Human Rights Day 2010: Protecting The Right To Defend Human Rights

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by Laifungbam Debabrata Roy, CORE

The United Nations designated theme for international Human Rights Day on 10th December 2010 is human rights defenders who act to end discrimination. In Manipur, discrimination and human rights abuse continue unchecked in our society and human rights defenders acting against discrimination and related human rights violations, often at great personal risk to both themselves and their families, are being recognized and acclaimed on this day.

Human rights defenders of Manipur speak out against abuse and violations including discrimination, exclusion, oppression and violence. They advocate justice and seek to protect the victims of human rights violations. They demand accountability for perpetrators and transparency in government actions. In doing this, they are often putting at risk their own safety, and that of their families.

Most human rights defenders are not public figures or well-known. They are active in every nook and corner of Manipur, working alone and in groups, in local communities, sometimes involved in the State and national politics, and internationally.

Human Rights Day 2010, observed internationally, will underline the challenges and highlight achievements of rights defenders and it will again emphasize the obligatory role of Governments. The Day is also intended to inspire a new generation of defenders to speak up and take action to end discrimination and human rights violations in all of its forms whenever and wherever it is manifested.
This article has been prepared in public interest with the aim of increasing awareness about the role and situation of human rights defenders. It is largely based on the Fact Sheet (No. 29) developed by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations and other related documents on human rights.
This three-part article intends to bring wider understanding of what a “human rights defender” is and what activities defenders undertake, to support the right to defend human rights, and to strengthen the protection of human rights defenders from any repercussions of their work. It also contains a brief discussion of the UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Declaration on Human Rights Defenders) and provides an introduction to the activities and methods of work of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations on human rights defenders. The Declaration on human rights defenders states that everyone has a responsibility to promote and protect human rights. In this regard, this article seeks to encourage more people to defend human rights – to become human rights defenders.
About Human Rights Defenders
“Human rights defender” is a term used to describe people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights. The term “human rights defender” has been used increasingly since the adoption of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998. Until then, terms such as human rights “activist”, “professional”, “worker” or “monitor” had been most common. The term “human rights defender” is seen today as a more relevant and useful term.
Human rights defenders are identified above all by what they do and it is through a description of their actions and of some of the contexts in which they work that the term can best be explained. The examples given of the activities of human rights defenders are not an exhaustive list.
What do human rights defenders do?

1. All human rights for all
To be a human rights defender, a person can act to address any human right (or rights) on behalf of individuals or groups. Human rights defenders seek the promotion and protection of civil and political rights as well as the promotion, protection and realization of economic, social and cultural rights.
Human rights defenders in Manipur and elsewhere in the world address any human rights concern, which can be as varied as, for example, summary or extrajudicial executions, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, violence against women, discrimination, employment issues, forced evictions, access to health care, and development and its impact on the environment. Defenders are active in support of human rights as diverse as the rights to life, to food and water, to the highest attainable standard of health, to adequate housing, to a name and a nationality, to education, to freedom of movement and to non-discrimination.
They sometimes address the rights of categories of persons, for example women’s rights, children’s rights, the rights of indigenous persons, the rights of the elderly, the rights of the disabled, the rights of refugees and internally displaced persons, and the rights of national, linguistic or sexual minorities.

2. Human rights everywhere
Human rights defenders are active in every part of the world: in countries that are divided by internal armed conflict as well as countries that are stable; in countries that are non-democratic as well as those that have a strong democratic practice; in countries that are developing economically as well as those that are classified as developed. They seek to promote and protect human rights in the context of a variety of challenges, including armed conflict, HIV/AIDS, poverty and development, migration, structural adjustment policies and political transition.

3. Local, national, regional and international action
The majority of human rights defenders work at the local or national level, supporting respect for human rights within their own communities, provinces and countries. In such situations, their main counterparts are local authorities charged with ensuring respect for human rights within a province or the country as a whole. However, some defenders act at the regional or international level. They may, for example, monitor a regional or worldwide human rights situation and submit information to regional or international human rights mechanisms, including the Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations Human Rights Council and United Nations treaty bodies. Increasingly, the work of human rights defenders is mixed, with the focus being on local and national human rights issues, but with defenders making contact with regional and international mechanisms which can support them in improving human rights in their countries.

4. Collecting and disseminating information on violations
Human rights defenders investigate, gather information regarding and report on human rights violations. They may, for example, use lobbying strategies to draw their reports to the attention of the public and of key political and judicial officials to ensure that their investigative work is given consideration and that human rights violations are addressed. Most commonly, such work is conducted through human rights organizations, which periodically publish reports on their findings. However, information may also be gathered and reported by an individual or a group focusing on one specific instance of human rights abuse.
5. Supporting victims of human rights violations

A very large proportion of the activities of human rights defenders can be characterized as action in support of victims of human rights violations. Investigating and reporting on violations can help end ongoing violations, prevent their repetition and assist victims in taking their cases to courts. Some human rights defenders provide professional legal advice and represent victims in the judicial process. Others provide or facilitate victims with medical treatment, counselling and rehabilitation support.

6. Action to secure accountability and to end impunity
Many human rights defenders work to secure accountability for respect for human rights legal standards. In its broadest sense, this might involve lobbying authorities and advocating greater efforts by the State to implement the international human rights obligations it has accepted by its ratification of international treaties.
In more specific instances, the focus on accountability can lead human rights defenders to bear witness, either in a public forum (for example, a newspaper or a TV programme) or before a court or tribunal, to human rights violations that have already occurred. In this way, defenders contribute to securing justice on behalf of victims in specific cases of human rights violation and to breaking patterns of impunity, thereby preventing future violations. A significant number of defenders, frequently through organizations established for the purpose, focus exclusively on ending impunity for violations. This is particularly true for Manipur and the campaign for the repeal of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. The same groups of defenders might also work to strengthen the government’s capacity to prosecute perpetrators of violations, for example by providing human rights training for prosecutors, judges and the police.

7. Supporting better governance and government policy
Some human rights defenders focus on encouraging a government as a whole to fulfill its human rights obligations, for example by publicizing information on the government’s record of implementation of human rights standards and monitoring progress made. Some defenders focus on good governance, advocating in support of democratization and an end to corruption and the abuse of power, and providing training to a population on how to vote and why their participation in elections is important.

8. Contributing to the implementation of human rights treaties
Human rights defenders make a major contribution, particularly through their organizations, to the material implementation of international human rights treaties. Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and intergovernmental organizations help to establish housing, health care and sustainable income-generation projects for poor and marginalized communities. They offer training in essential skills and provide equipment such as computers to give communities improved access to information.
This group merits particular attention as its members are not always described as human rights defenders and they themselves may not use the term “human rights” in a description of their work, focusing instead on terms such as “health”, “housing” or “development” which reflect their area of activity. Indeed, many of these activities in support of human rights are described in general terms as development action. Many NGOs and United Nations bodies fall within these categories. Their work, as much as that of other human rights defenders, is central to respect for and protection and achievement of human rights standards, and they need and deserve the protection given to their activities by the Declaration on human rights defenders.

9. Human rights education and training
A further major action undertaken by human rights defenders is the provision of human rights education. In some instances, education activities take the form of training for the application of human rights standards in the context of a professional activity, for example by judges, lawyers, police officers, soldiers or human rights monitors. In other instances, education may be broader and involve teaching about human rights in schools and universities or disseminating information on human rights standards to the general public or to vulnerable populations.

In summary, gathering and disseminating information, advocacy and the mobilization of public opinion are often the most common tools used by human rights defenders in their work. However, they also provide information to empower or train others. They participate actively in the provision of the material means necessary to make human rights a reality – building shelter, providing food, strengthening development, etc. They work at democratic transformation in order to increase the participation of people in the decision-making that shapes their lives and to strengthen good governance. They also contribute to the improvement of social, political and economic conditions, the reduction of social and political tensions, the building of peace, domestically and internationally, and the nurturing of national and international awareness of human rights.

(To be continued in Part 2)

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