Who are human rights defenders?

Everyone has the right to defend human rights. Ordinary people often take action to defend their own rights or the rights of others.

Human rights defenders are people who are making the world a better and fairer place by promoting and protecting human rights. They seek to ensure our shared commitment to freedom, respect, equality and dignity is reflected in our laws, policies and practices. We can all be a defender of human rights!

Who is a human rights defender?

When people hear the term ‘human rights defenders’, they often think about social justice activists, community leaders, community lawyers, unionists, public-interest journalists, or staff members at human rights organisations – and they are right, as all of these roles and professions can be human rights defenders, but so can anyone.

History has shown that together we have the power to overcome tyranny, lift each other up out of poverty, defeat exploitation and hold ourselves collectively to higher standards. It requires participation.

We can all play a role in encouraging and pushing for positive change and we all have the right to defend human rights. 

For example, we might:

  • speak up for a colleague that has been treated unfairly at work, 
  • protest about the sexism that women everywhere continue to face, 
  • Promote reforms to ensure everyone can access the health care they need, 
  • help to change outdated attitudes about gender identity and sexual orientation, 
  • raise awareness about the need to dismantle the systemic racism that still holds back so many people of colour, 
  • try to ensure there is free, fair and informed public debate about the policies that affect us. 
Put simply, when you get involved and take time to promote and protect human rights, you become what is often known as ‘a human rights defender’. This might be as part of your job or in your own time.

Unfortunately, in some countries, the government or powerful corporate interests harass or try to discredit people who defend human rights and lock them out of public discussions and silence their voices.

Sometimes human rights defenders are attacked, imprisoned or even killed by those in power. This must change.

We all need to insist that human rights defenders always have a seat at the table and that their voices are heard. Human rights defenders are the eyes, ears and voices of their communities. As informed social justice leaders, they are essential partners in our shared journey towards equality, justice and peace on a healthy planet. 

You might know someone who is a defender of human rights or perhaps it is you who is a human rights defender. Either way, our right to defend human rights and details of how government authorities need to respect and protect that right, are contained in the UN Declaration of Human Rights Defender.

UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

The rights of human rights defenders, and the protection owed to them by governments and businesses, are detailed in a special UN declaration. 

Its name is the “Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”, but it’s often shortened to the “Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.” (This is a different Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but clearly the UDHR is extremely relevant to the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.)

The Declaration recognises that people who defend human rights make a crucial contribution to make human rights a reality for so many people around the world.

It’s one thing to have our rights listed and articulated in charters and declarations, but to ensure they are actually translated into our laws and adopted into our practices, it often requires people who are human rights defenders to make it happen.

The Declaration of Human Rights Defenders recognises that everyone has rights and responsibilities within the community and it encourages us all to be human rights defenders. We can all find ways to contribute, collectively or in our own ways,  to the realization of human rights.

Read more about the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders