Support and protection for human rights defenders in Africa

Without respect for human rights, the SDGs cannot be achieved. This is why Belgium is supporting NGOs like DefendDefenders and Protection International to stand up for human rights defenders in Africa.

  1. Last updated on
Launch DefendDefenders

Launch of a DefendDefenders report on youth human rights defenders. © DefendDefenders

Peace, justice and strong institutions

Without respect for human rights, the SDGs cannot be achieved. This is why Belgium is supporting NGOs like DefendDefenders and Protection International to stand up for human rights defenders in Africa.

Human rights central to SDGs

Human rights are central to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The better world sought through the SDGs by 2030 cannot be achieved without universal respect for human rights. As such, the SDGs are rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international instruments around human rights and international law.

Human rights are intertwined with virtually all 17 SDGs. These include the right to work, decent income, food, education, medical care and so on. Yet they are especially reflected in SDG16, which seeks inclusive and peaceful societies in which every person can enjoy their fundamental freedoms.

Promotion of civil space

Another common thread in Belgian foreign policy is the promotion and protection of human rights and the rule of law. Now that Belgium is a member of the UN Human Rights Council for three years, it can make an even stronger commitment to human rights at an international level.

One of our priorities during our mandate is 'promoting civil space and protecting human rights defenders'. In other words, we are working towards societies in which civil society can freely express itself and be heard. After all, there can be no human rights if there is no room to defend them.


Hence, Belgium also funds organisations that advocate for human rights defenders. A great example is DefendDefenders, based in Uganda. Since 2005, this international NGO by and for Africans has been promoting the safety and well-being of human rights defenders. This is in the East and Horn of Africa with countries like Burundi, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania. It also provides the secretariat for AfricanDefenders, a pan-African network of human rights defenders.

DefendDefenders fulfils its mission with verve. One of its major goals is to ensure the safety of human rights defenders in the region. After all, they often work in difficult conditions and regularly face (death) threats, arbitrary arrests and violence by governments and other players, such as militias and private organisations.

Ubuntu Hub Cities

DefendDefenders has therefore set up a network of eight 'Ubuntu Hub Cities' in several African countries. If they see no other way out, activists can go into hiding there and continue their activism from there. These include not only human rights defenders in the strict sense, but also writers, journalists, trade unionists, human rights lawyers, artists and so on. In short, anyone who works, individually or with others, for human rights. DefendDefenders closely monitors the well-being and safety of the activists in hiding – and where appropriate, their families. It makes use of art therapy, meditation exercises and workshops around mental health.

DefendDefenders also organises training for human rights defenders, provides ICT support and digital security, and engages in research and communication. In addition, the NGO is strongly committed to influencing policy and advocacy for the security of defenders, whether at the global level (UN Human Rights Council, etc.), African (African Union, etc.), regionally or nationally.

Sexual orientation, corruption, elections, etc.

In all countries of the East and Horn of Africa region, activists face obstacles to speaking and acting freely. Defenders most at risk include those working around raw material extraction, gender identity and sexual orientation, transparency and accountability, and election monitoring. Journalists and bloggers combating impunity and corruption are also often victims of harassment and persecution. The same goes for women who want to end genital mutilation and child marriage.

The ultimate goal of DefendDefenders is for the human rights of every individual in the region – as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – to be protected and upheld.

People to dig with banner

On the occasion of the 18th anniversary of the murder of Congolese human rights defender Pascal Kabungulu Kibembi, PI organized a workshop in South Kivu. © Protection International

Protection International

Protection International (PI) is also receiving Belgian support. This originally Belgian NGO supports human rights defenders around the world so that they can better ensure their own safety. To this end, they work with local partners.

For example, PI recently trained 10 human rights defenders in DR Congo with Belgian support. Participants – Focal Points for human rights in their province – learned all about risk management, threat assessment, how to improve their safety at work and at home, how to work in conflict zones and so on. Afterwards, the Focal Points transferred their knowledge to 150 other human rights defenders.

Protection International also addresses those who have a duty to protect human rights defenders, such as governments. In Congo too, in the provinces of North and South Kivu, the NGO organised workshops this year for human rights defenders – as well as state governments – on how to put the laws for the protection of human rights defenders into practice. The workshops were considered extremely useful by the officials attending – including the president of the military court in Goma. So by engaging governments and influential stakeholders as well, PI is working to create a larger civil space with greater respect for human rights defenders.