Human Rights Defenders

Human rights defenders are heroes, they should be celebrated and protected.

Human rights defenders stand up for human rights. They are students, activists, journalists, lawyers, citizens, migrants, community workers, trade unionists, teachers, doctors, nurses and come from all walks of life. They stand up for human rights peacefully and respect all human rights.

In many parts of the world, human rights defenders risk their safety, their lives and well-being to challenge human rights violations. Human Rights Defenders and their families can be targeted with the intention of stopping their human rights work. They are also stigmatised or face charges of terrorism and other criminal charges, imprisoned, enforced disappeared and tortured. They are often physically attacked, harassed or even killed. Their reputation is often tarnished. Human rights defenders face assets freezes and travel bans.

Despite the risks they face, they persist in seeking positive change. We must value and protect human rights defenders. Their work is vital for protecting human rights.

There are many ways in which someone could fulfil their role as a human rights defender. They could document abuses by collecting evidence of human rights violations; raise awareness of abuses through public campaigns in the media, online and in their community; report violations to national, regional and international bodies; put pressure on perpetrators of abuses to stop human rights violations, lobby people in positions of influence and power, engage in legal casework and representation, education people about their rights and empower them to work of human rights change.

Human rights defenders who are from marginalised groups, or those who work with marginalised groups experience specific challenges in their human rights work. They are often subjected to human rights violations and require enabling environments to carry out their work.

HRD Memorial

An estimated 3,500 human rights defenders have been killed since 1998.

A coalition of national and international human rights organisations, on a joint project initiated by Front Line Defenders, have created an online memorial and database, The HRD Memorial, that commemorates all human rights defenders killed since the adoption of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

Find out more

Women and LGBTI human rights defenders

In all regions of the world, women human rights defenders and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) human rights defenders , frequently face violence, intimidation, harassment and even death. This is particularly common when they challenge gender stereotypes, work on sexual and reproductive rights or defend the human rights of women and girls and LGBTI people facing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.

Women human rights and LGBTI defenders have achieved dramatic changes in laws, policies and practices even though they encounter additional barriers to their work. As women and LGBTI work to claim their rights, they often have to challenge social conventions and deeply entrenched beliefs, risking alienation from colleagues, friends and family.

Amnesty International is a member of the women human rights defenders international coalition.

Human rights defenders are protected under international human rights law.

In 1998, the UN adopted a declaration on human rights defenders. The declaration recognises the importance and legitimacy of defenders and the vital role they play in protecting human rights. It also acknowledges the huge risks defenders face, and calls on all states to take collective responsibility to ensure that defenders are supported in their work and protected from harm. In 2000, a Special Representative on human rights defenders was appointed to oversee the implementation of the Declaration, assess the situation of human rights defenders and receive information from defenders including details of obstacles to their human rights work and threats made against them.

Human rights defenders have a right to:

  • Defend human rights
  • Associate freely with others
  • Document human rights abuses
  • Seek resources for human rights work
  • Criticise government bodies and agencies
  • Access protection from the UN and regional human rights mechanisms

There are also a number of protections for human rights defenders through regional human rights bodies. In 2004, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights appointed a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa. The European Union adopted its own Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders, which outlines the EU’s commitment to supporting and protecting human rights defenders in ‘third countries’ (countries outside the EU, where there is an EU presence). In North and South America, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights established a special unit to protect defenders in 2001.

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