Protecting those who defend our human rights


Human rights defenders advocate humanity and fight for freedom, dignity, equtiy and equality for all people. In many countries, they're being surpressed and punished for standing up for those who can't. Therefore, the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders was created.

Schild "We will no be silent"

2020 will mark the 20th anniversary of the creation of the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. The mandate gathers and responds to information on the situation of defenders around the world, engages with governments and non-State actors and provides recommendations to promote the effective implementation of the Declaration on human rights defenders. The mandate is integral to the global recognition and protection of defenders.

Who are human rights defenders?

Human rights defenders are people who act with humanity, serve humanity and who contribute to and bring out the best in humanity. They are key to our daily lives - they work so our governments are more transparent and accountable, our environment cleaner and safer, our schools and workplaces fairer, and our futures more sustainable. They confront power, privilege and prejudice, and work to ensure that all people enjoy freedom, dignity, justice and equality.

Worldwide democratic values and human rights are under threat – and so are those who defend human rights. According to the 2019 CIVICUS Monitor, which tracks respect for freedoms of association, assembly and expression in 196 countries, “twice as many people live in repressed countries compared to a year ago”. This backslide of fundamental freedoms is not all bleak because it also shows how brave and resilient defenders are, continuing to speak truth to power and demanding that our governments and corporations do better. For that, they are frequently confronted with a wide range of risks and threats, including against their organisations and their families, friends and loved ones. They face killings, disappearances, detention, torture, sexual violence, intimidation, harassment, surveillance, defamation, smear campaigns, travel bans and many other violations simply because of their work.

Both governments and non-State actors are still seeking to silence defenders as they expose injustices and demand accountability for all.

That’s why the work of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defender is so vital.

First, the mandate helps people who act to promote and protect human rights to consider themselves as human rights defenders, to enjoy the legal protections afforded to defenders under international law, and to have the solidarity and support of a global network of individuals and organisations striving for a better world. From schoolteachers and students demanding a better education system, to factory workers demanding better pay and working conditions, to women and LGBTI+ persons demanding an end to gender-based violence, all these individuals and groups can identify themselves as defenders, and they deserve recognition and protection.

Second, the mandate contributes to protecting defenders through the support it provides to individuals by engaging with governments and non-State actors through individual communications and interventions. These communications can help prevent the passage of regressive laws, contribute to securing the release of detained defenders, and promote accountability for perpetrators of attacks against them.

Third, the mandate garners support and recognition for the importance and legitimacy of the work of defenders. This is vital, with public and political support for the work of defenders being an essential element contributing to their protection and an enabling environment for their work. The mandate does so through various tools: research, analysis, framing debates around emerging trends of risks and threats they face, advancing standards for the legal protection of defenders, pushing governments to ensure a safe and enabling environment and explaining what States need to do to make this a reality for all.

Over the past two decades, the mandate contributed to the protection and recognition of defenders on many levels: the release of defenders from detention, the recognition of the specific threats that women human rights defenders face, advancing standards at both national and international levels and in keeping the threats defenders face high on the international community’s agenda, among many others.

We expect the mandate to continue these vital contributions and to make further advances. Yet, we recognise the challenges the mandate faces.

Some States are still reluctant to accept the concept of human rights defenders and consistently attempt to weaken the mandate and its efforts to advance standards for the protection and recognition of defenders. It is no coincidence that most of those States systematically deny their citizens fundamental freedoms such as freedoms of association, assembly, expression, and the right to participate in public affairs.

Some States are still refusing to grant access to the mandate to visit their countries and, in other instances, the Office of the High Commissioner (which acts as the Secretariat for the mandate) deems some places too risky for the mandate to visit.

Even when access is possible, the limited financial and human resources place further limitations on what the mandate can do. The Special Rapporteur can make only two official country visits per year (like all other UN mandates). This is particularly challenging for the follow up on the country visits. The limited resources also impact the number of communications on individuals cases as well as their follow up, in addition to research on broader thematic issues.

Yet, despite these challenges, the mandate has managed to cover a broad range of issues for defenders, such as: impunity for violations against them, rights of people on the move, environmental human rights defenders, large scale development projects, the role of National Human Rights Institutions, the use of legislation to regulate defenders’ activities, journalists, media workers, youth and student defenders, among many other issues.

Human rights defenders need more support from the international community including from the UN. While the Special Rapporteur plays a vital role, it is not enough due to the mandate’s limited resources and the widespread threats defenders face across the globe.

The UN Secretary-General should step up the UN’s efforts by leading the development and ensuring the accountable implementation of a system-wide policy on the promotion and protection of human rights defenders, such as that already adopted by UN Environment.

All UN agencies should treat the Declaration on human rights defenders as a ‘guiding star’ for their work. UN agencies working on promoting the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should integrate the protection of defenders as a vital component of contributing to implementation of the SDGs and the prevention of human rights violations.

At a time where people across the globe are demanding more inclusive, sustainable and fairer societies, defenders are acting as leaders and agents of change to ensure that the world’s leaders have no choice but to listen.