Human Rights Defenders

a Blog by Jo Ozga, Scottish Women’s Aid

In the voluntary sector we don’t tend to describe ourselves as human rights defenders when asked what kind of work we do. But a recent invitation, prompted by the HRCS, from the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders to attend a regional consultation in Florence made me consider my own role, and that of voluntary sector colleagues, in defending the rights of the people we work with and represent.   M Furst group photo

The Declaration of Human Rights Defenders is the first UN instrument that recognizes the importance and legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders (HRDs) as well as their need for better protection. Many HRDs working in different parts of the world risk torture, imprisonment and other forms of violence and intimidation in carrying out their work. The Declaration recognises that women human rights defenders are at particular risk – targeted both for their work and their gender.

The Declaration purposefully uses a broad definition of a human rights defender to describe people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights. It recognises that this work can address any human rights concerns which can be as varied as, for example, summary executions, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, female genital mutilation, discrimination, employment issues, forced evictions, access to health care, and toxic waste and its impact on the environment. HRDs can be active in supporting issues such as women and children’s rights, rights to food, adequate housing, access to healthcare and education – all issues many of us work with on a daily basis. The Declaration explains that we can all be human rights defenders if we choose to be – but that defenders have responsibilities as well as rights, for example in having a commitment to international human rights standards, a belief in equality and in non-discrimination.

At the consultation session I was lucky to meet an incredibly interesting and committed group of people from all over Europe as well as Israel, New Zealand, Canada, Australia and the USA. They work in different capacities as human rights defenders, on a wide range of issues such as the rights of migrants, refugees and LGBTI people and defending the rights of people working on environmental issues or challenging corporate accountability. Jo of SWA

While we experienced different difficulties in our work we shared a number of issues in common that challenge the work of HRDs in western countries. For example, in the extent to which counter terrorism laws can restrict or criminalise the work of human rights defenders, restrictions on peaceful protest and assembly, increasing constraints on funding for charities and NGOs involved in work seen as ‘political’, in moves to restrict the rights of asylum seekers and refugees and the ways in which human rights defenders can be stigmatised and defamed. In the UK we can see this reflected in the proposed scrapping of the Human Rights Act, disinformation about human rights in sections of the media, the introduction of the ‘Lobbying Act’ and the vilification of women who speak out on women’s rights. All of this underlines the importance of the work human rights defenders to promote and protect universally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.

This session was the seventh and final consultation that Michel Forst, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders was holding, he will report on his findings to the UNHRC in September. A new website for HRDs will also be launched in September/October this year which will include practical tools and information.