In more than 80 countries across the world, fighting for the respect of human rights is a high-risk activity, and groups and individuals who engage themselves on this road are the preferred targets of authorities and private groups who make use of enforced disappearances, summary executions, arbitrary detention or torture to keep them quiet. With variations across regions, this repression takes the form of stalking, threats and intimidation, including towards their families, defamation campaigns orchestrated by the official media, the forbidding of leaving or returning to the country, harassment at work, arrests, arbitrary detentions, ill-treatments and even murders. The impunity the authors of these violations enjoy is particularly worrying.
The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 represented a definitive step, but it was not sufficient to ensure that people who seek to enjoy the fundamental rights that are enshrined in it – such as freedom of expression or of opinion – are protected from repression by governments or private groups. Individuals also have to be able to demand, in a risk-free context, that the rights in the Declaration – as well as the international instruments that eventually completed it – be respected. It is towards this goal that OMCT and other NGOs mobilised to call for the adoption of a text that protects these groups and individuals. This “Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms” was adopted in December 1998 during the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
There is no formal and exhaustive definition of who is a human rights defenders, which prevents the formulation of an overly-restrictive interpretation. Nonetheless, the Observatory has decided to adopt the following “operational definition” in order to demonstrate flexibility in its analysis of the admissibility of the cases brought to its attention: “any person who risks or who is victim of reprisals, harassment or violations because of his or her commitment, be it individually or in association with others, in favour of the promotion and the implementation of the rights recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and guaranteed by various international instruments.” Individually or as a member of an NGO, it refers to people who, through peaceful means, investigate human rights violations, inform the public, organise campaigns and transmit this information. Lawyers who argue for the cause of political prisoners and their right to a fair trial; mothers of the disappeared who protest to obtain the truth on their fate; journalists; teachers; trade unionists who fight for the respect of economic rights; rural and indigenous communities who organise for the recognition of their rights; organisations that fight against impunity… They can all be victims of repression.
“Thank you very much for your enduring solidarity, which was particularly precious when I was detained last year and which, without a doubt, contributed to my acquittal last June. When one lives in an authoritarian and obscurantist regime in a society paralysed by fear, the thought of knowing that we are not forgotten in the bottom of our cell brings light and a saving strength. Thanks to your support and to others, I was able to continue my work defending human rights” – Defender, Syria.
What defines a defender is thus his or her commitment to civil and political rights, but also to economic, social and cultural rights.
The risks defenders encounter are, among others, prison, harassment, intimidation, torture, defamation, reprisals against their entourage, and death. Also, too often, the NGO’s offices are targeted for attacks during which their files are stolen and their computer material is destroyed, thereby depriving them of their work tools.
These risks increase in situations of internal conflict, in countries in which the judicial power does not enjoy the independence required to punish the authors of violations and is instrumentalised to obstruct defender activities.
Since the events of September 11, 2001, suspicion towards human rights defenders has increased. Many governments have adopted anti-terrorism legislation that curtails fundamental freedoms. The terrorist threat could therefore be used to obstruct the legitimate and peaceful work of human rights defenders. The risk of confounding the two is real. Therefore, it is important to be vigilant so that the people who, in the name of freedom of expression, raise their voices to defend human rights, not be considered enemies of the State or accused of undermining national security.
OMCT has played a pioneering role in the protection of human rights defenders. The SOS-Torture Network is currently composed of 311 member organisations with vary different mandates: organisations that fight for the rights of children, women, indigenous groups, political prisoners, etc. Thanks to the quantity and variety of its partners, OMCT has thus been able, since its creation, to evaluate the fundamental role that defenders play in the emergence of a dynamic civil society, as well as the repression they are subjected to. It systematically denounces the violence done against them, and has published two reports on violations against human rights defenders, for the periods 1992-1996 and 1997.
In partnership with the FIDH, OMCT created the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in 1997. This unique collaboration is based on the complementarity of each organisation’s approach and is based on their respective NGO networks. In parallel, many meetings on this subject have been held, culminating with Forum 1998, which brought together more than 600 NGOs from 60 countries, just before the adoption of the United Nations’ Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998.
OMCT and the Observatory have significantly contributed to the creation of a mandate for the protection of human rights defenders within the United Nations framework, as well as to the inclusion of this issue on the agenda of major regional organisations (African Commission, Inter-American Commission, OSCE, European Union, Council of Europe, etc.). Raising the awareness of political decision-makers and of public opinion has also been one of the main objectives of the work accomplished to date.
The main objectives of the “Human Rights Defenders” Programme are:
- To focus the international community’s attention on cases of harassment and repression of human rights defenders. Thanks to the Observatory and in collaboration with other OMCT programmes, the “defenders” programme maintains a system of “urgent interventions”. Every time the Observatory receives a report concerning the repression of a defender, information is verified with its OMCT and/or FIDH partners, and an action is launched as soon as possible in the form of an urgent appeal, a press release or a letter to authorities, on a case by case basis.
Between 1997 and 2001, the Observatory prepared more than 600 urgent interventions concerning approximately 1,000 defenders in more than 60 countries. These interventions have enabled the release of certain defenders and the improvement of the situation of many of whom were victims of harassment.
- To offer concrete and personalised assistance via international fact-finding missions, judicial observation and support missions, solidarity missions, and the granting of material assistance to defenders and defender organisations.
Since the creation of the Observatory, more than 40 international fact-finding missions and judicial observation and support missions have been conducted. Fact-finding missions aim to collect information on the situation of defenders in a given country, and to make them public. Legal observation missions must bring support to defenders that are the object of often-arbitrary prosecution, so that all the guarantees of a just and equitable trial be respected, and to alert the international community if need be. Material assistance enables the evacuation of defenders who are in grave danger and provides support for organisations that risk disappearing because of a lack of means (e.g., following the destruction of their working material during a raid).
- To mobilise civil society and international opinion through the elaboration, the publication and the diffusion of reports on the violations of the rights and freedoms of people or organisations working for human rights in the world. The Observatory publishes an annual report that includes all the urgent interventions conducted during the year, follow-up and thematic analysis on the situation of human rights defenders. This work is presented during the Human Rights Council’s session in Geneva. A monthly bulletin, which presents a summary of all the actions undertaken in the previous month, is also widely diffused and available on the Web site in three languages (French, English and Spanish).
- To promote and reinforce international and regional mechanisms aimed at protecting defenders with various intergovernmental, regional and international bodies, such as the United Nations, the Organisation of American States, the African Union, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe and the European Union.