Why be a Human Rights Defender?

Why should we defend human rights? Asking this question is analogous to questioning why we breathe… it just wouldn’t make sense not to. As humans, we all share the responsibility of ensuring that others are afforded the same rights as each other and that we are all treated equally. 

Who are human rights defenders?

Defenders often risk their lives attempting to uphold others’ human rights and to expose those who abuse them. Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, and Mahatma Gandhi are among the millions of activists around the globe who have risked their lives championing for the rights of others.

While they all come from different walks of life, what defines a human rights defender is a passion for pushing for the rights of others. This is one of the most rewarding aspects of human rights activism; defenders can identify with and share in a common enthusiasm to benefit the world and those who live within it.

What do human rights defenders do?

Parallel to a vast definition, what human rights defenders do is also extensive because their work can be carried out at a local, national, or even international level. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • collecting evidence of, and documenting, human rights abuses;
  • raising awareness of human rights violations;
  • educating people on their rights, and how to defend themselves against those willing to abuse those rights;
  • reporting violations to international bodies;
  • offering support to survivors of human rights violations; and
  • pursuing legal avenues for justice.

Are there protections for human rights defenders?

Many human rights defenders have become targets for groups or individuals who want to stop their sensitive human rights activities. However, numerous provisions exist to protect defenders under international law.

The UN’s Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted in 1998, recognises the vital part defenders play in protecting human rights. The declaration provides that defenders have a right to:

  • defend human rights;
  • criticise government bodies and agencies violating human rights;
  • seek resources for human rights work;
  • document human rights abuses; and
  • freely associate with others. 

Other protections for human rights defenders around the world include North and South America’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, and the European Union’s (EU) Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders.

The EU’s guidelines hold that there are protections in place for human rights defenders operating out of ‘third countries’ (countries where there is an EU presence but outside the EU).

Phoebe Egoroff

Founder and of Jurist International, a website focusing on the latest developments in international human rights and criminal law.

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