Safety of Human Rights Defenders

NGOs that have interacted with the UN Human Rights system have sadly sometimes become the subject of reprisals. Unfortunately there is no magic recipe on how to avoid this happening, and situations differ from country to country. As a local or national NGO, you usually know best yourself what risks you can take, and where you should rather stand back.

Staying safe in Geneva

Geneva is generally regarded as being a very safe city, and it is quite possible to walk alone late at night in all safety. However, Human Rights Defenders lobbying within the Human Rights Council may be placing themselves at risk, especially if they are travelling here on their own. You should try to communicate regularly with colleagues in Geneva or on the field to let them know where you are, and make sure you have a number where you can be reached at all times.

Furthermore, pay close attention to your belongings if you hold any sensitive information. Phones, cameras, USB keys and laptops have gone missing even in the Palais des Nations. There are lockers available at the 'Pregny Gate' entrance for you to store your bags if they are too bulky to be carried all day, or we can keep an eye on your belongings at the Welcome Desk.

Protecting yourself from reprisals

The risk of reprisals depends directly on the type of work you are conducting, as some topics are more sensitive than others. Reprisals can take many forms, through the use of travel bans, smear campaigns against one's work or reputation, physical or psychological torture, etc. Reprisals take many shapes, and do not necessarily target you: sometimes it may be your family, your friends or your community. If you think you/they are or may be at risk, it is important to take measures to protect yourself as soon as possible. There are a number of possibilities available to you.

Support from NGOs

Some NGOs are mandated to support the work of Human Rights Defenders, either internationally or regionally. If you are being or at risk of being targeted, you may contact the following NGOs, or other large NGOs working on a similar topic as you:

  • Front Line Defenders work to provide fast and effective action to help protect human rights defenders at risk. Front Line has a secure email system to contact them, a 24/7 emergency hotline in Arabic, English, French, Russian and Spanish, and they are able to provide emergency security grants within 48 hours.
  • Amnesty International mobilises people to provide support for human rights defenders through their Individuals at Risk campaign.
  • The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders run jointly by FIDH and OMCT monitors the situation of human rights defenders across the world, giving support through urgent appeals, press releases, or letters to the authorities depending on the case.
  • International Service for Human Rights conducts general advocacy for the protection of human rights defenders and may also be able to give you advice and assistance.

Support from States

Depending on the region where you work, some States may be able to support you. It is important to keep in mind that Human Rights Defenders seen going to and from embassies may be putting themselves more at risk.

If you consider yourself potentially at risk in the future, it is important to create a liaison with the embassy before the risk becomes acute, as proceedings may be quite lengthy. The local staff will be able to advise you better if they are already familiar with your work.

It is important to note that embassies are limited in tense situations, where acting against local government would mean putting their own staff at risk. Furthermore, some smaller embassies do not have enough staff to dedicate much time in this area, particularly for the observation of lengthy court cases conducted in a foreign language.

The following States have developed guidelines for the protection of Human Rights Defenders and the responses that their embassies should provide:

  • The European Union Guidelines on human rights defenders detail all the steps that EU delegations should take, including monitoring, maintaining dialogue with the local authorities, and identifying areas for practical support notably by visiting human rights defenders in custody, attending trials, and providing rapid assistance to human rights defenders in danger in non-EU countries.
  • Further to the EU Guidelines, Ireland encourages its embassies to contact human rights defenders directly, including their families, and to meet them in person. Whenever possible, the Irish embassies have a range of tools at their disposal, depending on the situation. Ireland also offers short visas for temporary relocation, depending on the country of origin. Read the Irish policy.
  • Also an EU country, the Netherlands devised its own policy on the protection of human rights defenders, and created the position of Human Rights Ambassador. Local embassies are also required to hold Human Rights Day celebrations on December 10, and a Human Rights Tulip award is given out on a yearly basis. Finally, the Netherlands can facilitate the obtention of Schengen short-stay visas for human rights defenders at risk.
  • One of the key axis of Norwegian Foreign Policy is the protection of human rights defenders. Official Guidelines indicate that embassies should actively assess the risk environment, participate in the observation of court cases, conduct prison visits and visits to persons under house arrest, and provide economic support to human rights defenders and their work.
  • Switzerland is the most recent State to design Guidelines for the protection of human rights defenders, providing practical support such as transportation from the airport when returning from a UN conference in Geneva, conveying sensitive information via diplomatic channels, visa assistance for temporary regional relocation to a neighbouring country in cases of acute risk, and eventually temporary relocation within the embassy premises.

A more detailed explanation of the protection available is explained in the Front Line Handbook.

Support from the International Community: Regional level

To seek protection at the regional level if you are faced with reprisals, you may contact the following institutions.

Support from the International Community: International level

To seek protection at the international level if you are faced with reprisals, you may contact the following institutions or persons.

  • The UN Human Rights Council President regularly holds consultations with NGOs. If you feel that you are under threat, you may request a meeting with the President by approaching the mandate-holder in person or contacting the relevant mission.
  • Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders: the mandate-holder is able to receive individual complaints of human rights violations committed against defenders, and to take them up to the State in question. The Special Rapporteur and its staff can react very quickly, sometimes in just a few hours. If asked to, they will confirm reception of your communication. Contact them at defenders (AT) ohchr.org.
  • Human Rights Defenders can seek protection through the Treaty Bodies by submitting communications when in danger. The treaty bodies can issue a request to a State to take “interim measures” to prevent irreparable damage to the victim. CERD also provides a particular procedure for urgent issues.

For a detailed explanation on how to submit a communication to special procedures, see NGOs and Special Procedures and the official webpage of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders. For an explanation of how to use the treaty bodies, see our international complaints mechanisms page.

Other sources of support for Human Rights Defenders

There are other options available to Human Rights Defenders, such as:

  • The Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York offers a Protective Fellowship Scheme for Human Rights Defenders at Risk during which up to ten human rights defenders may benefit from temporary relocation to York for three to six months, where they will also receive training on the international human rights system.
  • OHCHR Fellowship programmes provide selected individuals with intensive trainings on human rights mechanisms and international institutions. As the fellows travel to Geneva, they receive temporary protection from the OHCHR. There are two programmes for the following at-risk groups: indigenous peoples, minorities, and one programme for graduate students from LDCs (run jointly with UNITAR).
  • The Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture can provide emergency funding to victims of torture if there are no otherwise relevant projects in their country. Organisations can also receive emergency funds even if they are already recipient of a traditional grant. Applications must be highly detailed. More information on the official website.
  • The Victims Trust Fund is part of the International Criminal Court. It aims to directly address and respond to victims’ physical, psychological, or material needs and that of their families. Recipients do not have to be citizens of countries being tried at the Court, but must comply with the other criteria, and apply through the proper ICC Chamber in The Hague. Money from the Fund might also be disbursed to international and non-governmental organizations for projects, such as reconciliation efforts.
  • Havard Law offers a Visiting program fellowship during which human Rights defenders can learn and study human rights on campus.
  • The Institute of Law, Politics and Development offers an internship program for Human Rights defenders who will have the opportunity to work in various recognized Human Rights organizations.

Reporting against reprisals

Incidents of reprisals against individuals or NGOs that have cooperated with the UN are collected in the Secretary General’s Report on cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights or “Reprisals Report” which is published on an annual basis. If you wish to report an incident, you may send inputs into this report to reprisals (AT) ohchr.org. When doing so, you should respect the following conditions:

  • Preserve the security of persons concerned: indicate if the victim (or his/her family) has agreed to be mentioned and has been informed of your action.
  • Indicate if the reprisal has been referred to in any UN documents.
  • Provide follow-up information on the cases included in earlier reports (e.g. additional reprisals, measures taken by States to investigate, etc.)

Last but not least, inform as many other NGOs, journalists and people as you can – the more your work, your situation and yourself are known, the better you might be protected against reprisals.

Resources on Reprisals
  • UN Secretary-General’s annual report to the Human Rights Council on reprisals against persons cooperating with UN mechanisms (“Reprisals Report”): 2012, 2011, 2010.
  • Report reprisals to the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders: defenders@ohchr.org.
  • Send inputs to the Reprisals Report: reprisals@ohchr.org.