Not all human rights work places human rights defenders at risk, and in some States defenders are generally well protected. However, the severity and scale of reprisals committed against defenders were one of the primary motivations behind the adoption of the Declaration on human rights defenders and the establishment of the mandate of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights defenders.
The Special Representative has expressed concern for the situation of human rights defenders in all countries, including both emerging democracies and countries with long-established democratic institutions, practices and traditions. Nevertheless, special emphasis has been placed on countries where: (a) internal armed conflict or severe civil unrest exists; (b) the legal and institutional protections and guarantees of human rights are not fully assured or do not exist at all.
A great many human rights defenders, in every region of the world, have been subject to violations of their human rights. They have been the target of executions, torture, beatings, arbitrary arrest and detention, death threats, harassment and defamation, as well as restrictions on their freedoms of movement, expression, association and assembly. Defenders have been the victims of false accusations and unfair trial and conviction.
Violations most commonly target either human rights defenders themselves or the organizations and mechanisms through which they work. Occasionally, violations target members of defenders’ families, as a means of applying pressure to the defender. Some human rights defenders are at greater risk because of the nature of the rights they seek to protect. Women human rights defenders sometimes confront risks that are gender specific and require particular attention.
In most cases, acts committed against human rights defenders are in violation of both international and national law. In some countries, however, domestic legislation which itself contravenes international human rights law is used against defenders.
A. Examples of acts committed against human rights defenders
The following paragraphs describe some of the human rights violations and obstacles faced by human rights defenders in the course of their work. While some of these acts may occur only once, they often continue to have an impact on defenders and their families for months or even years afterwards. Death threats, for example, can oblige human rights defenders to change their daily routines completely, as well as those of their immediate family, or even to leave their country to seek temporary asylum abroad.
Many human rights defenders have been the victims of killings as a direct response to their human rights work. They have been abducted by unidentified persons and sometimes by confirmed members of security forces and later been found dead or made to disappear completely. Assassination attempts have left defenders seriously injured and requiring hospitalization and surgery.
In some regions of the world, death threats are used widely as a means of threatening and intimidating human rights defenders into stopping their work. Threats are often anonymous, made by telephone or letter. In some instances, however, the threats are made by persons known to the defenders, but who are not investigated or charged by the police. The lack of effective police or judicial response to killings and death threats creates a climate of impunity that encourages and perpetuates these vio- lations.
Human rights defenders are sometimes kidnapped, for short or long periods, and beaten during their captivity. Military personnel, police and security force officials have resorted to severe beatings in an attempt to torture defenders into making false confessions or in reprisal for a defender’s denunciation of violations committed by security forces. Arbitrary arrest and detention of human rights defenders are common, and most often conducted without arrest warrants and in the absence of any official charge. Periods of preventive detention, without any judicial review, are sometimes very long and occur in very poor conditions of detention. Human rights defenders can be particularly vulnerable to beatings, ill-treatment and torture while in detention.
In some instances, human rights defenders are the object of criminal or other charges leading to prosecution and conviction. Peaceful demonstrations, lodging an official complaint against ill-treatment by police, participation in a meeting of indigenous rights activists or unfurling a banner commemorating victims of human rights violations have all led to prosecution on charges as varied as bribery, public disturbance and hooliganism. Court sentences in these cases have included long terms of imprisonment, forcible commitment to psychiatric institutions and “re-education through labour”.
Harassment of human rights defenders is commonplace and often goes unreported. It is almost always committed by authorities and can involve a wide variety of circumstances. Human rights defenders are kept under surveillance and have their telephone lines cut or tapped. They have their travel and identity documents confiscated, preventing them from going abroad to address human rights forums. Human rights lawyers have been threatened with disbarment or placed under investigation. Defenders have suffered administrative harassment, for example being forced to pay heavy fines for trivial administrative transgressions or to report repeatedly over extended periods to an administrative office for no clear reason. Judges have been removed from presiding over particular cases or have been suddenly transferred from one jurisdiction to another, requiring the whole family to move to another part of the country.
Human rights defenders have been the victims of defamation campaigns, with slanderous allegations appearing in State-controlled media attacking their integrity and morals. Complaints have been fabricated to discredit independent non-governmental organizations and journalists exposing human rights abuses. Defenders and their work have been publicly misrepresented, being described as, among other things, terrorists, rebels, subversives or actors for opposition political parties. State authorities and State media have equated human rights defenders with the persons whose rights they seek to protect; for example, defenders acting in support of the rights of persons from armed opposition groups have themselves been described as being affiliated to those groups.
Policies, legislation and procedures described as “security” measures are sometimes applied in such a way as to restrict the work of human rights defenders and sometimes target the defenders themselves. Under the pretext of security reasons, human rights defenders have been banned from leaving their towns, and police and other members of security forces have summoned defenders to their offices, intimidated them and ordered the suspension of all their human rights activities. Defenders have been prosecuted and convicted under vague security legislation and condemned to harsh sentences of imprisonment.
In addition to violations targeting individuals, there are clear trends illustrating a strategy, in some States, of restricting the environment in which human rights defenders operate. Organizations are closed down under the slightest of pretexts; sources of funding are cut off or inappropriately limited; and efforts to register an organization with a human rights mandate are delayed by intentional bureaucracy. State authorities obstruct the holding of meetings between human rights defenders and prevent defenders from travelling to investigate human rights concerns.
The enactment and enforcement of laws curtailing the legitimate exercise and enjoyment of the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, religious belief, association and movement, such as laws on registration and regulation of the activities of non-governmental organizations, or legislation banning or hindering the receipt of foreign funds for human rights activities, have all been used to harass and obstruct the work of human rights defenders.
Some efforts to hinder the work of human rights defenders have focused on their place or means of work. The offices and/or homes of defenders are the subject of attacks, burglary and unauthorized searches. Premises from which human rights defenders operate have been closed by authorities, and defenders have had their bank accounts frozen. Their equipment and files, including computers, documents, photographs and diskettes, have been stolen or confiscated. Access to the Internet and international e-mail facilities has been restricted or prevented altogether.
All the above violations of the rights of human rights defenders have been compounded by a culture of impunity which exists in many countries in relation to acts committed against human rights defenders.
B. The situation of women human rights defenders
Women human rights defenders have faced all the acts described in section A above. However, their particular situation and role require special awareness and sensitivity both to the ways in which they might be affected differently by such pressures and to some additional challenges. It is essential to ensure that women human rights defenders as well as men are protected and supported in their work and, indeed, that such women are fully recognized as human rights defenders.
The following paragraphs provide a few examples (by no means an exhaustive list) of ways in which women human rights defenders can face different pressures from those confronting men and so require particular protection.
As discussed in section C below, the State is the primary perpetrator of violations against human rights defenders. Women human rights defenders, however, have often found that their rights are violated by members of their own communities, who may resent and oppose their human rights activities, which some community leaders may see as challenging their perceptions of the traditional role of women. In such cases, State authorities have often failed to provide adequate protection for women defenders and their work against the social forces that threaten them.
In many parts of the world, the traditional role of women is perceived as integral to a society’s culture. This can make it especially hard for women human rights defenders to question and oppose aspects of their tradition and culture when they violate human rights. Female genital mutilation is a good example of such practices, although there are many others.
Similarly, many women are perceived by their communities as an extension of the community itself. If a woman human rights defender is the victim of a rape because of her human rights work she may be perceived by her extended family as having brought shame on both the family and the wider community. As a human rights defender she must carry the burden not only of the trauma of the rape, but also of the notion within her community that, through her human rights work, she has brought shame on those around her. Even where no rape or other attack has occurred, women who choose to be human rights defenders must often confront the anger of families and communities that consider them to be jeopardizing both honour and culture. The pressures to stop human rights work can be very strong.
Women human rights defenders having day-to-day responsibility for the care of young children or elderly parents often find it very hard to continue their human rights work knowing that arrest and detention would prevent them from fulfilling that role in the family.
This remains a concern for women human rights defenders even though, across the world, men are increasingly sharing responsibility for the care of dependants. However, women have also used this role to strengthen their work as human rights defenders, for example where “mothers of disappeared persons” have formed human rights organizations. The fact that they are mothers of victims of human rights violations has provided a very strong rallying point and advocacy tool for these defenders.
The complexities that influence a particular human rights issue can sometimes impose unique pressures on women human rights defenders. In many cultures, the requirement for women to defer to men in public can be an obstacle to their publicly questioning action by men in violation of human rights. Similarly, certain interpretations of religious texts are often used to determine laws or practices having a major influence on human rights. Women human rights defenders who wish to challenge such laws or practices and their negative impact on human rights are often barred, because they are women, from acceptance as an authority qualified to interpret such religious scriptures. These women defenders are thus excluded from addressing, on equal terms with men, the primary arguments being used against them. Again, they may also face hostility from the community in which they must continue to live.
The challenges faced by women human rights defenders sometimes require a broader analysis and understanding than those confronting men.
C. Perpetrators of violations against human rights defenders
State authorities are the most common perpetrators of violations against human rights defenders yet also bear the primary responsibility for assuring their protection. However, a variety of “non-State” actors also commit, or are implicated in, acts against human rights defenders and it is important to note their responsibility.
1. State authorities
It is not possible to list here the full range of State authorities that have been implicated in violations against human rights defenders. It is useful, however, to note some examples and to emphasize that, most often, where one State authority is a perpetrator then other State authorities are often complicit in the violation because they have not prevented or reacted to the acts committed. State author- ities, in this context, should be understood to include multiple types of authorities at the bureaucratic as well as political levels, and to include especially local authorities as well as those at the national level.
Police and other security forces are the most visible perpetrators of acts such as arbitrary arrests, illegal searches and physical violence. However, other authorities are usually also implicated. For example, where an arrest in violation of international standards is conducted with an arrest warrant issued by local authorities and leads to prosecution and conviction, police, members of the judiciary and State lawyers may all be complicit in the violation of a human rights defender’s rights.
Where laws or administrative regulations are inappropriately applied so as to prevent human rights defenders from registering as non-governmental organizations or from meeting together, the civilian authorities responsible for applying those rules carry major responsibility. It is common for some State authorities falsely to push defenders into administrative “illegality” and to use this as the basis for a subsequent arrest, detention and conviction.
It can be difficult to identify with certainty the perpetrators of some acts committed against human rights defenders, such as anonymous death threats. In these situations, as with every violation, the relevant State authorities bear responsibility for investigating the acts committed, providing temporary protection if needed and prosecuting those responsible. Where State authorities do not fulfil this responsibility they are in breach of their obligations. In practice, police in some countries sometimes refuse to act on, or even to register, complaints of attacks against human rights defenders, and courts are reluctant to put the perpetrators on trial. Inaction by the authorities has sometimes allowed a violation to continue or be repeated and to worsen, with successive death threats eventually leading to the actual murder of a human rights defender.
2. Non-State actors
The group of “non-State” actors is very broad and extends to armed groups, businesses such as transnational corporations, and individuals. While the State bears the primary responsibility to protect human rights defenders, it is essential to recognize that non-State actors can be implicated in acts committed against them, both with and without State com- plicity.
Armed groups have used killings, abduction and death threats, among other acts, as regular tactics to silence human rights defenders. Some of these groups operate in active collusion with Governments, for example as a paramilitary force, while others are in conflict with the State as armed opposition groups.
Private economic interests—such as transnational corporations or major landowners—have an increasingly recognized impact on the economic and social rights of people from the community in which they are based. In some countries, where human rights defenders have conducted peaceful protests against the negative human rights impact of transnational corporations, the security forces have used violence to repress the protests. In other cases, the authorities have failed to intervene when unidentified individuals, suspected of acting on behalf of private economic interests, have attacked human rights defenders. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights defenders has noted that, in some of these attacks, the complicity and responsibility of private sector entities are clear and must be recognized.
In other examples of non-State acts, human rights defenders have been the victims of killings, beatings and intimidation instigated by religious associations, community or tribal elders, and even members of their own family, in direct reaction to their human rights work.
3. Positive role of State and non-State actors
In many States, the obligation to respect, protect and implement human rights is generally fulfilled effectively; and in almost every State there are, at the very least, individuals within the security and civilian authorities who work very hard to protect human rights and who themselves fulfil the role of human rights defenders. In some cases, police officers, judges, civilian members of the State bureaucracy and politicians have placed themselves at great personal risk so as to protect the human rights of others, to support justice and to end corruption.
Similarly, although some private actors are perpetrators of violations against human rights defenders, others provide fundamental support in addressing such acts. Transnational corporations can be a powerful force in assuring that rights are respected, and some corporations have adopted good employment policies and contributed to the economic and social rejuvenation of the communities in which they are established. Religious leaders have often been at the forefront of action to defend human rights and human rights defenders themselves.
In some cases, there may be no clear-cut separation between positive and negative non-State actors. Business interests may contribute positively to some human rights but have a negative impact on others. It is essential, therefore, to look at how businesses and other actors respond to human rights defenders who draw their attention to the negative human rights impact of their activities.
(Source: Fact Sheet No.29, Ch. 2, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights)