The right to defend rights

The right to defend human rights – as set out in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders – derives from human rights set forth in binding international treaties and other regional instruments, such as OSCE commitments. It is also a requirement for realising other rights, for example freedom of expression and assembly and the right to information.

Definition

According to the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, a human rights defender:

  • acts independently or in association with others to protect, implement and promote human rights at the national and international levels, regardless of their profession or other status;
  • recognises the universality of human rights for all;
  • promotes and protects human rights for all, including civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, without distinction of any kind;
  • acts to address any human right (or rights) on behalf of individuals or groups; and
  • acts peacefully in protecting and promoting human rights.

A human rights defender cannot pick and choose which rights are legitimate. If they deny the existence of certain rights or the existence of rights for certain groups of people, they cannot be considered defenders, even though they may be very active in defending other rights.

So, who can be a human rights defender?

1. Human rights defenders are defined by what they do, not by who they are.

A human rights defender can be:

An individual

Such as a journalist, a lawyer, an activist, a member of the public, or NHRI staff.

An organisation

Either public or private, working at the national, regional or international level, such as a civil society organisation or a trade union.

A National Human Rights Institution (NHRI)

As mentioned by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

Examples

Elżbieta Podleśna was one of the leading activists involved in the 2017 Polish Women’s Strike. In late April 2019, she put up images of a Black Madonna with a rainbow halo around the city of Plock – including on church property – to protest against an Easter display describing “LGBT” and “gender” as sins.

She is a human rights defender as she fights discrimination against LGBTI+ people and women, has expressed her opinions peacefully, and has participated in demonstrations.


No-TAP is a spontaneous citizens’ initiative that has been active in Italy since 2011. It is formed of residents of Melendugno and neighbouring towns who oppose the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) project. This would threaten ancient olive farms, water sources, cultural heritage sites, and the local coastline in a region heavily dependent on agriculture and tourism.

As human rights defenders, they raise awareness on and fight against violations of environmental, economic and health rights that would arise from the TAP infrastructure project.

In early 2021, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal ruled that the country’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Adam Bodnar, be removed from his post. The opposition accused the tribunal of being controlled by the government and wanting to silence the government’s most strident critics.

The Ombudsman’s office under Bodnar had been one of a few remaining checks on the executive. His removal happened following his decision to block the takeover of a news agency by a state-owned oil company, a move that would have reduced media pluralism in the country.

2. Can public officials be human rights defenders?

Public officials working on human rights can be considered human rights defenders. However, organisations working in this field – such as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders – do not often openly take up the cases of elected officials.

This does not mean that they are not human rights defenders. However, their position within a public body may mean that they benefit from greater support and resources and are generally more protected than individuals or civil society organisations.

Additionally, if an NHRI or a civil society organisation takes up cases of politicians or government officials, they may risk being criticised for taking political sides.

Hover over the images for examples of public officials as human rights defenders.

Domenico Lucano, Italian politician and former mayor of Riace, was subjected to judicial harassment and arbitrary arrest. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison for “aiding illegal immigration.”

Igor Tuleya, a Polish judge critical of the ruling nationalists’ judiciary reforms, had his immunity from prosecution removed by a disciplinary chamber deemed not independent by the EU.

Eric Claessens, a Belgian whistle-blower police inspector, was dismissed for filing a complaint against fellow officers for violence and abuse of power.

3. Do all human rights defenders identify as such?

Many human rights defenders do not identify as such, and for some this is an active choice. They might be unaware of the term, be unfamiliar with human rights language, or feel uncomfortable using it. In some cases, it may also be dangerous for human rights defenders to label themselves as such.

For example, women defenders and defenders from marginalised groups may not use the term out of a sense of humility or respect for the people whose rights they defend; people who may be more marginalised than themselves.

A little history

The Helsinki Final Act was adopted at the 1975 Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It stated “the right of the individual to know and act upon his rights and duties in the [human rights] field.

The Helsinki Final Act was adopted at the 1975 Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It stated “the right of the individual to know and act upon his rights and duties in the [human rights] field.

1980

The idea of a declaration on the right to promote and defend human rights came about in 1980 at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. A resolution (1980/23) was passed that appealed to all governments to “encourage and support individuals and organs of society exercising their rights and responsibilities to promote the effective observance of human rights.”

The idea of a declaration on the right to promote and defend human rights came about in 1980 at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. A resolution (1980/23) was passed that appealed to all governments to “encourage and support individuals and organs of society exercising their rights and responsibilities to promote the effective observance of human rights”.

1987

Canada and Norway presented the first draft of a UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1987. The draft emphasised the protection and rights of human rights defenders as individuals.

Canada and Norway presented the first draft of a UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1987. The draft emphasised the protection and rights of human rights defenders as individuals.

Finally, the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was adopted in 1998. It crystallised the concept of a human rights defender and the obligations of states.

Finally, the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was adopted in 1998. It crystallised the concept of a human rights defender and the obligations of states.

Challenge yourself!

If you had to write a national report on human rights defenders, how would you select the cases you report about? Can you realistically consider all citizens who have defended human rights on one occasion as human rights defenders?

Extinction Rebellion is “an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimise the risk of social collapse.” Extinction Rebellion activists in France sabotaged 3,600 electric scooters in December 2019, deeming them to be an ‘ecological disaster’. Can this be considered a peaceful form of protest? If not, does it mean they are not HRDs?

Some proposals for a national law on HRDs suggest drawing up an official list or categories of HRDs for the purpose of registering them and providing protection. What are the pros and cons of this approach?

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.