Defending the Defenders

Defending human rights is often risky. In many places, activists and advocates who strive to protect communities, promote rights, and create accountability confront repressive governments and powerful people. The risks are so prevalent that the United Nations General Assembly has issued a Declaration on human rights defenders, and the UN Human Rights Council has appointed a Special Rapporteur focused exclusively on the situation of defenders. Speaking truth to power can put a defender in harm’s way.

I was reminded of this when, several months ago, I met Musa Usman Ndamba, an activist from Cameroon. Musa works with MBOSCUDA, a social organization that fights for the rights of the Mbororo people, an indigenous group. He and his colleagues have come under immense pressure and threats from a wealthy local landowner. When we met, Musa was seeking international support. Finding that support was not straightforward:  many international rights organizations focus on “naming and shaming,” “raising awareness/capacity building,” or litigation, rather than providing individual support to defenders in need.

There are, however, some great international organizations dedicated to supporting human rights defenders under threat. These groups have distinct approaches, and often a defender can gain support from several simultaneously. People seeking international support for defenders would do well to start with the following:

  • Amnesty International pioneered the coordinated international support of human rights defenders, beginning as an international movement to support “prisoners of conscious”. Though Amnesty has since expanded into other areas and methods, the group continues to actively support individual human rights defenders.
  • The Environmental Defender Law Center focuses on individuals and communities fighting to protect their environment. The Center connects defenders with volunteer lawyers who can provide direct legal assistance, as well as provides additional support for local legal efforts.
  • Frontline Defenders works to protect at-risk human rights defenders by providing them with practical support. This support addresses the needs identified by human rights defenders themselves, and can include undertaking international advocacy, funding security measures, and even temporarily relocating defenders. Frontline Defenders also operates an emergency hot line in multiple languages.
  • The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is a joint initiative between the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The Observatory provides a range of support efforts to defenders, from emergency protection in the field to international awareness-raising efforts.
  • The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders is appointed by the UN Human Rights Council with the mandate to support the implementation of the UN’s Declaration on human rights defenders, as well as to assess the worldwide situation of defenders. Among other activities, the Rapporteur raises individual cases of human rights violations with Governments.

Most of the groups listed above have provided support to Musa, as well as to other defenders around the world. Their work is tremendously important, offering another layer of protection to people fighting for their rights – including the right to food. Sometimes, even defenders need defending.

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