1 Human rights defenders – who are they and why should we support them?
1.1 Who are human rights defenders?
Box 1.1 UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, article 1
Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.
The term Human rights defenders refers to both individuals and groups who work to promote and protect human rights through peaceful means. Human rights defenders must accept the universality and indivisibility of human rights and uphold the principles of equality and non-discrimination in their work.
Human rights defenders are defined by what they do. They can address the full range of human rights concerns, for example all forms of discrimination, impunity or the non-fulfilment of rights. Human rights defenders may be spokespersons for vulnerable and marginalised groups. In many cases they represent movements that are working to bring about change within and for their communities.
1.2 Why should we support them?
All human beings have rights and freedoms that protect them and their dignity in war and in peacetime. Respect for human rights is an essential element of democracy. In turn, democracy provides an environment for the protection and effective realisation of human rights.
Human rights defenders help to realise human rights. They play a key role by documenting and drawing attention to situations where states do not fulfil their human rights obligations and where human rights violations and abuses are committed.
Because of the nature of their work, human rights defenders and their families may face serious risks and reprisals, including threats, attacks, and administrative and judicial restrictions. In many countries, there is a large gap between the protection afforded under international human rights law and actual practice. In some countries, human rights defenders or members of their families are tortured, subjected to enforced disappearances or killed. The authorities in many countries perceive criticism from human rights defenders not only as unpleasant but also as dangerous. Anyone fighting for human rights, gender equality, democracy, justice and the rule of law, are, in many places, regarded as a threat to the government.
The extent to which there are restrictions on the activities of human rights defenders is an important indicator of the human rights situation in general. Vague or expansive counterterrorism, national security, or cybersecurity laws and regulations are examples of legislation and administrative measures that may unduly restrict the work of human rights defenders.
Human rights defenders may also come under attack from non-state actors, including armed groups, private companies, and individuals, as well as the media. Impunity is a widespread problem in many countries. The inability or unwillingness to investigate attacks on human rights defenders may be seen as acceptance of such attacks. The state has a duty to protect against human rights abuses from non-state actors.
Box 1.2 Human rights defenders at particular risk:
- Women human rights defenders.
- Those working for the human rights of sexual and gender minorities or who are LGBTQI+ persons.
- Environmental human rights defenders: those working for environmental and land rights.
- Indigenous human rights defenders.
- Human rights defenders with disabilities.
- Human rights defenders in conflict zones.
- Individuals or groups engaged in human rights issues involving major economic interests and/or large development projects.
- Human rights defenders promoting workers’ rights.
- Civil society organisations and activists fighting corruption.
- Those working for the rights of minorities, including for example the rights of religious and faith-based minorities.
- Human rights defenders in rural areas: these are often less visible and can therefore be in greater need of protection.
- Human rights defenders in exile may be vulnerable, including to refoulement.
- Children and youth who defend human rights.
- Those working for the rights of refugees and migrants.
Some professional groups that often face risk due to human rights-related work:
- Journalists and organisations that promote freedom of the media.
- Lawyers, including those offering legal assistance to human rights defenders.
- Trade unionists.
- Artists and authors.
- Students and academics.
Intersectionality: Intersectionality is the complex, cumulative way in which multiple forms of discrimination operate simultaneously and interact in an inseparable manner, producing distinct and specific forms of discrimination. Human rights defenders may belong to more than one category, and be subject to multiple and intersectional forms of discrimination.
1.3 International legal and normative framework
The main international documents and instruments for the protection of human rights defenders include:
- the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a milestone document in the history of human rights.
- the Core International Human Rights Instruments: nine core UN human rights conventions, all of which have a committee of experts to monitor implementation of the treaty provisions by its States parties (appendix A).
- regional human rights conventions, for example the European Convention on Human Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, with associated monitoring mechanisms.
- the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, also known as the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
All states are obligated to fulfill their treaty obligations. All UN member states are party to at least one of the core UN human rights conventions. Europe, Africa and the Americas also have legally binding regional conventions. States must ensure that human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. This duty includes, inter alia, ensuring that national legislation is in line with international obligations, and that human rights violations and abuses are investigated and those responsible held accountable.
Norway is party to 8 out of 9 core UN human rights conventions. We are also party to the European Convention on Human Rights. See 5.1 Appendix A for more information.
Norway does its utmost to implement and fulfil our obligations. In 2014, the Norwegian Parliament added a separate chapter on human rights to the Constitution. Five core human rights conventions have also been incorporated into national law through the Human Rights Act, which takes precedence over other legislative provisions in case of conflict.
Norway similarly expects other state parties to comply with their obligations. We encourage states to fulfil their human rights obligations, in bilateral dialogue, and in the multilateral system and as a part of the Universal Periodic Review.
The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was adopted in 1998 and forms the normative basis for Norway’s support to human rights defenders. The declaration sets out how rights enshrined in the international human rights conventions pertain to human rights defenders and their work. It clarifies that states have a responsibility to protect human rights defenders, including against attacks from non-state actors. It also underscores that states have an obligation to promote and respect rights that are of key importance to human rights defenders and their work. This includes freedom of expression, the right to receive and impart information, the right to assemble peacefully and to form associations and non-governmental organisations.
1.4 Norwegian policy and priorities
Norway’s foreign and development policy is human rights-based. The protection of human rights defenders has been a priority in Norway’s international human rights work for decades. Norway led the negotiations that resulted in the adoption of the UN declaration on human rights defenders in 1998. Since then, Norway has been the main sponsor of the resolutions on human rights defenders that are proposed regularly in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the UN General Assembly in New York. By adopting the resolutions, UN member states confirm, inter alia, their duty to protect human rights defenders. Norway also actively promotes efforts to support human rights defenders in other multilateral organisations.
In response to a Norwegian initiative, the UN established in 2000 the mandate of the United Nations Special Representatives of the Secretary General for Human Rights Defenders. The title of the mandate was changed in 2008 to Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. The Special Rapporteur conducts country visits, raises individual cases with the relevant authorities and reports regularly to the UN on the situation of human rights defenders.
At country and multilateral level, Norwegian diplomatic missions participate in joint efforts with other international actors, including civil society, to support the work of human rights defenders. Human rights defenders provide insight into and information about the local human rights situation. They are important contacts and partners for our diplomatic missions.
These guidelines are a tool to help the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Norwegian diplomatic missions to systematise measures and efforts to support human rights defenders and their work. The guidelines complement other guidelines and policy documents on human rights and gender equality issued by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (see appendix E).
1.5 Key reasons to support human rights defenders
- Universality: Human rights are fundamental rights that all people are entitled to, irrespective of personal characteristics such as gender, religion or belief, age, sexual orientation, disability or ethnicity. Respect for human rights is a cornerstone of international peace and sustainable development.
- Obligations: All UN member states are party to at least one of the core UN human rights conventions, and all member states should act in conformity with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, including in the field of human rights. Ensuring tolerance and inclusion is a shared responsibility for all countries, regardless of tradition and culture.
- Accountability: It is the duty of states to comply with their human rights obligations. By documenting and drawing attention to situations where human rights are not respected, protected and fulfilled, and where human rights violations and abuses are committed, human rights defenders assist states in complying with their obligations. Human rights defenders also contribute by informing the public and helping people to claim their rights. Governments should see human rights defenders as a resource rather than a threat.
- The 2030 Agenda: There are close links between human rights and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Fulfilling human rights also helps realise the SDGs. More than 90% of the SDG targets are anchored in human rights norms and standards, according to the Danish Institute of Human Rights. In addition, SDG indicator 16.10.1 records killings of human rights advocates, journalists and trade unionists.
- Protection: States have a duty to protect against human rights abuses from non-state actors. This includes protecting human rights defenders.