< Viewpoints < 2006

“Human Rights Defenders must be able to criticise”

[13/11/06] Even self-confident governments sometimes tend to hit back when their human rights record is questioned. Such overreactions may reflect a sense that good performance is particularly important in the field of human rights and that criticism is therefore more sensitive than otherwise.

In some cases, however, governments have aimed at the messenger instead of answering the question. I have been surprised that leading politicians so often talk negatively – in private or even publicly – about human rights defenders in their own country.

Non-governmental human rights groups, journalists and even ombudsmen have been accused of being unpatriotic – even in Europe – after reporting human rights violations or having communicated with international organisations or media abroad.

Factual errors, even minor ones, have sometimes been used to prove that such defenders are irresponsible or act in bad faith.

This is not an attitude which promotes a serious dialogue. To require that the reporting of non-governmental human rights must be flawless is not reasonable – considering their limited resources and that governments themselves are sometimes less than forthcoming with basic facts. In fact, most such groups are very serious in their reporting.

The fact that some governments try to silence human rights activists prompted a discussion in the United Nations some thirty years ago. In 1998, after long discussions, the General Assembly 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.

This had been prompted by reports originating from different countries of an outright repression of people who tried to monitor and report on violations; who tried to mediate between authorities and aggrieved groups; or those who simply tried to educate ordinary people about their rights. These people were defined as human rights defenders in the declaration.

Even today, in some cases these individuals are deprived of basic freedoms such as the freedom of movement, expression, assembly or association. Some are targeted with criminal prosecution and made victims of unfair trials. Some are arrested and tortured, and some others are even executed. The declaration aims at putting an end to such unjustifiable responses.

One dilemma for the drafters of the text was to avoid the temptation to define human rights defenders as a special group entitled to receive protection on the basis of its belonging to that category. Indeed, no system of authorisation or “licensing” was intended as it would have created new dangers for those excluded from such a legal definition.

All the rights that defenders should be able to enjoy were already part of the international human rights standards. The declaration, therefore, is more focused on the implementation of such rights, which are particularly important for those committed to the promotion of human rights – and who have often been denied those rights.

The declaration emphasises that everyone has the right to promote, to protect and to defend human rights, on national and international levels. It reaffirms the right to form, join and participate in non-governmental organisations.

It further states that everyone has the right to hold and to publish information about human rights and to complain about governmental policies and actions. The declaration also spells out that there is a right to unhindered access to international bodies and a right to receive and to obtain funding for human rights activities.

The idea is not to give certain people special privileges but to make clear that when individuals – together with others or alone – speak out for human rights or work for them with other means, they should be free to do so without being accused of extremism or targeted in defamation campaigns, or worse.

Indeed, the UN wanted to demonstrate that these people are badly needed. Typically, one inspiration behind the very notion of human rights defenders was Andrei Sakharov, who was still alive when the declaration was agreed.

Even when Sakharov was locked up in an apartment in Gorky, he continued to write his appeals for prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union and other countries. He gave Russians and others a moral message which is still felt.

Other voices have been silenced and this has had sad consequences. When the declaration was adopted, the then UN Secretary–General, Kofi Annan, stated the obvious lesson:

“When the rights of human rights defenders are violated, all our rights are put in jeopardy and all of us are made less safe.”

Thomas Hammarberg


UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders
A draft recommendation on the legal status of NGOs in Europe will be finalised by the end of the year. The preliminary draft recommendation was published on the Council of Europe website with a view to ensuring wide consultation. It can be found at http://www.coe.int/t/e/legal_affairs/legal_co-operation/Civil_society/


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