What is a Human Rights Defender?
A human rights defender is anyone who works non-violently to protect and promote human rights. Human rights defenders are lawyers, judges, journalists, bloggers, students, religious leaders, trade unionists and any others who work to combat human rights abuses.
By challenging injustice and raising awareness about human rights, these local activists are essential in bringing about positive, lasting change within a society. Because they challenge government actions, human rights defenders and their families are harassed, detained, interrogated, imprisoned, tortured and even killed.
To learn more about Human Rights Defenders, click here.
What is the Human Rights Defenders Program?
We advocate for human rights defenders who are subjected to threats, intimidation, violence, prosecution, and other forms of repression. Our goal is to ensure that human rights defenders in our focus countries are able to carry out their essential function free from harm and repression, in accordance with the 1998 U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. To achieve this goal, we work at three levels:
1. Cases: We support individual human rights defenders or organizations at risk by seeking their release from detention, the dropping of charges, the abatement of threats and harassment, or accountability for violence against defenders.
2. Broader policies: We promote laws and policies that reduce the risk to human rights defenders. These include reforming problematic laws and policies on libel or internal security, as well as encouraging more helpful laws on witness protection or military reform and accountability.
3. Promoting the concept of defenders: We amplify the voices of defenders in foreign policy debates, and promote greater understanding about the role of defenders by governments and international bodies.
Each level reinforces the others. For example, knowledge about a particular case of unfair prosecution in Colombia can help us make recommendations to address that problem at a national level, and also to illustrate the importance of defenders and the threats they face more broadly. Similarly, greater appreciation for the role of defenders in U.N. mechanisms or U.S. foreign policy can help increase the security of individual defenders.
To achieve these goals we:
- advocate for change by directly pressuring governments and targeting U.N. and regional institutions, the U.S. government and other leaders;
- issue reports on countries and common challenges defenders face;
- seek justice by monitoring trials and highlighting impunity;
- raise awareness and understanding through the media;
- work with coalitions around particular countries or issues;
- arrange face-to-face meetings between defenders and policy-makers;
- mobilize public pressure through action alerts [link to take action page].
- give the annual Human Rights First award and the biannual Roger Baldwin Award to dedicated human rights defenders.
What Are the Focus Countries of the Human Rights Defenders Program ?
While human rights defenders face persecution worldwide, we focus our efforts on a limited number of countries to maximize effectiveness. We select countries in which there is a hostile environment for human rights defenders and where we can measurably improve the situation at both the level of individual cases and broader policies.
Our current focus countries are Colombia, Cuba, Egypt, Guatemala, Indonesia, Iran, and Thailand. By choosing key countries in different regions, we can identify and respond to broader trends in both domestic conditions and U.S. foreign policy. Within each country, we maintain a narrow focus on a limited number of cases and two or three central policy changes. We also leverage our expertise and contacts in those countries to promote the role of defenders in U.S. foreign policy and U.N. mechanisms such as the new Universal Periodic Review process.
Nevertheless, we maintain contacts in many other countries and take action when we see opportunities to support the work of local activists under threat. We are especially likely to act when a country experiences a political crisis that directly affects defenders, as Pakistan did in late 2007.
We also look for common themes across all our countries, in particular the issue of the particular threats faced by women human rights defenders and the threats posed by counterterrorism policies.
How can I support the work of the Human Rights Defenders Program?
There are a number of ways to support our work:
- Choose a country or issue to follow on our website and in the news.
- Sign up for the Defender Alert Network (DAN). We will send you alerts when activists are threatened, prosecuted, or harmed. We provide participants with a sample letter to send to government officials with the click of a mouse button. We follow up your actions with embassy meetings, country visits, and other forms of advocacy, and keep you updated on the outcomes. To receive appeals from the Defender Alert Network, please enter your e-mail on the right hand side of this page, or click here.
- Send us your suggestions and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Donate to Human Rights First.
What Impact does the Human Rights Defenders Program have?
“My association with your organization has influenced the many worthy contacts that I made in Washington and New York. The insight and learning accrued from these meetings is indeed invaluable. I marvel at the extensive input and efforts you are all expending in advancing the human rights course. You opened my eyes to new frontiers in my course and offered words of encouragement.” – Human rights defender in Somalia
“Your intervention is a strong support for our work. Mayan lawyers have been left without a voice given that everything we say is used against us. Your communication gives us some breathing room to allow us to continue litigating.” – Human rights defender in Guatemala
Defenders continually face new forms of harassment and there are other actors working to support them, so it is sometimes difficult to see the direct impact of our work. However, a focused and persistent methodology has led to concrete outcomes. For example:
Most importantly, we see real change on the ground.
- In December 2007, less than two weeks after we led a rapid international campaign to obtain protective measures for leading Colombian human rights lawyer Jose Humberto Torres, the Colombian government provided Torres with an armored car and bodyguards. The campaign began after a Colombian paramilitary leader admitted that he had ordered Torres’ assassination.
- In November 2007, Iranian women’s rights activist Delaram Ali’s prison sentence was stayed after seven international human rights organizations issued a statement calling for the sentence to be set aside. Ms. Ali had been sentenced to 34 months in prison and 10 lashes for participating in a peaceful rally in Tehran in June 2007 calling for equal rights for women.
- On April 10, 2008, there were two important victories in the case of murdered Indonesian defender Munir. Two and half years after he was fatally poisoned, Indonesian authorities named two new suspects and requested a court review of the acquittal of the only person tried to date. HRF has been instrumental in keeping the judicial process moving forward.
How can I learn more about Human Rights Defenders and the Human Rights Defenders Program?
To learn more about the Human Rights Defenders Program, please view our Defender Alert Newsletter Archive, a quarterly summary of our successes and challenges. Please also visit our main page, for the latest case updates and links to all of our work. Finally, to stay up-to-date on current alerts and latest developments, sign up for the Defender Alert Network.
To learn more about human rights defenders, see the following related documents:
For resources on lawyers:
- U.N. Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers
- What is a Fair Trial? A basic guide to legal standards and practice
For resources on NGOs:
- U.S. State Department Guiding Principles on NGOs
- The Neglected Right: Freedom of Association in International Human Rights Law
Who is the Human Rights Defenders Program?
How can I contact the Human Rights Defenders Program?
For any additional questions or inquiries, please email email@example.com.