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.

Today is a dangerous time to be a human rights defender … You are likely to be threatened, intimidated or investigated, harassed or criminalised.

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

Graphic: Indigenous people in the Philippines

Strong and independent NHRIs have a vital role to play to promote and protect the rights of human rights defenders in the Asia Pacific.

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, NHRIs can take a number of important steps to improve the environment in which human rights defenders work, including:

  • Reminding governments of their responsibility to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms lies with the State
  • Promoting law reform to protect, support and empower defenders, in compliance with international human rights law and standards
  • Standing against impunity and promoting access to justice for violations against defenders
  • Developing effective protection policies and mechanisms in collaboration with defenders, including public support for the work of defenders
  • Addressing the specific challenges of groups at risk and paying special attention to the challenges faced by women defenders and those working on women's rights and gender issues.

To do this work effectively, NHRIs must forge close and constructive relationships with civil society organisations and human rights defenders.

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