What Does it Mean to be a Human Rights Defender?

Authored by: Enrique Eguren and Champa Patel 

The Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms passed in 1998 by the UN General Assembly marked a milestone for the defense of human rights. It was a moment of joy and hope, built on years of advocacy and negotiations to obtain the explicit support of the UN and governments for the thousands of activists and organizations that had been defending human rights for so long. But now, almost 17 years after that moment, we believe that it is time to critically consider some key aspects of the UN Declaration.

The defense of human rights is about transformation and emancipation, and defenders cannot escape from this reality. To start with, `human rights´ are a contested concept (when we talk about “human rights defenders”… is this about defending formal declarations or changing realities?) Are we assuming that a “human rights defender” is a prefixed subject? Does an individual know that he or she is a defender, and behaves as such as per the UN Declaration? Interestingly enough the UN Declaration (and the Fact Sheet 29, which explains the Declaration in more detail) does not explicitly define who is a defender, and instead states that defenders are recognized by their actions in favor of human rights: “… a term used to describe people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights. Human rights defenders are identified above all by what they do and it is through a description of their actions and of some of the contexts in which they work that the term can best be explained”.

The same document also says that “the ‘standard’ required of a human rights defender has three particular components: firstly, that HRD’s must accept the universality of human rights’, secondly, that it is not important to know ‘who is right and who is wrong’ in any given situation, and finally that defenders should engage in ‘peaceful action’. This raises the question of whether the UN Declaration describes or prescribes who is a defender?

These are not rhetorical questions, because they lead to a fundamental one: How the answers to these questions affect the way that protection and support is provided for and accessed by defenders? We should not forget that the concept of human rights defender was born, among other reasons, to respond to the hostility and repression they suffer from powerful actors in many countries. In this transit from theory (who is a defender) into practice (who is recognized and treated as a defender), any attempt to define defenders will inevitably affect their access to the (scarce) resources available for their protection.

In the recently released Special Issue on ‘Critical Perspectives on the Security and Protection of Human Rights Defenders’ in the International Journal of Human Rights, we argue that adopting a purely normative approach to defenders´ activities may be more limiting than empowering, and may fall short of being directly applicable to the complexities of the working context for defenders. We also argue that although rights are universal, they are not applied everywhere in the same way or for all individuals equally. Due to these reasons we think that defenders should be understood, and constructed, as a relational agent situated in human rights work. There needs to be a dynamic, multi-faceted approach to understanding the specificities of HRD practice at the local level. This type of approach has ethical considerations embedded at its core, and as we say at the end of our article “it could help HRDs and those who work with them to ensure better application of existing protection mechanisms as well as help support more nuanced discussions on HRD protection needs” –a proposition that we will explore further during the New Tactics Community Conversation on ‘Evaluating the Human Rights Defender Protection Regime’ from 16 – 20 November 2015.