Scales for Justice

Working towards peace and reconciliation

Human Rights Defenders

Human rights defenders” are people who act to promote or protect human rights. They are identified by what they do. To be a human rights defender, a person can act to address any human right (or rights) on behalf of individuals or groups.

In 1998, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN General Assembly adopted the text on the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. The Declaration provides for the support and protection of human rights defenders in the context of their work. The Declaration outlines some specific duties of States and the responsibilities of everyone with regard to defending human rights. It is important to note that human rights defenders have an obligation under the Declaration to conduct peaceful activities.

Rights and protections accorded to human rights defenders

Articles 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12 and 13 of the Declaration provide specific protections to human rights defenders, including the rights:

    To seek the protection and realization of human rights at the national and international levels; To conduct human rights work individually and in association with others; To form associations and non-governmental organizations; To meet or assemble peacefully; To make complaints about official policies and acts relating to human rights and to have such complaints reviewed; To attend public hearings, proceedings and trials in order to assess their compliance with national law and international human rights obligations; To unhindered access to and communication with non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations; To benefit from an effective remedy; To the lawful exercise of the occupation or profession of human rights defender; To effective protection under national law in reacting against or opposing, through peaceful means, acts or omissions attributable to the State that result in violations of human rights;  
              The duties of States

            States have a responsibility to implement and respect all the provisions of the Declaration. However, articles 2, 9, 12, 14 and 15 make particular reference to the role of States and indicate that each State has among others a responsibility and duty:

            To protect, promote and implement all human rights; To ensure that all persons are able to enjoy all social, economic, political and other rights and freedoms; To adopt such legislative, administrative and other steps to ensure effective implementation of rights and freedoms; To provide an effective remedy for persons who claim to have been victims of a human rights violation; To conduct prompt and impartial investigations of alleged violations of human rights; To take all necessary measures to ensure the protection of everyone against any violence, threats, retaliation, adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the Declaration;

            Read the Declaration in Arabic, English, French, German, Spanish

            Source: OHCHR

            Reprisals against human rights defenders

            In recent years there has been increased concern at the threats, intimidations and reprisls experienced by human rights activists and defenders, weather at local, regional or international level. To be a human rights defender, a person can act to address any human right (or rights) on behalf of individuals or groups.

            Reprisals are often carried out by powerful State agents, such as the police, military or security forces or the judiciary, who act to protect the State from criticism. Abuses range from defenders having their activities unreasonably restricted and their organisations unfairly scrutinized, being spied on or defamed, denied access to funding, or being the subject to arbitrary arrest, physical violence and death.

            The UN and regional human rights system are increasingly recognizing the challenges and dangers that defenders face from their work. A 2008 Declaration of the Committee of Ministers on Counil of Europe to improve the protection of Human Rights defenders therefore calls on member states to "ensure the effective access of human rights defenders to the European Court of Human Rights' and other human rights protection mechanisms."

            Unfortunately however there are cases where states institutions are simply unable to do this, are wilfully neglectful, or deliberately obstructive when it comes to ensuring that defenders can cooperate safely with the UN and regional human rights mechanisms. In such situations defenders who dare to speak out in any context face heightened risks.

            The Human Rights Council, the UN's highest human rights body which sits in Geneva, is made up of State representatives. Those states often rely upon human rights defenders to support them with information before they will act. For this very reason there is a clear obligatioon  to ensure that they receive from human rights defendrs does not place them at risk.

            Sources of protection at the UN

            At the UN level there is a reporting mechanism to which cases of reprisal suffered as a result of engaging with the UN can be submitted. This mechanisms consists of an annual report that lists the alleged cases of reprisal as a result of attempting to engage with the UN human rights system. The report is compiled by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

            Information submitted should follow the guidelines prepared by the OHCHR, which define victims as "seek to cooperate or have cooperated with the UN", "Avail or have themselves availed themselve of procedures established under the auspieces of the UN"; "Submit or have submitted communications under procedures established by human rights instruments" or "Are relatives of victims of human rights violations". Information can be submitted to

            Other relevant officials at the UN level are the human rights experts, also called "Special Procedures". These are individuals appointed to examine a particular theme or the human rights situation in a specific country. Each of these experts has the responsability to monitor and report to the Human Rights Council. These experts have a number of tools by means of which they can publicise cases of reprisals that occcur, in hopes of pressuring a State into pursuing accountability for the violations.

            Urgent appeals involve the expert (or a group of experts) sending a letter to the State, reuqiring it to intervene in a case and to submit information to the mandate holder on the steps taken in response to the case.

            Country visits allow the experts to build a picture of the on-the-ground situation and generally include meetings with local civil society. These visits conclude with the publication of a report and possibly a press release.

            Another tool available to special procedures is to issue press releases on an ad hoc basis as a means of drawing greater attention to particular cases. Some experts have in the past used press releases as a basis of making a public call on a State to ensure the safety of particular defenders.

            Treaty bodies

            The UN has also a system of experts known as "treaty bodies", which monitor the implementation of the nine key human rights conventions. For many of these bodies it is possible to submit individual communications regarding the violation of a right under the convention that the body monitors. It is however important to verify if the country concerned has ratified the relevant convention and has recognized the competnce of the treaty body.

            Finally, aside from formal mechanisms, individuals can also informally apporach key officials within the UN system. The President of the Human Rights Council is such a figure. The President can give high profile visibility to partiular defenders and turn the spotlight on them. This can be a source of protection.

            Source: Reprisals Handbook International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)

            What does Scales for Justice (S4J) do?

            S4J is particularly concerned about reprisals against human rights defenders and experienced in engaging the concerned bodies of the UN. S4J exmines individual cases and prepares relevant communications to the UN. S4J further organizes meetings with special procedure mandate holders (or assistants) and ensures that a regular follow-up with the OHCHR takes place. In cases of urgent concern S4J may also invite the defender to assist meetings of the UN Human Rights Council and hold a statement.