Assessing Needs of Human Rights Defenders and Strategies for Collaboration: results of a workshop

June 20, 2013

As far back as October 2012 in Lima, Peru, during the 7th Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED – U.S.A) organised a workshop on one of my favorite topics: how the existing efforts for and among human rights defenders (HRDs) could more effectively meet the needs of endangered human rights defenders (HRDs) at the local, national, regional, and international levels. The workshop gathered HRDs and practitioners from intergovernmental and nongovernmental entities. The workshop addressed three main areas: (1) the definitions and landscape of human rights defender protection; (2) horizontal articulation of protection efforts; and (3) vertical articulation of protection efforts.

(1) Definitions and landscape of human rights Defender Protection
On this point I will be brief as the participants mostly agreed that it was time to reaffirm the broad definition, both to acknowledge and embrace all bona fide HRDs and to expose and counter the reluctance of many self-proclaimed human rights groups to extend the universal application of human rights protection to marginalized populations, such as sexual minorities, religious minorities, women, and others. But they did note also the complex issue of how to categorize those who coöperate with international human rights mechanisms, such as the International Criminal Court, but who themselves may be perpetrators of crimes. While these individuals may be threatened on account of their willingness to coöperate, they may not qualify under the formal definition of “human rights defender.”

(2) Horizontal articulation of Protection efforts

According to the report the participants discussed notable gaps in HRD protection, such as longer-term support for HRDs both in country and in exile, and support for dependents and medical care. Participants noted that stronger collaboration and communication among HRD protection groups could help to address these gaps; for example, different nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) should coöperate to provide support at different times during the ongoing period of a safe haven. Updated mapping efforts can also help protection groups identify one another, as well as those organizations positioned to provide dependent and medical support. Donors can support horizontal networking efforts (local/regional/international) to facilitate the sharing of information and strategies for HRD protection.

Participants recognized that local and regional protection groups often need to collaborate with International NGOs (INGOs) to get HRDs the assistance they need. While INGOs may have greater capacity and funding to draw upon, they are also beholden to bureaucratic processes that reduce response times and flexibility. Local and regional organizations are very adaptable and can often provide the most effective protection, but they may lack capacity and adequate funding. The INGOs and local groups may thus work together more effectively by accommodating each other’s weaknesses: local groups should devise stop-gap measures to meet the immediate needs of HRDs, while INGOs should flexibly and expeditiously respond to cases shared by local protection groups by minimizing bureaucracy and maximizing responsiveness to crises. INGOs should also focus on building the capacity of their local partners, since the most effective responses often come from the front lines.

Participants offered many novel strategies to leverage the impact of protection groups via collaboration. Examples included joint lobbying, mission visits, and prison visits to demonstrate solidarity with HRDs and concern for their situations. NGOs can also collaborate with other groups, such as the media, trade unions, etc., to strengthen such efforts. As illustrated by the FIDH/ OMCT Observatory experience, these local/international partnerships have been shown to counteract repressive practices and legislation effectively. To protect against persecution from non-state actors, as in the case of religious fundamentalists, the International Center for Islam and Pluralism is networking to bolster the voice of progressive-moderate Muslim activists and intellectuals in Southeast Asia. The effectiveness of regional HRD networks to address violations has also been illustrated through Forum Asia’s work in Southeast Asia, the African regional human rights defenders networks and the emerging Defenders Fund to Support Persons in the Americas, 2013. Furthermore, there was discussion of how networking among HRD protection organizations through the World Movement for Democracy can bolster the work of protection groups around the world.

(3) Vertical articulation of Protection efforts

Participants noted that the inter-governmental mechanisms and assistance provided by the United Nations can be weak and lack funding; therefore, protection groups should work collaboratively with these mechanisms to share information and bolster effectiveness. The West African Human Rights Defender Network has facilitated visits by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to inform her of the situations of particular HRDs. In Southeast Asia, organizations are encouraging the adoption of a focal point for HRDs within the ASEAN Human Rights Commission. Participants agreed on the importance of facilitating mission visits by special rapporteurs and other inter-governmental representatives working to support HRDs on the regional or international levels. Such collaborative missions can also help counteract the problem of reprisals against HRDs who coöperate with those mechanisms. Working with diplomats can provide HRDs with additional protection, and democratic governments should be encouraged to provide safe haven, visa, and financial support for HRDs at risk.

In conclusion, participants emphasized that greater horizontal and vertical collaboration among nongovernmental and governmental actors at all levels is required to support the protection of HRDs. The workshop itself demonstrated the value that such collaborative efforts may yield.

Moderator: Antoine Bernard – FIDH (France)logo FIDH_seul

Rapporteur: Judith Welling – NED (U.S.)

Presenters: Carlos Ponce – Consorcio Desarrollo y Justicia (Venezuela)
Dismas Kitenge – Groupe Lotus (Democratic Republic of Congo)
Ladan Boroumand – Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation (Iran)
Swee Seng Yap – Forum Asia (Malaysia)

See full report at: Collaborating to Protect Human Rights Defenders: Assessing Current Needs and Strategies | World Movement for Democracy.

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