How can we better protect human rights defenders?


Being a human rights defender has always been difficult and dangerous, and it’s not getting any easier. Quite the opposite, in fact.

‘Human rights defenders (HRDs) face increasingly restrictive and brutal environments in every region of the globe,’ said Mary Lawlor, executive director of Front Line Defenders, an international NGO established to protect HRDs. ‘Extreme violence is being used more frequently and in more countries, while fabricated prosecutions and unfair trials have become the norm in many parts of the world. Those who target HRDs have stepped up their efforts to silence them, both within their borders and internationally.’ In 2015, Front Line Defenders documented the killing of 156 HRDs across the world.

Who, exactly, are HRDs? They could be the lawyer that represents political prisoners in court; the doctor that treats torture victims; the activist that marches against repression; or the researcher who uncovers government corruption. HRDs play a vital role in exposing human rights abuses and keeping governments accountable.

Human rights defenders are fighting against some of the world’s most powerful people

‘Human rights are not written in the stars,’ said Bill Pace, convenor of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC). ‘They are a product of human beings, men and women making enormous sacrifices over many centuries, thousands of years. It is individual human rights defenders that are at the heart of where we are in 2016, and have been moving for these last many decades. History has shown that these monuments of civilisation, like human rights, can be lost in the blink of an eye.’

To create a better society and a better world, we need to do a better job of protecting human rights defenders. But how?

Almost by definition, human rights defenders are fighting against some of the world’s most powerful people, including presidents, political parties and multinational corporations. In contrast, they are often relatively powerless, working alone or in small groups with limited access to money or publicity; and facing threats, intimidation, torture and even death. The odds are stacked against them.

Nonetheless, there are specific things that can be done to improve those odds.

On a global scale, Pace acknowledged that it could be difficult to persuade the superpowers to act against their perceived national interest. However, he argues that international norms can and have been changed when small and mid-size democracies work together. A good example of this, he argues, is in the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN), where countries have effected real change over the last few decades – even if the pace of that change is slower than desired.

‘Where did most of the great achievements come from? The UN General Assembly. The Rome Statute, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, other human rights laws. Of course, the tremendous achievement in the last 20 years was creating a Human Rights Commissioner… on many human rights issues at the international level we continue to see between 90 and 110 governments standing firm.’

Protection for human rights defenders requires strict adherence to ethics and integrity

From a practical perspective, this means that civil society and concerned governments should continue to work to push reform within the international system, and realise that there is strength in numbers.

Pace was speaking at an event organised by the Institute of Security Studies on the sidelines of the Assembly of States Parties (ASP) to the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) Rome Statute in November. Co-panellists, Shawan Jabarin of Al-Haq and Gladwell Otieno of the Africa Centre for Open Governance, shared similar sentiments and highlighted their specific experiences.

Jabarin noted that international solidarity between civil society organisations was as important as reforming international institutions. As the director of one of the oldest and most influential Palestinian human rights movement, he argued that strong relations with civil society groups in other parts of the world have been vital to Al-Haq’s success.

‘One of the main things is the networking and solidarity between the civil society organisations, globally speaking. This is very important. We felt that when we faced this, we felt the importance of these relations when our partners stood behind us, supported us in all means, technically, even taking care of our colleagues here. Standing behind us. This is very important,’ he said.

Jabarin added that another layer of protection for human rights defenders comes from strict adherence to their own ethics and integrity. ‘As a civil society organisation, we have to maintain our house. First the transparency, the credibility. By doing that we can gain the support of our society. In Palestine, when we faced the smear campaign against us, our people were behind us, even the Palestinian Authority, they defended us. If we are not professional, if we are not credible, if we are not transparent, we will not find people like that standing behind us,’ he said.

Gladwell Otieno, the founder and director of the Nairobi-based Africa Centre for Open Governance, said that concerned states could better protect human rights defenders by being more vocal in their defence in international forums. Speaking specifically about the perceived failure of ICC member states to condemn or take action to prevent witness intimidation in the trials of President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, Otieno said that such behaviour should never pass without censure.

Standing up for human rights is, almost by design, a dangerous task requiring enormous courage

‘The way to protect human rights defenders is definitely not to appease. Definitely not to try to smooth the ruffled feathers of the African Union or the accused or various official delegations which come here and try blackmail the court into feeling guilty about fulfilling its intended mission. That appeasement has not worked. The more concessions that have been given, the more concessions have been demanded. These concessions have resulted in a weakening of the Rome Statute, a weakening of the court, and a weakening of the independence of the prosecutor. You stop bullies by standing up to them and reaffirming the principles on which you were founded. That’s not being done,’ she said.

As if to highlight that human rights defenders continue to face threats, a senior Kenyan government official appeared to threaten Otieno at the event, which ironically was about the need to protect human rights defenders.

In an angry response to Otieno’s depiction of the challenges faced by human rights defenders in Kenya, senior legal advisor in the Presidency Jasper Mbiuki said: ‘She chose to take that route, so be prepared to take the consequences.’ Following the event, the CICC, together with concerned organisations, including the ISS, formally raised concerns about Mbiuki’s behaviour with the secretariat of the ASP.

Standing up for human rights is, almost by design, a dangerous task requiring enormous courage. There are steps that the international community and international civil society can take to make their jobs just that little bit easier. It is never too late to start.

Simon Allison, ISS Consultant

Picture:©IOM/Muse Mohammed

feature-5icon-printerlogo-chlogo-frPSC REPORT