Supporting Human Rights Defenders: A Guide to Conducting Assessment Missions | Freedom House

This is a handbook for those embarking on an assessment of how to
best assist human rights defenders either in a particular country or a region
within a country. It is intended to guide a team in executing an assessment
of how to create effective programs (e.g. capacity building
training, financial assistance, advocacy support, etc) to assist human
rights defenders (HRDs). Such a sensitive and critical program demands
a tailoring to the needs and desires of the human rights defenders themselves
and to the nuances of the country. Thus, an informed assessment
before the creation of such a program is critical. This manual will provide
the necessary strategy for organizations to assess the human rights
defender landscape under a variety of country or regional contexts
which can then be used to build useful and successful assistance programs
for those individuals.

It is vital this work be done well so that useful assistance programs can
be initiated. Sixty years after the General Assembly of the United Nations
adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, those “inalienable
rights” the Declaration intended to clarify and safeguard are
continually abridged by people in and out of government in far too
many places. Often, local human rights defenders are the best or only
hope that situations will improve the lives of oppressed people. These
“first responders” need the help of the international community if they
are to succeed or, in some cases, even to survive.

Indeed, the support for human rights defenders around the world is so
imperative that on December 9, 1998, half a century after adoption of
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN General Assembly
adopted a new “Declaration on the rights and responsibility of individuals
groups and organs of society to promote and protect
universally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms". This
declaration, commonly referred to as the Human Rights Defenders
Declaration, highlights the critical role human rights defenders play and
sets forth standards about what would enhance their security and facilitate
their work. This constitutes a strengthening of international human
rights law in that it directly addresses the unique and precarious position
of human rights defenders and articulates specific rights they ought to
be accorded. While these rights are not necessarily greater or different
than those enjoyed by the average person, the fact that the United Nations
saw fit to link them explicitly to the work of human rights defenders
represents a potentially substantial step forward in customary international

Evolving Understanding

Who exactly is a human rights defender? A human rights defender is
anyone who investigates, documents, educates, advocates, organizes,
communicates, pressures, and holds accountable those who violate the
liberties of others—while embodying the universal ideals of free society
based on the rule of law. They may be journalists, teachers, activists,
students, religious leaders, and other citizens who choose to defend
human rights. The men and women who serve as “human rights defenders”
act in a variety of roles depending on the needs they perceive,
the opportunities they have, and what their personal experience and expertise
enables them to contribute. In many cases, they face significant
endangerment for the work they do. The sacrifices they make often extend
beyond verbal and physical harassment, loss of income or professional
standing—they face risks to their very lives and those of family
and friends. Typically, their principal resources are conscience and

Despite the adoption of a Human Rights Defenders Declaration, there
are governments that remain unconvinced of the universality of these
rights. That it took thirteen years of deliberation to arrive at the language
of the Declaration underscores the continuing tendency of governments
to actively obstruct human rights defenders’ work. A report prepared by
the Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights describes some of the debates that
occurred prior to its adoption and explains some of the compromises that
are reflected in the final document.

Annual reports by the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Human
Rights Defenders2 confirm that HRDs continue to be targets of harassment, obstruction,
imprisonment, and even murder. They are often victimized by agents of
states, including countries that have publicly subscribed to the Human Rights Defenders
Declaration and other human rights conventions. All too often, thosewho violate human rights
are precisely the people who are charged with defending and upholding them. A variety of
non-state actors are also guilty—criminal enterprises, private armies, and rebel groups
espousing diverse ideologies often commit gross human rights violations. Ultimately
though, the state is obligated to safeguard citizens and visitors.
Governmental shortcomings require private human rights defenders to
be responsible for protecting the rights of citizens, courageously challenging
their own governments to live up to their commitments to do

The Human Rights Defenders Declaration underscores the fact that the
international community’s understanding of human rights and how
they can best be secured is still evolving. Article 7 expressly states,
“Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to
develop and discuss new human rights ideas and principles, and to advocate
their acceptance.” Accordingly, while the present discussion
builds on the 1998 Declaration, it is not strictly confined to the terms
of that document. The operating assumption of the Declaration on
Human Rights Defenders is that the codification of international law,
which includes non-binding declarations by the UN General Assembly,
is informed by the path-breaking, provocative work of human rights
defenders and therefore is always evolving.

The international community is increasingly willing and able to address
issues of human rights. Yet local human rights defenders on the front
lines defending lives, property, and principles of due process are often
both the most important and the most endangered people involved. It
is therefore incumbent on all those who care about human rights to
consider how best to assist and empower them.

This document is an effort to organize such a deliberation. It draws
upon the experience of inter-governmental organizations, non-governmental
organizations, and numerous human rights advocacy groups, as
well as upon the work supported over many years by private philanthropies.
3 It is informed mainly, however, by the growing body of work
undertaken by Freedom House and the RIGHTS Consortium as they
have developed new initiatives to assist beleaguered human rights defenders
in various countries. This guide is intended principally for use
by USAID, its Missions abroad, its grantees and contractors to develop
useful assessments for future HRD assistance programs in an effective,
consistent, and transparent manner. International human rights organizations,
governmental and private donors, and others who seek to assist
and empower local human rights defenders may also find this guide
helpful in organizing their thoughts and framing their programs.

Read the full report here.