From Pledges to Action: Human Rights Defenders play a vital role in advancing justice

Moving from official commitments to tangible changes people’s lives remains a key challenge in the realisation of human rights. I am reminded of the wonderful quote from African-American civil rights campaigner, Philip Randolph, who said, “Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.”

“Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.” – Philip Randolph

This quote draws attention to the importance of promoting human rights while reminding us that very rarely do human rights “just happen”; they are regularly contested, challenged and often only progressed through the active work of individual human rights defenders (HRDs) and NGOs who promote and defend human rights through activities such as advocacy, campaigning, demonstrations, and human rights journalism – whether paid or unpaid and regardless of geographical location.

The right and responsibility to promote human rights – either individually or in association with others – is the cornerstone of all human rights work.

Reprisals for defending human rights

As an advocacy organisation working in over 25 countries, Christian Solidarity Worldwide continues to receive reports of intimidation and harassment towards human rights defenders (HRDs), lawyers, activists, students, and journalists from many faith and non-faith organisations who promote freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). Severe reprisals committed against peaceful human rights defenders take many forms including physical violence and killings, arbitrary detentions, crackdown on social and economic rights.

For instance, since July 2015, over 300 human rights lawyers, activists, their colleagues and family members have been interrogated, detained and in some cases imprisoned or disappeared in China. This figure includes many prominent members of the weiquan community (referred to in English as rights lawyers, rights protection lawyers or human rights lawyers), who have been at the forefront of advocating for civil rights and legal reforms. Many of these lawyers have represented clients from religion or belief communities, including Christians from unregistered church and Falun Gong practitioners. One such lawyer is Jiang Tianyong.

Jiang Tianyong, a leading member of the China Human Rights Lawyers Group, has been missing since 21 November. Jiang has worked on a variety of rights-related cases, including representing religion or belief communities and on the high profile cases of activists Chen Guangcheng and Gao Zhisheng. His lawyers’ license was revoked in 2009 by the Beijing authorities, but Jiang continued to provide legal advice to victims of human rights abuses. As a result he has been repeatedly harassed, detained and beaten.

On 21 November, Jiang went missing on his way home to Beijing after visiting the wife of detained human rights lawyer Xie Yang in Hunan. He has not been seen since and human rights groups fear that he has been forcibly disappeared and is at risk of torture.

Government pressure against human rights defenders and NGOS

Many countries have also introduced legal obstacles and administrative measures to restrict the work of the HRDs and NGOs. In Egypt, the parliament adopted the Civic Association Law in November which places complete responsibility for administering civil society on government departments and the security apparatus. According to the local NGOs, the new law effectively eradicates civil society in the country.

In India, there are significant concerns that human rights defenders and NGOs, and foreign organisations which provide them with funding, are becoming targets for state repression. The Ministry of Home Affairs barred several NGOs and human right activists with international links from receiving foreign funds, by suspending their licences for six months and freezing their bank accounts.

Right and Responsibility to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms

After more than a decade of tireless lobbying by civil society, the United Nations (UN) Declaration of the Right and Responsibility to Promote Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms – the flagship document protecting key rights relevant to HRDs – was adopted in 1998. The mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, established in 2000, and the work of the current rapporteur Mr Michael Forst has also helped to raise the profile of the HRDs and find ways to improve international protection mechanisms for HRDs.

Since then, the role of HRDs has been increasingly acknowledged by the UN member states through various resolutions and statements. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has highlighted concerns about widespread intimidation and reprisals against HRDs collaborating with the UN, and indicated that the reprisals, which are becoming more severe and varied, undermine the UN. This year The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights launched its new campaign “Stand up for someone’s rights today” on Human Rights Day, a theme which by no doubt reflects the importance of HRDs’ work.

Moreover, the silencing of HRDs also takes place within the UN system with the NGO Committee in New York continuing to block NGOs access to the UN in a way that should deeply embarrass the international community.

On Human Rights Day, it is important to acknowledge the diversity of HRDs and to reflect what is needed from the international community to adhere to the principles of the 1998 UN Declaration on HRDs. Some of the key actions should include:

  • Repealing and removing legal restrictions and administrative obstacles restricting civil society and HRDs.
  • Releasing all arbitrarily detained HRDs and ending the misuse of criminal justice system to silence them.
  • Protecting HRDs from any harassment and human rights violations and monitor and investigate effectively any acts of reprisals or harassment.
  • Recognising and supporting the work of HRDs.

Devising future strategies to improve protections for HRDs should be further prioritised and here the Special Rapporteur’s report on best practice in this regard is a vital resource. Without effective protection for those who defend and promote human rights, there is little hope for the alleviation of bleak human rights situations and preventing the erosion of fundamental rights across the world will not “just happen” on its own.

By Sini Maria Heikkila, CSW’s Public Affairs Team Leader