Evaluating the Development of the Human Rights Defender Protection Regime

Authored by: Alice Nah, James Savage, Danna Ingleton, Karen Bennett

The situation for human rights defenders (HRDs) is dire. Rarely a day goes by that we don’t hear about a new piece of legislation restricting the space for civil society or legalizing surveillance. HRDs around the world are threatened, and in some cases, harmed for exercising their rights to expression, association, etc.  HRDs are discredited and ostracized for challenging social and cultural norms that violate their or their community’s human rights. 

While this wave of repression and aggression against HRDs is consistent in its persistence, it is marked by ever changing adversarial tactics. This, coupled with the fact that HRDs experience these aggressions in very different ways means it is difficult to ensure that the international protection regime stays responsive and relevant for HRDs at risk.

In the recently released Special Issue on Human Rights Defenders Protection in the International Journal of Human Rights, we argue for the importance of critically appraising the construction, function, and evolution of the international protection regime as well as its multi-scalar social and political effects.

So, what is this regime? The adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights Defenders in 1998 marked a milestone in the development of a multi-level, multi-actor international protection regime for the rights of human rights defenders.  However, the declaration had a long genesis. Taking over 15 years to draft, the process was marked by tension, disagreement and compromise.

Nevertheless, since its adoption, there has been considerable effort to recognise and protect the right of individuals, groups, and communities to promote and protect their own rights and the rights of others.

And while these strides towards protection have undoubtedly been beneficial, it is also important to ensure the system remains grounded in a contemporary understanding of protection. Therefore, the articles in this special edition critically explore five features of the regime.

Firstly, it derives its principles, norms and values from the international human rights regime. Secondly, the regime is goal driven – its aim is to protect and support defenders who operate in their own contexts in the face of threats and risks.

Thirdly, it adopts a human security paradigm, with individuals, groups and communities as subjects of security rather than states. Defenders and practitioners have emphasised the importance of having a holistic, multi-dimensional understanding of ‘security’. Women human rights defenders, in particular, emphasise the importance of understanding how discrimination, stereotyping and stigmatisation – rooted in social structures in society, such as patriarchy and the militarisation of society – compromise security.

Fourthly, it is a multi-level regime – formal protection mechanisms for human rights defenders exist at the national, regional and international levels. However, there is geographical unevenness in the availability of protection mechanisms. Many countries have neither enacted laws nor created institutions that recognise and protect the rights of human rights defenders. This is true also of regional mechanisms the existence and effectiveness of which vary between regions.

Fifth, this regime has many stakeholders – civil society groups, donors, national human rights institutions, states, multilateral bodies, and individual defenders – who create and use different types of tools, strategies and tactics to identify, support and protect the rights of human rights defenders. These include the provision of emergency grants, temporary relocation initiatives, security training, advocacy, accompaniment, trial monitoring, networking and capacity building.

We see growing consensus amongst these stakeholders about what constitutes ‘security’ and ‘protection’, and how this is to be achieved, by whom and for whom. However, while standardising protection activities can provide some clarity about who should act, how and to what end, there is also a risk that orthodox ways of thinking will result in rigidity and exclusivity in policies and practices. As such, they may fail to keep pace with emerging threats to defenders, the changing nature of civic action, and actors and actions that promote and protect human rights.

The five papers in the Special Issue argue for the need to further examine the construction, function, and evolution of the human rights defender protection regime, including:

  • the means and conditions under which state and non-state actors cooperate with each other to strengthen – or undermine – the protection of defenders;
  • how the identity of the human rights defender and an understanding of their place in communities must have ethical currency in the protection regime;
  • how the governance of protection mechanisms operate at different levels and how these levels relate to each other in their implementation;
  • how this protection regime relates to other international (protection) regimes; and
  • how different factors such as technological evolution, regional security concerns, and political alliances influence this protection regime at different levels.

We discuss some of these issues in the forthcoming New Tactics conversation. Do join us and share your thoughts and ideas!

For free access to the papers in this Special Issue until 31 December 2015, click here.