A global observatory on national policies on defenders protection

In recent years several governments have developed specific national mechanisms to protect defenders, all of them in countries seriously lacking in protection for human rights defenders. These mechanisms (laws, action policies, offices) have been established under pressure from (and with the cooperation of) national and international human rights organizations, with essential legal support from the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

At Protection International, this development has led us to study these national initiatives: what are they and what do they consist of? How did they come about, how do they work and what is their impact on the protection of defenders? We set up a study group (made up of protection lawyers and experts) and carried out a large number of interviews with men and women defenders as well as government officials in 16 countries on three continents (1).

We also embarked on a process of compiling and analyzing legal enforcement instruments at the national level (while examining existing universal and regional ones). During the study we only found national non-governmental initiatives of this type in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru (Central and South America), in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Africa) and Nepal (Asia). While there may be several organizations working on protection-related matters and making important contributions, only Guatemala –UDEFEGUA, Unidad de Defensores y Defensoras de Guatemala-, Uganda –EHAHRDP East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project- and Colombia –Somos Defensores Programme Programa Somos Defensores- have three defender units specifically set up by civil society. They are pioneers in the field and together with the Protection Desks established by PI (2) and supporting organizations (such as Peace Brigades International), are among those civil society groups whose sole mission is the protection of defenders on the ground.

Given the vast and complex nature of the results of the survey we decided to compile them in two volumes under the general title, “Protection of Human Rights Defenders: good practice and lessons learnt”. The first volume is subtitled, “Legislation, national policies and defenders’ offices”, and in it we analyze the legislative and structural aspects of these protection initiatives. In the second volume, provisionally subtitled, “Operational Aspects of Protecting Defenders”, we shall examine the practical aspects of protection: what are they, how do they work and how effective are the protection measures available under these programmes (such as relocation funds, means of communication, police escorts etc)


The background to this debate needs to be addressed first. The issue that was repeatedly raised in the interviews we conducted in all these countries, as well as in documentation from international organizations (3), was whether it is necessary for the state to create mechanisms (laws, policies, offices) specifically for the protection of defenders or if it is better to ensure the institutions (the legal system and security forces) fulfill their obligation to guarantee protection for this group.

It is an important debate because the ad hoc mechanisms at the disposal of human rights defenders generally have few enforcement powers both legally speaking – secondary legislation – and practically, since these bodies lack the necessary resources and can neither launch an investigation nor wield any political power to ensure adequate protection for defenders.

Firstly it is a fact that existing national instruments were only created in the wake of strong pressure by national (and occasionally international) defenders’ organizations – which implies that there is a will to do so by large groups of defenders.

However, the detractors opposed to ad hoc instruments claim they are merely a formal response to this national and international pressure and are mainly used to ease it by displaying responses with no real impact while those attacking human rights defenders continue to act with equal or even increasing impunity. The other problem is that at times these instruments generate new bureaucratic barriers that make it more difficult for NGOs to carry out investigations or prosecute those acting against human rights defenders. It has also been suggested that the funding they get could have been used to improve the response by state institutions (e.g. the police and the judiciary).

On the other hand, those in favour of these bodies acknowledge the serious problems involved but feel they can open the door to enhancing protection – either by facilitating access to places that are traditionally off-limits such as inside the security forces, or by providing immediate support (such as relocation funds, means of communication or escorts) which can address serious protection gaps, at least in the short run. They claim that conscious use can be made of what these bodies have to offer while bearing in mind that it is the entire state apparatus (and not just one office) that is responsible for protection. The onus is above all on the Executive and the Judiciary to take the necessary steps to ensure proper protection for human rights defenders.

In the few countries with existing protection mechanisms of this nature the protection status of human rights defenders is nonetheless precarious within a national context characterized by extreme violations of human rights. We did not find any formal, far-reaching assessment suggesting the existence of instruments and ad hoc offices for the protection of human rights defenders has had any impact on the lack of security experienced by defenders. Although it is certainly very difficult to make any such assessment, the defenders interviewed tended to use this kind of ad hoc support in full knowledge of its limitations and problems.

Our job as an international NGO is to serve human rights defenders and we adopt a critical approach to state instruments and offices intended to offer protection to human rights defenders, without losing sight of the shared responsibility and duty of all its institutions, starting with the government. This is the main reason for setting up Focus as a global observatory for national policies and structures to protect human rights defenders.

We are confident that in making these proposals to the international community of defenders we are taking a step in the right direction. New improved practices will give people, who on a daily basis are determined to defend human rights despite tremendous obstacles, the protection they need and deserve. This is a project open to collaborations, as you can see from the network of persons and institutions involved in it. Please contact us if you want to join us in this effort.

(1) Africa (Uganda, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo), Central and South America (Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru), Asia (Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand) and Europe (Belgium, France, United Kingdom, Switzerland). These interviews were done by PI’s Protection Desk network in cooperation with national counterparts, and by a team researching the subject.

(2) The Protection desks already established or in the pipeline are: Colombia (counterpart: Pensamiento y Acción Social), Guatemala (counterpart: UDEFEGUA), Nepal, Thailand, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda (counterpart: EHAHRDP), Turkey.

(3) For example, ‘For more effective protection in favour of human rights defenders in Africa – Strategy Note’ – by the International Observatory for the Protection of Defenders (2009).