those unreasonably accused of illegal activities while performing their human rights work, even in disputed areas.

Through the complaints received, NHRIs can identify worrying trends of human rights abuses against defenders and refer individual cases to UN and regional independent mechanisms.  

NHRIs can:

Handle individual complaints of human rights violations to human rights defenders

Handle complaints from imprisoned human rights defenders

Refer individual cases to UN and European independent mechanisms

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Use strategic litigation before a national court and case referral to UN and European independent mechanisms

Conduct collective interventions before regional human rights mechanisms

See the collective work of ENNHRI members

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Promoting a culture of rights for all human rights defenders

Due to their independence and mandate, NHRIs lead – often in challenging circumstances – in raising awareness of the key role that human rights defenders and civil society organisations play in democratic societies. By promoting positive narratives around defenders and publicly supporting their work, NHRIs promote a culture of rights and mitigate potential social tensions and unrest. Ways they do so include statements and condemning attacks against human rights defenders.

NHRIs can:

Raise awareness of the role of human rights defenders in democratic societies

Promote positive narratives on human rights defenders

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Learn more about hope-based communications through ENNHRI’s online course: Framing migration from a human rights perspective.

Issue public statements supporting freedom of media and press and journalists

Grant a Human Rights Award

Promoting cooperation and partnerships with and for human rights defenders

Cooperating with and building alliances among local, national, and international actors is crucial to support human rights defenders and their work. NHRIs collaborate with civil society organisations and human rights defenders – including through joint training, data sharing, and monitoring platforms – to achieve common goals.

Moreover, NHRIs cooperate with their peers in other countries and regions to exchange good practices and ensure that human rights defenders facing challenges are protected.

NHRIs can:

Create partnerships and joint initiatives with civil society and human rights defenders

Create funding schemes to support civil society and human rights defenders

Conduct capacity building activities for human rights defenders

Conduct capacity building programmes for state officials

Engage with regional and international actors

Are you an ENNHRI member?
Share your experience with us!

Join or log into the ENNHRI Hub and submit your good practices by filling out this form.

Support human rights defenders facing challenges and threats

Across the world, individual human rights defenders are subject to threats and attacks. These can take various forms: arbitrary arrest; death threats; harassment; defamation; and restrictions on the freedom of expression, association and assembly; and even go as far as torture and murder. Some groups of defenders face greater risk due to the rights they strive to promote and protect. They include those defending women’s, migrants’ and LGBTI+ rights.

There are many ways for NHRIs to support human rights defenders at risk. They can establish rapid reaction programmes and coordinate safe relocation programmes with other actors, as well as raise awareness of safe digital communication tools. In line with the recommendations of the former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, NHRIs should designate a focal point for human rights defenders. This person should monitor the situation of human rights defenders, including security, legal and any other risks. NHRI can also set up early warning platforms to record human rights violations against defenders. These can feed into recommendations provided to national authorities and help create better prevention mechanisms.

NHRIs can:

Issue statements of solidarity in support of other human rights defenders

Advise police on engagement with journalists and media

Establish rapid reaction programmes

Create safe space programmes for human rights defenders

Advise on relocation programmes

Set up a protection mechanism and focal point in the NHRI

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Identify early warning mechanisms

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Advise on digital security tools and platforms for human rights defenders

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Submit your good practices

Are you an ENNHRI member?
We invite you to contribute to our collection of good practices on defending human rights defenders!

Join or log into the ENNHRI Hub and submit your good practices by filling out this form.

New updates on the situation of human rights defenders in your country can also be shared through ENNHRI’s annual rule of law report.

Please contact Katrien Meuwissen from the Secretariat for more guidance.