Criminalization of HRDs

The Human Rights Defenders Declaration was unanimously accepted by the UN General Assembly, and in many countries around the world, human rights defenders manage to carry out their work without interference from the state. At the same time, human rights issues, and with them Human Rights Defenders and what they do, are debated within a certain political context. With the increased public visibility of human rights organizations and the penetration of the human rights discourse into the political agenda, both internationally and locally, human rights activists have been associated with politics. This is sometimes the result of political party activism by Human Rights Defenders, who see the political arena as part and parcel of their human rights work. In other cases, individual defenders and organizations are pegged as having a political bias by governments and public bodies who perceive human rights activism as a threat to their interests.

Human rights are also perceived as a yardstick for measuring the legitimacy of a country that is a target of criticism by Human Rights Defenders, a notion aided by the fact that donors from foreign countries and organizations, some of them government agencies, are involved in funding human rights activity. This results, in turn, in human rights activism often being perceived as intended to bring about a change in government or in the entire regime.

As a consequence, Human Rights Defenders are exposed to attempts to silence them, carried out through harassment and efforts to impede their activities. These attacks may come from “private” political opponents, but they may also come from government agents such as police officers, soldiers or the secret police. They may also come from business people whose businesses are threatened by the defenders’ actions, private security agents, organized crime elements, insurgents, drug cartels and more. One of the most notable obstacles placed in the path of Human Rights Defenders around the world is the use of criminal enforcement tools to harass them, interfere with their work and even prevent it entirely, a practice known as the criminalization of human rights defenders.