Human rights defenders

Protection of human rights defenders is a key priority in Norway’s human rights efforts, as set out in the white paper Opportunities for All: Human Rights in Norway’s Foreign Policy and Development Cooperation (Meld. St. 10 (2014-15)). Our overall objective is for human rights defenders to be able to carry out their work of promoting and defending human rights in all parts of the world freely and safely, without encountering restrictions or threats to themselves or their families.

The term ‘human rights defenders’ refers to individuals or groups that work to improve the protection and implementation of human rights without the use of violence or force. They defend the rights of other people, and are often advocates for vulnerable and marginalised groups or individuals who are not able to defend themselves. In many cases they represent local forces that are seeking to bring about change in their community.

The work of human rights defenders is invaluable for the realisation of human rights and can be crucial for the development of democracy and the rule of law. Human rights defenders promote civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights. The work they do to highlight and document violations by states of their obligation to promote and respect human rights is extremely important.

Fighting for human rights can be difficult and dangerous, particularly for those who raise human rights issues in their own country. The authorities in many countries view the work of human rights defenders as a threat to established power structures. In some countries, human rights defenders are also accused of standing in the way of economic growth and development when their efforts are directed at business activities, infrastructure development and the protection of the environment.  

Under Norway’s leadership, the UN has expressed grave concern in various contexts about the increasing extent to which human rights defenders are threatened, stigmatised, intimidated, subjected to reprisals and violence, or even killed, and about the failure to prosecute those responsible. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation for human rights defenders (link) has drawn particular attention to threats against human rights defenders who are especially at risk, such as people and organisations working to promote women’s rights, the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) people, indigenous people’s rights, those working to address human rights issues related to the environment, land rights and the exploitation of natural resources, and those working in conflict and post-conflict situations.

The Norwegian authorities support human rights defenders and their work by means of direct contact and economic support, through dialogue with the relevant national authorities, through the work of organisations such as the UN, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and through close cooperation and contact with civil society. Norway plays a leading role in this area and cooperates with partners in various regions to combat the increased pressure on human rights defenders.

Norway’s efforts in the UN

Norway has given priority to supporting human rights defenders in the UN for many years. Norway chaired the working group that drew up the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998. Following an initiative taken by Norway, the UN established the Special Rapporteur on the situation for human rights defenders. This post is currently held by Mary Lawlor from Ireland.

Norway leads the negotiations in the UN on protection of human rights defenders. Both in the Human Rights Council and in the General Assembly, this is difficult terrain, as the UN’s member states have divergent views on the role of human rights defenders in society. Nevertheless, strong resolutions have been adopted by consensus in both the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council in recent years. The most important of these are the following:

  • The first ever resolution on women human rights defenders was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2013.
  • In 2016, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on protecting human rights defenders addressing economic, social and cultural rights.
  • The UN Human Rights Council’s resolution on environmental human rights defenders, which was adopted in March 2019, is the first of its kind to be adopted by the international community. The resolution recognises the close links between human rights and the environment, and the important role that environmental human rights defenders play in supporting the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
  • In autumn 2019, the UN’s General Assembly adopted a comprehensive resolution that clearly urges UN member states to strengthen protection for human rights defenders, including protection against attacks online and in social media, if necessary through the establishment of special protection mechanisms.

It is the responsibility of national authorities to promote and protect human rights defenders, as a part of their international human rights obligations. At the same time, the UN resolutions show that other actors also have an important role to play, including the UN itself, as stated in the Report of the UN Secretary-General in connection with the twentieth anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 2018. There is a stronger focus on the responsibility of the business sector to respect human rights, which is in line with the Norwegian National Action Plan for the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles.

Norway’s efforts at regional level

The Council of Europe takes a long-term and targeted approach in its work to improve the general situation of human rights defenders. It maintains a particular focus on the situation of people who are subjected to reprisals because of their human rights work. The work of the Commissioner for Human Rights in the member states is invaluable in this respect. It is beyond the Commissioner’s mandate to raise individual cases, but country visits and reports by the Commissioner serve to highlight the general situation of human rights defenders. Conditions for human rights defenders in general and the situation of specific human rights defenders are discussed on a weekly basis in the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. The Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists provides journalists and media professionals working to promote human rights with an arena where they can draw attention to threats to independent journalism and the safety of journalists.

Norway makes active use of the Council of Europe to discuss the situation of human rights defenders in the member states. The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers provides a good forum for this. The embassies responsible for Council of Europe member states should maintain an open dialogue with Norway’s Permanent Mission to the Council of Europe on the situation of human rights defenders in the member states in question. Norway is at the forefront of efforts to raise awareness of the role and situation of human rights defenders, and in recent years has helped to strengthen the Council of Europe’s work in this area. Together with like-minded countries, Norway has been actively engaged in addressing the situation of a number of human rights defenders in Council of Europe member states.

The OSCE is an important arena for developing norms and cooperation on the protection of human rights defenders at regional level. The OSCE recognised at an early stage people’s right to help others working to defend their human rights, and to seek and receive assistance from others for this purpose. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights has drawn up Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders which recognise the vital role played by human rights defenders in democratic societies and the need to protect those who defend human rights by peaceful means. The situation of human rights defenders is raised on a regular basis in Norway’s statements in the OSCE.

Supporting human rights defenders is a priority for the EU, which regards human rights defenders as important allies in its efforts to promote democracy and human rights. The EU has drawn up a set of guidelines for its work in this area. Through the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), the EU provides funding for projects and measures (including urgent measures) to protect human rights defenders. For example, the EIDHR provides funding for projects that provide legal assistance to human rights defenders and support to their families. The Norwegian Foreign Service works together with the EU at both country level and in international forums in cases and processes involving human rights defenders.

Norway’s efforts at country level

The situation of human rights defenders is raised with the authorities in other countries through informal dialogue and formal political talks, and through concrete recommendations connected to the UN Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review mechanism (UPR). The Government encourages the authorities of other countries to publicly recognise the role and work of human rights defenders, and to ensure that national legislation is in line with international obligations and does not restrict the ability of human rights defenders to carry out their work.

Official enquiries, meetings with the authorities, protests (démarches) and statements can be useful tools if informal dialogue proves unsuccessful. The situation of human rights defenders is also often included in Norway’s human rights dialogues.

The diplomatic and consular missions have a key role to play in implementing Norway’s human rights policy at country level. The missions are encouraged to maintain regular, direct contact with human rights defenders. Missions can also observe court cases, carry out prison visits and visits to people under house arrest, and recognise and draw attention to the work of human rights defenders in the media. In some situations, it may also be appropriate to provide financial support for human rights defenders and their work, or for urgent protection measures. Guidelines for Norway’s efforts to support human rights defenders can be found here.

In Freedom, empowerment and opportunities. Action Plan for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in Foreign and Development Policy 2016-2020, outcome 2.3 is that women are to be given the protection they need and have the capacity to defend human rights. Norway will work to ensure that decisions made by the UN with respect to the protection of women human rights defenders (such as the UN resolution to protect women human rights defenders from 2013) are followed up at country level, will support organisations working to protect and strengthen the capacity of women human rights defenders, and will promote and protect women human rights defenders, in line with the Ministry’s guidelines in this area.  

Norway’s priorities: 

  • maintain a leading role in UN negotiations on protection of human rights defenders, and seek to intensify efforts to implement the resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council;
  • support national and international initiatives and other schemes for protecting human rights defenders, not least women human rights defenders and environmental human rights defenders.
  • engage in close dialogue with organisations working to protect human rights defenders on how best to deal with the increased pressure they are experiencing.