Publication Date
May 16, 2017

This report is part of Amnesty International's global advocacy campaign Brave, launched to combat measures by authoritarian leaders and other actors (state and non-state) with power to threaten and attack human rights defenders (HRDs) and shrink the space in which civil society operates. It provides an overview of the dangers HRDs face and calls on those in power to take immediate measures to ensure that HRDs are recognised, protected, and equipped to conduct their work without fear of attack in a safe environment.

HRDs are women and men who come from every walk of life: journalists, lawyers, health professionals, teachers, farmers, whistle-blowers, trade unionists, photographers, or victims or relatives of victims of human rights violations and abuses who, individually or in association with others, act to defend human rights. According to the report, these individuals face an assault by governments, armed groups, corporations, and others in power eager to silence those who stand up against injustice. Guadalupe Marengo, Head of Global Human Rights Defenders Programme, Amnesty International, says: "Across the world, toxic narratives of 'us versus them' are being used to cast collective blame onto whole groups of people for social and political benefit. And in this context, human rights defenders are accused of being 'foreign agents', anti-nationalistic, criminals, terrorists and undesirables, or perceived as a threat to security, development or to traditional values."

Specifically, in 2016, 281 people were killed globally for defending human rights, up from 156 in 2015, according to evidence from the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Front Line Defenders. Among the emerging trends is the use of new technologies and targeted surveillance, including online, to threaten and silence activists. For example, exiled Bahraini human rights activists are tracked by their government using spyware, and governments across the world are ordering companies to disclose encryption keys and decrypt personal online communications. In the United Kingdom (UK), police have put journalists under surveillance in order to identify their sources. In places like Mexico and Russia, troll networks are increasingly generating trending misinformation campaigns to discredit and stigmatise HRDs like journalists. These new trends add to the existing arsenal of tools of suppression, including killings and enforced disappearances, crackdowns on the right to peaceful protest, and misuse of criminal, civil, and administrative laws to persecute HRDs. Women HRDs (WHRDs) and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or intersex (LGBTI) defenders are facing particular forms of gender-based violence and discrimination in addition to the attacks other defenders face. Furthermore: "Young HRDs face specific risks and harm. They tend to be at the bottom of many hierarchies and face age-based discrimination intersecting with other forms of oppression. As a result, and a general stereotype that young people are troublemakers, idealistic and/or immature, many young HRDs are discredited and silenced. Youth-led civil society groups and young people are often key agents of change and can make a significant contribution to human rights, but remain susceptible to undue restrictions and persecution."

The report explores the impacts that various kinds of restrictions have on civil society. For instance, information collected or communicated by HRDs and deemed to be sensitive or politically threatening is blocked by some states, undermining numerous human rights obligations. The proliferation of laws restricting the free flow and exchange of online information also limits civil society's ability to communicate. Periodic restrictions on the use of the internet and social media feature increasingly as a form of repression of freedom of expression in West and Central Africa, for instance. In 2016, access to the internet was entirely cut for periods ranging from 2 to 5 days before and after presidential elections in Gabon, Gambia, and Congo. In both Gambia and Chad, where presidential elections were also held in April 2016, social media sites and messaging applications like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter were only accessible throughout most of the year by using VPNs (virtual private networks) to bypass restrictions, while in Chad a range of blogs and news sites continue to be blocked into 2017. In the most severe and persistent restrictions to date, the internet was cut in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon in January 2017 to date following protests related to the use of French in courts and schools and demands for greater autonomy.

In light of such dangers, which the report's many examples explore, the Brave campaign asks people to sign an online petition calling on states to recognise the legitimate work of those working to stand up for the inherent dignity and equal rights of all people, and to ensure their freedom and safety. Amnesty International demands that countries implement what they committed to when the United Nations (UN) adopted the UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (hereafter, the HRDs Declaration) in 1998. The online campaign spotlights the cases of individuals facing imminent danger because of their human rights work, lobbying governments and putting pressure on decision-makers to strengthen legal frameworks. Amnesty International will also continue to investigate attacks against activists and work hand-in-hand with local communities and campaigners to mobilise people to take action.

As noted in the report, the "Model Law for the Recognition and Protection of Human Rights Defenders" was launched in June 2016 by the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR). It provides authoritative guidance to states on how to implement the HRDs Declaration at the national level by giving technical guidance on developing appropriate laws, policies, and institutions to support the work of HRDs and protect them from reprisals and attacks. The Model Law was developed in consultation with over 500 defenders from every region, and settled and adopted by leading human rights advocates, including by two UN Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders.

In concluding the report, Amnesty International calls on states to:

  • Explicitly recognise the legitimacy of HRDS and publicly support their work, acknolwedging their contribution to the advancement of human rights by:
    • Developing and implementing public awareness campaigns about the work of HRDs and ensuring their wide dissemination;
    • Promoting and widely disseminating the HRDs Declaration and adopting national legislation for its effective implementation;
    • Publicly acknowledging the particular and significant role played by WHRDs and those who work on women's rights or gender-related issues and ensuring they are able to work in an environment free from violence and discrimination of any sort;
    • Adopting and implementing legislation that recognises and protects HRDs and repealing or amending legislation that may place obstacles in the way of legitimate activities to promote and defend human rights, including with regard to the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association;
    • Publicly condemning attacks, threats, and intimidation against HRDs; and
    • Refraining from using language that stigmatises, abuses, disparages, or discriminates against HRDs.
  • Ensure a safe and enabling environment in which HRDS are effectively protected and where it is possible to defend and promote human rights without fear of punishment, reprisal, or intimidation by:
    • Addressing threats, attacks, harassment and intimidation against HRDs, including, where applicable, by thoroughly, promptly, and independently investigating human rights violations and abuses against them and bringing the suspected perpetrators to justice in fair trials without recourse to the death penalty, and providing effective remedies and adequate reparations to the victims;
    • Establishing, in consultation with HRDs and civil society organisations, national protection mechanisms for defenders at risk that incorporate preventative, collective, and gender-sensitive approaches;
    • Ensuring WHRDs receive the specific protection they need against gender threats and violence they may face due to their work, recognising the particular challenges and risks they face, including specific forms of violence;
    • Taking appropriate measures to recognise and protect young HRDs and youth-led organisations engaged in the defence and promotion of human rights, including by removing age-based discriminatory practices that restrict participation of young people in public decision-making, as well as by providing resources for the work of young human rights defenders and youth-led organisations; and
    • Ensuring that justice systems are not misused to target or harass HRDs and refraining from bringing criminal charges or any other proceedings or administrative measures against them that stem solely from the peaceful exercise of their rights.
  • Facilitate and support programmes to guarantee that HRDS have access to the necessary skills, tools, and training so they are enabled and equipped to conduct their human rights work by developing concrete ways to strengthen the knowledge, skills, and abilities of HRDs, including on how to protect their rights and to manage their security. It is also recommended that states strengthen national human rights institutions and provide them with the necessary human and financial resources to carry out their duties effectively, including having a specific mandate covering the protection and promotion of HRDs.
  • Enable participatory approaches to ensure that HRDS are connected with each other, within the community in which they operate and have access to decision makers at the national, regional, and international levels in a secure manner by:
    • Facilitating the establishment of national and regional networks for the support and protection of HRDs;
    • Establishing participatory processes within civil society that include HRDs working in rural areas or in community-based settings, when adopting laws and mechanisms for their protection;
    • Ensuring that domestic laws governing the surveillance of communications are in accordance with international law and standards, including by containing effective safeguards against indiscriminate mass surveillance, and guaranteeing that HRDs have access to the necessary tools to secure their communications, including encryption;
    • Fully co-operating with the different UN human rights mechanisms and, in particular, extending an invitation to the Special Rapporteur on the situation of HRDs to conduct visits without restrictions on duration or scope and ensuring s/he is allowed to meet with HRDs without hindrance;
    • Ensuring that public policies are developed and implemented in a participatory manner in which HRDs and communities affected are able to actively, freely, and meaningfully participate; and
    • Taking all necessary measures to prevent and deter acts of intimidation and reprisals against HRDs in relation to their communications and interactions with international and regional organisations.

Amnesty International urges companies to:

  • Implement adequate human rights due diligence processes, as set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, to ensure that the human rights of individuals and communities, including HRDs, affected by activities of companies or those of subsidiaries, subcontractors, or suppliers are respected;
  • Refrain from making statements or expressing views that discredit, denigrate, or stigmatise HRDs;
  • Conduct meaningful consultations and meetings with HRDs at critical phases of project planning and implementation, and disclose in a timely manner all relevant information about business projects, including potential impacts on human rights;
  • Adopt a policy of zero-tolerance of acts of violence, threats or intimidation committed against HRDs opposing or expressing their views about the company's projects; and
  • Collaborate with the state authorities in the investigation of any attack, threat, or intimidation perpetrated against HRDs because of their work in opposing or expressing their views on a company's projects.

Amnesty International urges international and regional human rights bodies to:

  • Reaffirm the right of every person, individually or in association with others, to defend and promote human rights in accordance with the HRDs Declaration;
  • Continue to make repeated public statements about the crucial role and legitimacy of the work carried out by HRDs;
  • Monitor the implementation of states' obligations in the protection of HRDs, including paying particular attention to WHRDs; and
  • Formulate policies and strengthen mechanisms to prevent and address acts of intimidation or reprisals against HRDs who communicate and interact with international and regional mechanisms and ensure that the crucial information received from them does not place them at risk.

"Why we need to stand up for the brave – now, more than ever", by Guadalupe Marengo, May 17 2017; ReliefWeb, May 15 2017; Amnesty International website; and Brave page on the Amnesty International website - all accessed on May 19 2017. Image caption/credit: "Lenca indigenous women protest the murder of Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres in front of the Public Ministry in Tegucigalpa. She was shot on 2 March 2016 after years spent campaigning against the construction of a hydroelectric dam, 5 April 2016." Credit: © ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images