25 Years After the UN Declaration To Protect HRDs, Much More Has To Be Done

by Ingeborg Moa, executive Director of the Norwegian Human Rights Fund; and Brian Dooley, Senior Advisor, Human Rights First

Tomorrow, 9 December, marks 25 years of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (HRDs). It provides for the support and protection of HRDs, and for many HRDs its been a useful marking in legitimizing and supporting their work.

Both of our organizations have been working to enable and protect HRDs before the1998 declaration, and both of us personally have been working in various capacities with HRDs for decades.

The anniversary is a good time to reflect on what’s working and what isn’t for HRDs, and we discussed some of these issues on a Human Rights First webinar a couple of days ago.

In many ways it was a different world in 1998. Celine Dion and the Backstreet Boys were the big rock acts then. The internet, mobile phones, and digital surveillance of HRDs, where all in their infancy.

For HRDs, much has changed, and it’s possible to see 25 years of success as HRDs have achieved some great things. They’ve changed laws, won the release of people from prison, distributed humanitarian aid, exposed corruption, documented and publicized human rights violations.

For some HRDs just keeping going despite pressure and threats is success in itself. Hundreds are killed every year for their peaceful work on behalf of others, for embarrassing corrupt officials, for making good things happen.

But there is now a greater recognition of the value of the work of HRDs than there was in 1998, and a better understanding of who they are. The family of HRDs has expanded in the last 25 years – back then NGOs discussed whether those working on environmental rights, or those documenting corruption, or medics working in war zones, really counted as HRDs.  Now we know they do.

We better understand too the responsibilities of businesses to protect HRDs, and that defenders working on certain issues face specific threats, that those working on land rights, indigenous rights or environmental rights away from big cities are most likely to be murdered. We know too that many defenders are targeted not just for what they do but for who they are.

Women Human Rights Defenders experience added layers of harassment. They’ve always lived with pressure from society in terms of what they should get engaged in and not, pressure from their families on what a woman should do or not, and since 1998 there’s now added pressures in the digital sphere. They are targeted more than other HRDs with digital harassment, which we see very often leads to physical attacks offline.

Our organizations share a similar approach to working with HRDs.The NHRF supports HRDs working for NGOs outside big cities, often formed by people from the community that they work in. It supports organizations where women are in leaderships roles, and provides resources over the long term. For instance, the NHRF works with an NGO in Thailand originally formed by young women to organize their community in the face of a mining company. Most of these women are  now grandmothers, but still keep up their human rights work.

The NHRF also works with organizations of HRDs in Indonesia made up of family members of those killed and tortured in in the 1960s who are now seeking redress and working against impunity.

Human Rights First, meanwhile, continues its decades-long work on Northern Ireland, also working with bereaved families of those killed during the conflict in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s who are also looking for redress and working against impunity.

For many HRDs achieving success is a long road, requiring perseverance and allies. International standards and rules aren’t protecting them enough. Their work needs to be better understood, and better funded.

The picture for HRDs since 1998 is mixed, and no doubt will be for the next 25 years. HRDs will achieve more successes, but unless governments find the political will to implement the protections of the HRD Declaration, more defenders will be attacked, jailed and murdered.

So, what do the next 25 years hold for HRDs? The future is hard to predict, but one thing we can say for sure is that HRDs will continue to be, as the UN Special Rapporteur for HRDs Mary Lawlor says, ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

In these times, when many people from Gaza to Ukraine question the power of the human rights framework to actually protect people’s rights, everyone with power must ensure that HRDs can be funded, protected and supported. We will all be better off for it.



  • Brian Dooley

Published on December 8, 2023


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