Defenders of human rights

Defenders of human rights: some notions

Defenders of human rights are persons, groups and bodies in society engaged in the non-violent struggle for the promotion and protection of human rights. In most cases, they operate in the field, within civil society or in an NGO or in national or international organisations for human rights. States have primary responsibility to guarantee respect of human rights but defenders may help them in this task on the basis of their expertise. However, as part of their mission, these actors are often led to criticise the authorities of the countries where they work, reproaching them for failure to respect human rights. Those exercising their mission in the field may therefore sometimes face threats, pressure, even violations of their safety, freedom or life. Particular instruments have therefore been adopted to protect the rights of these defenders of human rights.

International and regional instruments

In March 1999, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the right and responsibility of individuals, groups and organs of society to promote and protect universally recognised human rights and fundamental freedoms. This declaration recognises the rights of individuals and groups to promote the protection and accomplishment of human rights at national and international level. It also reiterates the importance of the freedoms of assembly, association, expression and information and the right to take part in court proceedings to protect the struggle for respect of human rights. It also encourages the establishment of national mechanisms for the protection of human rights and training in human rights for public officials. 

The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe also adopted a Declaration, on 6 February 2008, on this organisation’s initiatives to improve the protection of human rights defenders and promote their activities. This declaration condemns all attacks on human rights defenders and calls on member states to create an environment conduciveto their work. To this end, it invites them to take effective measures to protect, promote and respect the work of human rights defenders. A similar appeal is made to all the bodies and institutions of the Council of Europe and to the Human Rights Commissioner.

Initiatives by Belgium and the European Union

The European Union gives special attention to the essential role played by civil society, and in particular by the defenders of human rights, in the framework of its external policy. In June 2004, guidelines on human rights defenders were adopted for this purpose.

Belgium also gives considerable attention to these special players and partners. Our embassies in non-Member States regularly organise meetings with them in order to support them in their projects and in their relations with the authorities of the country concerned. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs regularly organises meetings in Brussels with associations of human rights defenders active in non-Member States.

European Union guidelines

Guidelines are documents adopted by the EU to describe the various ways of implementing the EU’s priorities on human rights in its relations with non-Member States. The guidelines on human rights defenders lay down specific measures which the embassies of EU Member States in non-Member States may use to protect the rights of these players and support them in their actions.

These provisions mainly concern the following:

  • reporting regularly on the position of defenders in non-Member States;
  • defending the rights of human rights defenders, and in particular their freedom of expression and their safety;
  • strengthening contacts between the missions and local NGOs to enable them to exchange information, cooperate on projects, protect them from pressure by the authorities, assist them in trials, etc.  
  • taking action and/or making official statements when one or more defenders are under particular threat;
  • promoting the role of national, regional or international mechanisms for the protection of human rights defenders;
  • putting this subject up for discussion in contacts with non-Member States and international bodies.

Declaration of the General Assembly of the United Nations on the right and responsibility to promote and protect human rights (TXT, 17.54 Kb)

Text of the EU Guidelines on human rights defenders  (PDF, 82.8 Kb)