Foreword by the former UN Special Rapporteur on HRDs, Michel Forst:
Jalila, Mohamadou, Paulo and Lita are all human rights defenders who work in difficult areas. In forgotten places, where the State does not operate anymore or where conflicts rage on. They provide support to women victims of sexual violence; they advocate for transitional justice; they visit peaceful protesters who have been arbitrarily detained. They bring human rights to the darkest, most isolated places. They are the voices for those whose voices have been stolen. Each and every day these ordinary women and men brave countless risks to be close to those they defend. Because they defend human rights they are targeted by those who benefit from human rights violations. Each day they must reinvent themselves and their most trivial routines. Jalila turns her phone off while having discussions with other defenders; Lita makes sure she travels back home while the sun is still high; and Paulo frequently changes the passwords to his social media accounts. When traveling outside his village, Mohamadou leaves instructions for his family as preparation for the possibility of being arrested and taken to jail.
Each day these four defenders feel in their own minds and bodies what it means to defend human rights in complex settings and thousands of other human rights defenders face the same situation on the ground. They cannot depend on protection from the State or constant protection from their own communities, so they bear the heavy responsibility of protecting themselves, staying safe alone. Some are fortunate to have the support of their organizations and movements but must still practice self-protection. Sometimes this individual responsibility feels like a burden and can have lasting and severe consequences on their psychological, physical and social well-being.
In recent years, a number of initiatives across the globe have contributed to support defenders and to provide them with a set of concrete tools to mitigate risks. Defenders have been building solidarity networks and strategic alliances, they have developed risks analysis and digital security trainings. Women human rights defenders and indigenous communities have helped understand the necessity to develop collective and holistic approaches to security. Some States have developed laws and mechanisms to better protect defenders as a response to the current deterioration of the situation of HRDs. Over the past five years, I have heard and learnt about many good practices on protection, and I am pleased with the efforts of the NHRF to provide these guidelines as a resource to help identify and navigate these initiatives.
"Defenders are those who courageously challenge the status quo to create pathways to a more equal, fair and sustainable world." Michel Forst, former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of HRDs.
Every effort is crucial and even vital for some defenders, but they must be reinforced by profound systemic changes. If we want to create a safe and enabling environment for defenders, we need to address the root causes, such as impunity for the perpetrators of human rights violations against defenders. We also need to recognize and support the great role defenders play for democracy, social justice and the rule of law. We need to do it in every possible way: politically, institutionally, privately. At schools, in the media, in the most ordinary places, as well as in the international fora.
Defenders often represent the last remaining hopes for those whose are left behind, who are excluded and despised by their societies. Defenders are those who courageously challenge the status quo to create pathways to a more equal, fair and sustainable world. Human rights defenders reconnect us to what makes the essence of humanity: solidarity, empathy and hope. As repression against human rights work has reached the deadliest point in recent history, it is imperative that we strengthen our support to these heroes. It is not only a matter of justice, it is for the sake of our common future, for our humanity. We must defend and stand and act in solidarity with these selfless, indomitable people.
- Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders (June 2014 - May 2020).
Main photo: Mónica Orjuela/NHRF.