Human rights defenders

Who are Human Rights Defenders?

A Human Rights Defender is any one of us who promotes and protects human rights by peaceful means. They are not necessarily famous activists and not all people doing human rights work think of themselves as Human Rights Defenders.

What matters is what they do: they aim to promote and protect human rights, whether economical, social, cultural, political or civil rights. You can defend human rights alone or with others.

What do they do?

Human Rights Defenders are agents of change: they can fight against female genital mutilation, prevent forced evictions of people living in slums, defend freedom of speech or campaign for legal amendments. Some HRDs give legal help to victims of human rights violations.

Many people associate human rights with freedom of religion and –speech, but human rights are present in everyday things too: livelihood, education and health care. In developing countries many HRDs fight for these rights.

Human Rights Defenders can work alone or with others. KIOS Foundation gives grants to human rights groups, organizations, networks and movements. For more information about who can apply for KIOS funding, click here.

Activists under a threat

Human rights work is often done by vocation, and some human rights defenders work risking their safety. States must protect peaceful human rights work. This is written in the 1998 UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which states that everyone has the right and the obligation to promote human rights. The European Union has its own guidelines for promoting the protection of Human Rights Defenders, as does Finland.

Despite this, the space for civil society and Human Rights Defenders has narrowed in many countries. Their governments restrict freedoms of expression and assembly and give authorities more power to intervene in the work of civil society. Organizations and activists can face a threat from authorities and extremists. The attitudes of different communities may also influence how openly human rights can be promoted. Women Human Rights Defenders can be confronted by their own communities when trying to promote equality and non-discrimination.

Man in red shirt

The real turning point in realizing that I am a Human Rights Activist was when the radio transmitter was attacked and burned down. The radio station had been warned to stop broadcasting programs.

– Gerald Kankya, a Human Rights Defender from Uganda, who discusses land rights and other human rights issues in his radio show.

Every morning I look at my purse and I pack things, because I think that I might not come back home. So I make sure I have a toothbrush, underwear, because I might not come back.

– Hala Al-Karib, a Human Rights Defender from Sudan, whose organisation SIHA protects and empowers girls and women in vulnerable situations.