FoRB on the Frontlines: It’s Time to Defend the Defender

Over the past month CSW has been speaking with HRDs across South Asia to find out what it means to be a FoRB defender in the region. Today, International Human Rights Day, we present a guest blog post by Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders.

“Human rights defenders are those community and religious leaders, journalists, activists, lawyers, trade unionists and others who take on the plight of the most marginalised in their society. These defenders of human rights represent people in the face of oppression, violence and harassment, doing what they can to hold perpetrators to account, and uphold the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), among many other resolutions that states across the world are committed to upholding. Many of these defenders face the same intense persecution as those they seek to defend, with many facing threats and risks of violence, torture and even death on a daily basis.

That is why, this year, I joined calls to award the Nobel peace prize to the global community of human rights defenders – especially as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders on 10 December.

As the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, I believe that this declaration must be given foremost importance amongst the international community moving forward, with regards to the protection and sanctity of all human rights worldwide. Indeed, this year the recipients of the Nobel peace prize were human rights defenders Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, further proof that the work of HRDs worldwide helps to bring about lasting change, peace and reconciliation.

We must therefore celebrate the 20th anniversary of the declaration by showing appreciation for the HRDs across the world who work on the frontline in the defence of human rights. These brave HRDs, who work tirelessly for the protection of the sanctity of all people’s universally bestowed human rights, work at aid organisations, human rights institutions and elsewhere, or as individuals, in a fight for justice for the persecuted, and to empower the voices of those who are seldom heard. 

This often comes at the detriment of their own personal circumstances and livelihoods. These people insert themselves between the victim and the perpetrator, bringing with them the hope for understanding, peace, dialogue and justice. Nehemiah Christie, a human rights defender in India, faces constant online and verbal abuse, from people saying they will fry him in oil, to others threatening physical violence against his family.

As Special Rapporteur I have emphasised the need to focus on the ‘holistic security’ of HRDs. Their physical safety, digital security and psychological well-being is of paramount importance when we look to protecting these vital defenders of human rights worldwide. 

John, a Nepalese human rights defender, faces these psychological burdens every day in his work dutifully upholding the rights of the marginalised and oppressed in Nepal. Living in fear of physical threats from acquaintances, government officials and unknown underground political groups does not only take a toll on John’s emotional well-being, but also on his ability to defend freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Nepal. John believes that FoRB acts an inter-sectional right across civil society; if this vital right is violated, it is highly likely that others are being infringed upon – or are about to be. Accordingly, he has stressed the need for an interlinking of the work of human rights defenders not just in Nepal, but worldwide.

These interconnections must be made by the international community to further our understanding of the sensitivity of the work of human rights defenders, who often work on the precipice of further and more serious violations for wider sections of their communities.

Last year, I was honoured to speak at an event organised by CSW’s SAAKSHI Project, which saw the launch of its ‘Defend the Defender’ initiative. This saw the coming together of a number of human rights and FoRB defenders from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in South Asia, and from Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia.

I had the great pleasure of meeting just some of the countless men and women – including Nehemiah, John, Fatima and Julfikar, who work tirelessly for FoRB for all people in their countries. This gathering of HRDs highlighted to me the power of the global community of human rights defenders worldwide. By sharing knowledge with one another in an open and safe environment, not only were they able to share ideas to empower their work, but also tap into a larger community of support and training for their own personal safety. This, I’m sure we all hope, can highlight to them that they are not alone in their fight to uphold human rights for others.

Without their vital intervention in cases where human rights are first infringed upon, a vicious cycle which will see the systematisation of human rights violations will begin to develop. By intervening, HRDs are breaking the chain where it is at its weakest; by putting pressure on governments to uphold their international commitments, and appealing to the moral, ethical and spiritual fibre of their own communities to encourage communal harmony and peace amongst peoples. 

It is with great sadness that we read these updates from Nehemiah, John, Fatima and Julfikar, and all those who are brave enough to stand up for what they believe is their duty, to bring justice for those whose rights are violated worldwide. Serious violations against HRDs are often committed with impunity, with reprisals against them coming as a direct result of their engagement with international actors, including the UN. It is shocking that they face these reprisals, which come in the form of smear campaigns, harassment, attacks and killings.

I believe that true peace is only attainable when basic human rights are respected. That is why, on this 20th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, we must reaffirm our commitment to protecting the courageous people who risk their safety for the well-being of others and the enjoyment of human rights for all.

The full name of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders is 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.”

We are all individuals, we are all a part of a group, and we are all organs of society. The declaration on human rights defenders not only tells us that the work of HRDs must be protected, upheld and respected, but that we must actively play a role in defending their work and livelihoods against any who would try to stifle the voices of those standing up for injustice, worldwide. It’s time to defend the defender.”

Michel Forst is the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

Click here to see all entries in the FoRB on the Frontlines series.