Courtesy of BBC
Many of us immersed in the human rights world consider ourselves human rights advocates— promoters of fair treatment for all, supporters of the rights of the oppressed, activists committed to human rights standards. Whether it is on a personal, local, national, or global level, human rights defenders are those individuals who fight day after day to promote human rights who ensure that no person or group is denied the basic, fundamental rights that everyone deserves.
But what happens when it is these very fighters who are deprived of their rights? Sadly, more and more of these critical human rights defenders’ own rights are being threatened and taken away. Defenders are the targets of violence, intimidation, and repression which aim to stop them from doing their critical work, and often carried out by their very own governments. What can be done to protect these important individuals in the face of repression? How do they still fight to be effective advocates despite the many obstacles placed in their path?
Who are human rights defenders?
The notion of a human rights defender is not a novel one. Although the term has been used more frequently in recent years, it is synonymous with human rights activist, human rights advocate, and human rights worker. A human rights defender is anyone and everyone who acts to promote and protect human rights. They are individuals, organizations, or groups of people who fight against human rights violations. Anyone can be a human rights defender—a journalist, a government official, a teacher, a lawyer; what they all have in common is that they defend, promote, and protect human rights in their work.
What protections are human rights defenders afforded?
In December 1998, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (formally known as 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”). The UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration by consensus, demonstrating the commitment of all the UN member states to respect the rights of human rights defenders.
The Declaration stresses the importance of individuals and groups who promote human rights and the role of their respective states and governments to afford them legal protection. It provides specific protections for human rights defenders, including, among many others, to conduct human rights work, to form associations and non-governmental organizations, and to complain about official policies. The Declaration does not create new rights, but it provides an official articulation of the rights of human rights defenders in a straightforward and universally accepted document.
Governments have a responsibility to implement and honor all of the provisions of the Declaration, which lays out in detail the duties of states. Specifically, states must ensure all citizens are able to enjoy all rights, provide an effective remedy for persons who claim to have been victims of a human rights violation, and investigate cases of human rights violations. As stated in Article 12 of the Declaration, states have a duty to protect human rights defenders against violence, discrimination, and retaliation.
To support the implementation of the Declaration of Human Rights Defenders, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (now the Human Rights Council) created the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. The Special Rapporteur investigates the situations of human rights defenders to make sure that they are reflective of the goals and provisions of the Declaration. The Special Rapporteur visits countries around the world, investigates individual cases of concern, and reports to the UN Human Rights Council on relevant matters related to human rights defenders. In this capacity, the Special Rapporteur operates as the liaison between human rights defenders on the ground and the governments which make up the United Nations.
Despite the approval of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders by all UN members, it is not a binding document and many of states continue to not only ignore their duties to protect human rights defenders, but to actively persecute them. Repressive governments often attack human rights defenders because of their work—they intimidate and harass, arbitrarily arrest and detain, and use torture and other physical means of violence to stop human rights defenders from doing their work.
This contradiction is evident in the example of Shirin Ebadi, one of the most internationally recognized, powerful human rights advocates in Iran. She was born in 1947 in Hamadan, Iran, and went on to study law at Tehran University. In 1970, Ebadi became a judge and within five years became the president of a Tehran city court—becoming the first woman in Iranian history to hold this position. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, however, she was forced to resign from her esteemed position, as women were deemed “unsuitable for such posts.” Then unemployed, Ebadi opened her own law practice in 1992, fighting cases that dealt with freedom of expression, human rights, and women’s rights.
Ebadi encapsulates the notion of a human rights defender who does not back down in the face of threats and harassment. In 2003, she received the Nobel Peace Prize, chosen because “as a lawyer, judge, lecturer, writer and activist, she has spoken out clearly and strongly in her country, Iran, and far beyond.” As Ebadi herself said in 1999, “Any person who pursues human rights in Iran must live with fear from birth to death, but I have learned to overcome my fear.” Despite the fact that she has received many threats demanding that she stop fighting for human rights, and her husband has been arrested and beaten, Ebadi continues to defend Iranian political prisoners, activists, and women. She has published many books about women’s and children’s rights, and has written over seventy articles on various aspects of human rights in Iran.
Following in Ebadi’s spirit of promoting democracy and human rights, the Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC), Ebadi’s Iranian human rights organization, aims to aid the Iranian public in securing human rights (as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) that they are being denied. Its lawyers provide pro-bono defense of individuals accused of political crimes, as well as support to families of political prisoners. It publishes reports on the human rights situation in Iran and works to publicize this information. It helps facilitate dialogue between various activists and groups in the human rights field, and works to help develop other human rights organizations, groups, and institutions.
The DHRC has faced threats, harassment, and intimidation from the government, government officials, and authorities since its founding. On January 5, 2009, the Center was forcibly closed and many of its main advocates and advisors detained. Ebadi fled Iran following this incident to avoid persecution. In May 2012, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, co-founder of the Center, was sentenced to nine years in prison due to his advocacy work. Despite the closure of the Center and the direct oppression of its main advocates, its members continue to work on advocating for human rights by publishing articles on the state of human rights in Iran—demanding the Center be reopened and documenting the abuses that the DHRC as well as other NGOs have faced at the hands of the Iranian government.
The Declaration of Human Rights Defenders and Governments of Oppression - can they be reconciled?
The adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights Defenders and the establishment of the Special Rapporteur represent an important step in the recognition and protection of human rights defenders worldwide. The Declaration is the first UN instrument to reaffirm and clarify the rights afforded to human rights defenders that are most often challenged by governments. As apparent from Shirin Ebadi’s experience in Iran, however, actions taken against human rights defenders, in clear contravention of the Declaration, are still prevalent. While the adoption of the Declaration is a step in the right direction, clearly much more work has to be done. Human rights advocates must speak out in support of defenders and demand that governments comply with the letter and spirit of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. It is the brave, resilient human rights defenders, such as Shirin Ebadi, who work to fight for human rights in under the most oppressive regimes—where human rights defenders are both needed and retaliated against the most.