Recent years have seen growing international recognition of the important role played by individuals and organizations who work peacefully to promote, entrench and develop human rights in both democratic and non-democratic countries. In 1998 the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which includes a number of protections afforded to human rights defenders in order to enable them to carry out their mission. The Declaration and its various articles have no official status in Israel.
Human rights defenders are free to act in many countries, based on the understanding that their activity is a necessity, even if their criticism is sometimes unpleasant. In many other countries, human rights defenders face serious obstacles, and may be in actual danger. Human rights are violated because powerful entities, be they agents of the state or powerful private individuals, wish to promote their interests at the expense of these rights. Defenders often pay for their actions with their liberty, sometimes with their lives. Making accusations against human rights defenders, sometimes criminal accusations, is a tool that is commonly used to restrict their activities.
Who are Human Rights Defenders?
Article 1 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders sets forth that: “Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels”. As such, the Article stipulates that under the right circumstance, anyone could be considered a human rights defender, but what are the circumstances that confer this title and the protections that come with it on people?
When Hina Jilani was appointed Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders, she gave the term a broad interpretation, stating that human rights defenders get their status from their actions rather than their profession only. A human rights defender is anyone working to promote, protect or develop these rights. The definition is expansive and it is not limited to narrow categories such as journalists, members of organizations, etc. This determination has solidified and has since been the main reference point for the question “who are human rights defenders”. A person is a human rights defender through a specific action he or she takes.