We must find new ways to protect human rights defenders
December 10, 2016
By James Savage, Program Officer at the Fund for Global Human Rights, and Iva Dobichina at Open Society Foundations.
This post originally appeared in the Guardian; article reposted with permission.
In 2018 we will mark the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which recognises the role and guarantees the rights of those who promote and protect human rights.
But despite the declaration, the settings in which defenders work are becoming more contested and volatile – not less. Around the globe, a tectonic shift towards autocratic and semi-authoritarian rule by law, and the pernicious influence of corporate, criminal and fundamentalist non-state actors, has put human rights activists on the defensive and let rights violators go on the offence.
As defenders seek ways to mitigate threats and safeguard themselves and their work, the protection regime or “ecosystem” of public policies, mechanisms, organisations, tools, training and funding that is meant to shield them is under strain.
Now, defenders and the groups and donors who support them face critical questions. Have we adequately analysed the changing dynamics influencing risk and contested civil society space, and adapted the policies and support to confront the new reality? Is the protection model of relying heavily on international groups and service providers insufficient and unsustainable, given the scale and severity of attacks on defenders? Should protection start closer to home?
The current protection regime has is strengths and shortcomings. International and regional bodies – including the UN, EU and the Organisation of American States – have mechanisms designed to protect human rights defenders, but they are constrained by member states’ lack of political will and adequate resources to consistently and comprehensively implement commitments.
At the national level, a handful of countries, including Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and Côte d’Ivoire, have laws and ways to respond to violations against defenders. While rhetorically they make clear the unacceptable nature of assaults on human rights defenders, they have been criticised for providing only a veneer of state protection that, in failing to tackle the almost total impunity perpetrators enjoy, leaves defenders open to continued attacks.
Support from the international human rights and donor communities emphasises emergency responses, including urgent security grants and temporary relocation. These have provided life-saving action for some defenders and their families, but lack adequate coordination, often fail to account for psycho-social support and largely operate remotely.
There are initiatives to prevent attacks through use of technology and security trainings that are raising awareness and improving practices, but they are limited in reach and capacity. Moreover, some of the proposed technology solutions risk creating a false sense of security, as they focus on mobilising international responses versus strengthening community ties and self-defence strategies.
Most security and protection approaches involve some level of interaction with the state as primary duty bearer and guarantor of human rights. The crackdown on civic activism in recent years seemingly support this assumption. Yet closer inspection of the drivers – including development, trade and security imperatives, and the rise of fundamentalism – exposes a growing confluence of interests and actions between state and non-state actors. Donors and protection groups must adapt to this profound change in the political context.
There are important insights to be gained from grassroots organisations and communities who create their own immediate and often more effective solutions. These groups find the right channels, messengers and moments to respond to various threats using local knowledge, culture and leadership. There is no manual for such responses. The current protection model does not seem to sufficiently generate learning from those experiences, nor invest enough in the preventive protective value of movement-building.
But this is not a binary choice between two models. Rather, a recognition of the importance of robust networks of self-protection that connect local activists to local or international movements.
International groups and donors should look at how homegrown and long-term approaches to movement-building, community inclusion and active participation offer effective and sustainable models for collective protection and defence of civil society space. We might also seek allies from those powerful political and economic interests that may not be as homogenous or monolithic as we think.
Finally, the support from donors must reinforce the resilience of activists and organisations engaged in rights struggles. We need to consider the environments in which they are working and how the different groups and activists within those ecosystems are working collectively to advance rights, whether facing a state aggressor or a complex confluence of state and non-state powers. Above all, we must learn from and provide appropriate support for the approaches defenders consider and know to be effective.
This article is part of a series promoted by the Open Society Foundations to mark Human Rights Day (December 10) and to focus attention on how human rights defenders worldwide are adapting to a growing list of antagonists, including governments, corporate actors, paramilitary groups, and organized crime.