Evaluating the Human Rights Defender ‘Protection Regime’

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Monday, November 16, 2015 to Friday, November 20, 2015
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Since the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998, there has been considerable effort to recognize and protect the rights of people to defend their own and others’ human rights. Over time, an international protection regime for human rights defenders has emerged, aimed at protecting and supporting defenders in the face of threats and risks. Based upon the international human rights framework, this protection regime focuses on human security, and consists of a variety of actors and mechanisms operating at national, regional, and international levels.

In a Special Issue of the International Journal of Human Rights on ‘Critical Perspectives on the Security and Protection of Human Rights Defenders’, scholars and practitioners critically appraised the construction and functioning of this protection regime, examining: (i) the definition and use of the term ‘human rights defender’; (ii) the effectiveness of protection mechanisms; and, (iii) the complex relationship between repression, activism and risk.

Through an online conversation entitled ‘Evaluating the Human Rights Defender Protection Regime’, New Tactics in Human Rights, the authors of the Special Issue, and conversation participants explored these key areas.

Defining ‘defenders’: Implications for protection

The term “Human Rights Defenders” has been used to refer to a broad range of individuals and collectives promoting or protecting human rights, including lawyers, journalists, activists, trade unionists, members of community-based organizations, people in social movements and staff of human rights organizations involved in different work in very different contexts. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has tried to provide guidance on who should be referred to as a human rights defender through a factsheet called ‘Human Rights Defenders: Protecting the Right to Defend Human Rights’ (Fact Sheet 29). Fact Sheet 29 suggests three ‘minimum standards’ required for a human rights defender: that the person accepts the universality of human rights; that the person’s arguments fall within the scope of human rights (regardless of whether or not the argument is technically correct); and that the person engages in ‘peaceful action’.

Defining who is or who is not a human rights defender is complex. Nelson Mandela, who many view as a human rights icon does not fit the OHCHR definition of a HRD because of his use of violence. Governments who dislike the actions of some individuals may label them a 'terrorist', a 'dissident', or a 'criminal', rather than a 'human rights defender'. Margaret Sekaggya, the previous Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders emphasized, the stigmatization of human rights defenders in this way is a. common method of delegitimizing their work and increasing their vulnerability. However, by identifying a person as a 'human rights defender', members of the international community have been able to help human rights defenders build visibility and legitimacy about their work.

Participants to the conversation also discussed that a broad definition of human rights defenders is favorable and the focus more on the work rather than labels attached.

The effectiveness of protection mechanisms

Over the past two decades, states and inter-governmental bodies have developed a number of protection mechanisms for human rights defenders at the national, regional and international levels. These mechanisms vary in scope, design, implementation and effectiveness.

Defenders and practitioners have expressed concern about the uneven and inconsistent protection and support provided to defenders, resulting in some defenders from particular groups and those in specific geographic regions being partially or completely excluded. Many countries have neither enacted laws nor created institutions that recognize and protect the rights of human rights defenders. Despite having a protection mechanism in place, there can be other challenges in having an effective protection mechanism.

To resolve this, participants discussed the importance of relationship building and frequent dialogue among the various actors. Some defenders and NGOs have established relationships with diplomatic officials of foreign governments and multilateral institutions (esp. UN and EU), and sometimes with relevant officials within their own government as protection measures. The role of the public, a free and fearless media  and internet as effective protective mechanisms were also discussed.

Tactics and Strategies in response to increasing repression and high risk

The participants discussed on the need to have personalized and localized protection strategies as tactics of repression vary according to the social and political contexts. A core component of successful and sustained work in higher risk contexts is emotional resilience and health. It is extremely important for human rights defenders to take care of their mental health to avoid secondary traumatic stress, vicarious trauma, burnout, or compassion fatigue. An important part of emotional resilience and health is staying connected in meaningful ways with colleagues, friends, and family. The internet plays a critical role for defenders to exchange facts, tactics and ideas, to connect with various local/international organizations and to build a strong network of support.

Tactics shared :


2015 Report of the study of the situation of women human rights defenders in Africa: Who are women human rights defenders?

How Can Human Rights Defenders Cope with Legal Constraints and High Risk in Russia?
by: Freek van der Vet & Laura Lyytikäinen

What Does it Mean to be a Human Rights Defender?
by: Enrique Eguren and Champa Patel 

Evaluating the Development of the Human Rights Defender Protection Regime
by: Alice Nah, James Savage, Danna Ingleton, Karen Bennett


women human rights defenders in Egypt















Research for the European Parliament on assessing the effective implementation of the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders in Kyrgyzstan, Tunisia and Thailand,


Women human rights defenders in Egypt



 Conference on security and protection of HRDs in 2009

Liam Mahony's 'Side by Side' published with New Tactics



"Insiste, Persiste, Resiste, Existe" by Jane Barry 2008 publication ( http://urgentactionfund.org/resources/publications/)

Article by IM-Defensoras in Journal of Human Rights Practice, 5:3, 446-459

Epilogue by Lauri Tanner of Environmental Defenders Project and Jonathan Kaufman of EarthRights International (http://earthrights.org)

Conversation Leaders

James Savage's picture
James Savage
Fund for Global Human Rights
Alice Nah's picture
Alice Nah
Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York
Karen@HRSJ's picture
Karen Bennett
Human Rights and Social Justice Research Institute, London Metropolitan University
Danna's picture
Danna Ingleton
engine room
martindjones's picture
Martin Jones
Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York
fvandervet's picture
Freek van der Vet
Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki
CHigson-Smith's picture
Craig Higson-Smith
Center for Victims of Torture
Quique Eguren's picture
Luis Enrique Eguren
Protection International
Elisa's picture
Elisa Nesossi
Australian National University
Laura_Lyy's picture
Laura Lyytikäinen
Universty of Turku