Human Rights Day 2010: Protecting The Right To Defend Human Rights (Part 2)


by Laifungbam Debabrata Roy, CORE

Who can be a human rights defender?
There is no specific definition of who is or can be a human rights defender. The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders refers to “individuals, groups and associations … contributing to … the effective elimination of all violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms of peoples and individuals” (fourth preambular paragraph).

According to this broad categorization, human rights defenders can be any person or group of persons working to promote human rights, ranging from intergovernmental organizations based in the world’s largest cities to individuals working within their local communities. Defenders can be of any gender, of varying ages, from any part of the world and from all sorts of professional or other backgrounds. In particular, it is important to note that human rights defenders are not only found within NGOs and intergovernmental organizations but might also, in some instances, be government officials, civil servants or members of the private sector.

1. Defending human rights through professional activities – paid or voluntary
The most obvious human rights defenders are those whose daily work specifically involves the promotion and protection of human rights, for example human rights monitors working with national human rights organizations, human rights ombudsmen or human rights lawyers.

However, what is most important in characterizing a person as a human rights defender is not the person’s title or the name of the organization he or she works for, but rather the human rights character of the work undertaken. It is not essential for a person to be known as a “human rights activist” or to work for an organization that includes “human rights” in its name in order to be a human rights defender. Many of the staff of government agencies in Manipur serve as human rights defenders even if their day-to-day work is described in different terms, for example as “development” or “services”.

Similarly, the national and international staff of NGOs around the world working to address humanitarian concerns can typically be described as human rights defenders. People educating communities on HIV/AIDS, activists for the rights of indigenous peoples, environmental activists and volunteers working in development are also playing a crucial role as human rights defenders.

Many people work in a professional capacity as human rights defenders and are paid a salary for their work. However, there are many others who work in a professional capacity as human rights defenders but who are volunteers and receive no remuneration. Typically, human rights organizations have very limited funding and the work provided by these volunteers is invaluable.

Many professional activities do not involve human rights work all of the time but can have occasional links with human rights. For example, lawyers working on commercial law issues may not often address human rights concerns and cannot automatically be described as human rights defenders. They can nevertheless act as defenders on some occasions by working on cases through which they contribute to the promotion or protection of human rights. Similarly, leaders of trades unions undertake numerous tasks, many of which bear no relation to human rights, but when they are working specifically to promote or protect the human rights of workers they can be described as human rights defenders. In the same way, journalists have a broad mandate to gather information and disseminate it to a public audience through print, radio or television media. In their general role, journalists are not human rights defenders.

However, many journalists do act as defenders, for example when they report on human rights abuses and bear witness to acts that they have seen. Teachers who instruct their pupils in basic principles of human rights fulfill a similar role. Doctors and other medical professionals who treat and rehabilitate victims of human rights violations can also be viewed as human rights defenders in the context of such work; and doctors have special obligations by virtue of the Hippocratic Oath.

Those who contribute to assuring justice – judges, the police, lawyers and other key actors – often have a particular role to play and may come under considerable pressure to make decisions that are favourable to the State or other powerful interests, such as the leaders of organized crime. Where these actors in the judicial process make a special effort to ensure access to fair and impartial justice, and thereby to guarantee the related human rights of victims, they can be said to be acting as human rights defenders.

A similar “special effort” qualification can be applied to other professions or forms of employment that bear no obvious relation to human rights. The individuals who hold these jobs may sometimes choose to conduct their work in a way that offers specific support to human rights. For example, some architects choose to design their construction projects in a way that takes into consideration relevant human rights, such as the right to adequate (temporary) housing and health care for the people who will work on the project, or the rights of children or the disabled to be consulted on the design, if the building is of particular relevance to them.

2. Defending human rights in a non-professional context
Many people act as human rights defenders outside any professional or employment context. For example, a student who organizes other students to campaign for an end to torture in prisons could be described as a human rights defender. An inhabitant of a rural community who coordinates a demonstration by members of the community against environmental degradation of their farmland by factory waste or loss of lands and livelihoods by a dam project could also be described as a human rights defender. A politician who takes a stand against endemic corruption within a Government is a human rights defender for his or her action to promote and protect good governance and certain rights that are threatened by such corruption. Witnesses in court cases to prosecute the perpetrators of human rights abuses, and witnesses who provide information to international human rights bodies or domestic courts and tribunals to help them address violations, are also considered to be human rights defenders in the context of those actions.

A personnel of the paramilitary Assam Rifles, reported claiming to be the sole witness and willing to give statement on a recent alleged fake encounter (extrajudicial execution) case in Manipur could be described a human rights defender.

People all over the world strive for the realization of human rights according to their circumstances and in their own way. The names of some human rights defenders are internationally recognized, but the majority of defenders remain unknown. Whether an individual works as a local government official, a policeman upholding the law or an entertainer using his or her position to highlight injustices, all can play a role in the advancement of human rights. The key is to look at how such people act to support human rights and, in some instances, to see whether a “special effort” is made.

Clearly, it is impossible to catalogue the huge variety of contexts in which human rights defenders are active. However, common to most defenders are a commitment to helping others, a commitment to international human rights standards, a belief in equality and in non-discrimination, determination and, in many instances, tremendous courage.

Is a minimum standard required of human rights defenders?
No “qualification” is required to be a human rights defender, and the Declaration on human rights defenders makes clear, as explained above, that we can all be defenders of human rights if we choose to be. Nevertheless, the “standard” required of a human rights defender is a complex issue, and the Declaration clearly indicates that defenders have responsibilities as well as rights. The UN Fact Sheet draws attention to the following three key issues:

Accepting the universality of human rights
Human rights defenders must accept the universality of human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A person cannot deny some human rights and yet claim to be a human rights defender because he or she is an advocate for others. For example, it would not be acceptable to defend the human rights of men but to deny that women have equal rights.
Who is right and who is wrong – does it make a difference?

A second important issue concerns the validity of the arguments being presented. It is not essential for a human rights defender to be correct in his or her arguments in order to be a genuine defender. The critical test is whether or not the person is defending a human right. For example, a group of defenders may advocate for the right of a rural community to own the land they have lived on and farmed for several generations. They may conduct protests against private or even government economic interests that claim to own all of the land in the area. They may or may not be correct about who owns the land. However, whether or not they are legally correct is not relevant in determining whether they are genuine human rights defenders. The key issue is whether or not their concerns fall within the scope of human rights.

This is a very important issue because, in many countries, human rights defenders are often perceived by the State, or even the public, as being in the wrong because they are seen as supporting one side of an argument. They are then told that they are not “real” human rights defenders. Similarly, defenders who act in defence of the rights of political prisoners or persons from armed opposition groups are often described by State authorities as being supporters of such parties or groups, simply because they defend the rights of the people concerned. This is incorrect. Human rights defenders must be defined and accepted according to the rights they are defending and according to their own right to do so.

Peaceful action
Finally, the actions taken by human rights defenders must be peaceful in order to comply with the Declaration on human rights defenders.

(to be contd. in Part 3)


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