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Supporting human rights defenders

Graphic: Human rights defenders in the Philippines

Human rights defenders are individuals, groups of people or organisations who legitimately seek to promote and protect human rights through peaceful and non-violent means.

Through their actions, they help uncover human rights violations, bring them to public attention and call for fair and just solutions. They can also work to empower individuals and communities to understand and claim their fundamental rights.

Because of their actions, human rights defenders face grave challenges in the countries in which they work. These can include harassment, detention, death threats and torture. People can be silenced by restrictive laws. Some have been disappeared or murdered. Women human rights defenders can be subjected to sexual violence.

The APF's 20th Annual Meeting included a special focus on the current challenges facing human rights defenders and the role of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) to promote and protect their rights.

Dr Sima Samar, Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, describes the challenges of protecting human rights and promoting accountability in a country "where there is no rule of law".

In 1998, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. The document sets out the rights and protections necessary to support the vital work of human rights defenders. It also encourages governments to establish independent NHRIs to promote and protect human rights in their country.

NHRIs can also come under threat for the work they do to promote and protect human rights, in accordance with their legal mandate.

In many countries, NHRIs are under pressure. They are threatened, sometimes harassed and the most active are the most in danger.

Universal periodic review Logo Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

Graphic: Indigenous people in the Philippines

In 2018, NHRIs from around the globe pledged to bolster their support for human rights defenders amidst a growing climate of threats and reprisals.

The Marrakech Declaration, adopted at the 13th International Conference of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions, set out a practical set of strategies to promote, protect and build cooperative partnerships with human rights defenders, including:

  • Establishing national protection systems, in consultation with human rights defenders, civil society organisations and others
  • Encouraging States to ratify all international human rights instruments, including the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and advising them on implementation
  • Monitoring and reporting on civic space – online and offline – by collecting and analysing disaggregated data and statistics, related to killings, fabricated legal charges, misuse of laws and other attacks against human rights defenders
  • Establishing efficient and robust early warning mechanisms and focal points within NHRIs
  • Promoting gender equality and developing strategies to combat all forms of discrimination against women human rights defenders
  • Interacting regularly with human rights defenders and civil society and helping to develop and strengthen national and regional defenders' networks
  • Interacting with international and regional human rights systems in support of human rights defenders, and monitoring the follow-up and implementation of recommendations.

Graphic: Human rights defenders

Defending human rights defenders

UN Special Rapporteur Michel Forst describes the challenges facing human rights defenders in our region, especially women human rights defenders.

A number of APF members have established focal point desks within their institutions to respond quickly to threats facing human rights defenders, while others help coordinate witness protection schemes.

The APF Annual Meeting and Biennial Conference provides an opportunity for APF members, non-government organisations and others to discuss the regional situation of human rights defenders and propose practical responses.


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Image credits

  1. Human rights defenders in the Philippines - APF/Pip Dargan
  2. Indigenous people in the Philippines - Philippines Commission on Human Rights