Supporting and protecting human rights defenders
Over the past decade, human rights defenders across the globe have faced mounting threats. Shrinking democratic spaces and an erosion of the rule of law, often for the stated purpose of upholding national security, have undermined their ability to work effectively and in safety.
These challenges were further compounded in 2020, when many governments imposed sweeping restrictions on freedom of movement, assembly, communication and other fundamental rights as part of measures to counter the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
GANHRI, in partnership with NHRIs and regional networks, is committed to supporting and protecting human rights defenders so they can work in safety, free from threats and harassment. Through our joint efforts, we will also respond to the gender-based risks that women human rights defenders can face when standing up for justice and equality.
Human rights defenders play a vital and legitimate role to help make human rights a reality for the communities they serve. It is the State’s responsibility to protect them from threats and attacks
Protection in practice
In 2018, as part of GANHRI’s 13th International Conference, NHRIs developed a series of practical strategies to protect existing civic space and promote, protect and build cooperative partnerships with human rights defenders.
Through the Marrakech Declaration, NHRIs agreed to:
- Establish national protection systems, in consultation with human rights defenders, civil society organisations and others
- Encourage States to ratify all international human rights instruments, including the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and advise them on implementation
- Monitor and report on civic space – online and offline – by collecting and analysing disaggregated data and statistics related to killings, fabricated legal charges, misuse of laws and other attacks against human rights defenders
- Establish efficient and robust early warning mechanisms and focal points within NHRIs
- Promote gender equality and develop strategies to combat all forms of discrimination against women human rights defenders
- Interact regularly with human rights defenders and civil society and help to develop and strengthen national and regional defenders’ networks
- Interact with international and regional human rights systems in support of human rights defenders, and monitor the follow-up and implementation of recommendations.
The Marrakech Declaration also highlights that strong and independent NHRIs are themselves human rights defenders, and that GANHRI, NHRI regional networks and UN partners play an important role to ensure their protection.
In many countries, NHRIs are under pressure. They are threatened, sometimes harassed and the most active are the most in danger
Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders (2014-2020)
Implementing our commitments
GANHRI has developed a Global Action Plan (GAP) to support NHRIs implement the provisions of the Marrakech Declaration and support their work with human rights defenders.
The Global Action Plan to support the protection and promotion of human rights defenders and civic space builds NHRIs’ capacities to monitor civic space and the situation of human rights defenders; supports the establishment of protection mechanisms for human rights defenders and promotes positive narratives on the work of human rights defenders. A gender perspective has been integrated across the Action Plan.
The Global Action Plan is framed both within the Marrakech Declaration and GANHRI’s Strategic Plan 2020-2022 and is informed by its objectives and goals. This includes the emphasis on protecting and supporting the strengthening of NHRIs and on GANHRI’s unique role in promoting the exchange of experiences and good practices among NHRIs across all regions. As such, the Global Action Plan is integral part of the implementation of the Strategic Plan 2020-2022.
The GAP has been developed in a multi-phase participatory and consultative process, involving a global survey across NHRIs from all regions, interviews with NHRIs, NHRI regional network secretariats, and partners including UN, NGOs and HRD networks.
The development of the draft Global Action Plan has been coordinated by the GANHRI Head Office with the support of Michel Forst, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.
The Global Action Plan is available for all NHRIs in the four GANHRI working languages.
A High-level event on GANHRI’s Global Action Plan to support the protection and promotion of human rights defenders was held during GANHRI 2021 Annual Meeting. The event was an opportunity for NHRIs from all regions, UN and EU partners and experts to exchange on experiences in protecting and promoting civic space and human rights defenders.
The four regional networks have also developed, or are in the process of developing, regional action plans to support and protect human rights defenders.
GANHRI, the regional networks and individual NHRIs will report on their implementation of the Marrakech Declaration on a regular basis, including at GANHRI Annual Meetings.
Key reference documents
- United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (1988)
- Reports of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders
- Practical Guide to the UN Special Procedures for human rights defenders; International Service for Human Rights (2019)
- Reprisals Handbook; International Service for Human Rights (2018)
- GANHRI statement report of the SR on HRDs at HRC46
- Gendering Documentation: A manual for and about Women Human Rights Defenders ; Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (2015)
- EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders
GANHRI’s Submission to the SG report on cooperation with the UN highlights increasing number of cases of reprisals and threats against NHRIs in all regions
GANHRI has recently submitted inputs to the 2023 Secretary General’s report on cooperation with the UN which will summarise the main trends and contain a selection of cases of alleged reprisals for cooperation with the UN in the field of human rights brought to the attention of the UN.
GANHRI’s submission is informed by a global survey for NHRIs conducted in April 2023. as a follow-up to GANHRI’s Global Action Plan on Human Rights Defenders and Civic Space. In addition, the submission is informed by consultations with regional networks and NHRIs, whose individual cases are documented herein. The submission conveys that NHRIs continue to experience a variety of forms of reprisal, including smear campaigns, harassment, threats, undue interference with the selection, appointment and dismissal process of members of a NHRI, disproportionate budget cuts..
Additional reports of violent acts, including the death of human rights activists, have been made by several NHRIs.
These cases of reprisals or other acts of intimidation have occurred against individual members including Chairperson/ Ombudsperson/Director/Commissioners, staff, and against the NHRI as an institution.
These cases and reports, represent the ongoing and escalating threats to the independence, operations and effectiveness of NHRIs in all regions.
Women human rights defenders and defenders working on environmental and LGBTQI+ issues were mentioned among the most targeted.
NHRIs have responded to these challenges through investigations, monitoring and awareness raising, and for many, this has become an important focus of their work, whether they have or not a dedicated strategy to support it.
Specifically, NHRIs interacted with international and regional human rights systems in support of human rights defenders,particularly through monitoring the follow-up and implementation of recommendations.
NHRIs have also regularly contributed to develop and strengthen national and regional defenders networks through the identification, exchange of information and by providing capacity building activities to human rights defenders and civil society organizations. In addition,
To support NHRIs under threat, Regional Networks of NHRIs and GANHRI bring cases of alleged intimidation and reprisals against NHRIs to the attention of relevant UN mechanisms and officials .
GANHRI Global Action Plan to support the protection and promotion of human rights defenders and civic space supports NHRIs to implement their commitments under the Marrakech Declaration and invites GANHRI to regularly document and report on threats and reprisals against NHRIs, their members and staff.
Our submission included recommendations to the Council, including:
With the UN System:
- Strengthen coordination with GANHRI, OHCHR, and the broader UN System to develop a joint strategy for addressing reprisals.
- Establish a clear and safe communication channel for NHRIs to report reprisals.
- Activate the early warning and coordinated response mechanism in collaboration with GANHRI.
- Develop an online knowledge portal as a monitoring, advocacy, and research tool on reprisals against NHRIs.
- Coordinate advocacy efforts among SG, GANHRI, OHCHR, and the UN System to encourage State action in support of NHRIs.
- Provide awareness-building programs for UN staff on the roles of NHRIs and the risks they face.
With Member States:
- Prioritize and coordinate follow-up to support Member States in implementing relevant recommendations for establishing and strengthening NHRIs.
- Recommend high-level dialogues or country visits by the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights to monitor the situation on the ground.
- Encourage Member States to include concrete commitments to establish or strengthen NHRIs in their UPR and voluntary national review reports.
- Utilize the SG’s reporting mandates to advocate for strong and effective NHRIs and document cases of reprisals against NHRIs.