Human Rights Defenders

Human Rights Defenders play a major role towards the enlightenment, observation and enforcement of human rights values in the society. 

Human Rights Defenders or human rights activists are people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights. They can be journalists, environmentalists, whistle blowers, trade unionists, lawyers, teachers, housing campaigners and so on. They can defend rights as part of their jobs (e.g. NHRC) or in a voluntary capacity e.g. CLO. As a result of their activities, they can sometimes be the subject of reprisals and attacks of all kinds, including smears, surveillance, harassment, false charges, arbitrary detention, restriction on the right to Freedom of association and physical attacks. 

Duty/ roles of human rights defenders


The United Nation adopted a declaration on human rights defenders in 1998. A number of initiatives were taken, both at the international and regional level to increase the protection of defenders and contribute to the implementation of the Declaration. In this context, the following mechanisms and guidelines were established. 

  1. The mandate of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders (2000)
  2. The mandate of the Special Rapporteur of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on human rights defenders (2004)

Human Rights Defenders are notable indeed visible in areas such as issuing press releases, studies of possible violations or abuses of human rights, reports, statements as country visits institutional events and trials observed.

In their role of protecting and defending human rights, it was identified through a study that human rights defenders connected to agribusiness, mining and renewable energy sectors as those in greatest danger.  Lawyers and members of environmental groups were also at risk. 

Challenges facing human rights defenders


Not all human rights work places or human rights defenders are at risk and some states defenders are generally well protected. However, the severity and scale of reprisals committed against defenders were one of the primary motivations behind the adoption of the declaration on human rights defenders and the establishment of the mandate of Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders at the United Nations and Africa Union levels. 

The Rapporteurs have expressed concern for the situation of human rights defenders in all countries including both emerging democracies and countries with long established democratic institutions, practices and traditions. Nevertheless, special emphasis has been placed on countries where  (a) internal armed conflict or severe civil unrest exists, (b) the legal and institutional protections and guarantees of human rights are not fully  assured or do not exist at all.

Most defenders in all regions of the world have been the target of executions, torture, beatings arbitrary arrest and detention, death threats, harassment and defamation, as well as restrictions on their freedoms of movement, expression, association and assembly. The Defenders have been victims of false accusations. 

Violations most commonly target either human rights defenders themselves or the organisations and mechanisms through which they work. Sometimes violations target members of defenders families as a means of applying pressure to the defender. Some human rights defenders are at greater risk because of the nature of the rights they seek to protect women human rights defender sometimes confront risks that are gender specific and require particular attention. 

In most cases, acts committed against human rights defender are in violation of both international and national law. In some countries, however, domestic legislation which itself contravenes international human rights law is used against defenders. 




In conclusion, one must have a passion for this job, not just to get employed because one is looking for a job. The job of human rights defender goes beyond the normal civil or public service attitudes. Sometimes, you may be requested to intervene during the weekend over a violation or abuse, even outside official working hours.