United Nations (UN) defines Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) as “people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights”.
HRDs are essential partners to healthy democratisation processes. Their work to defend human rights for and on behalf of the most vulnerable people enables a wider participation of the civil society in democratisation processes and ensures that authorities are reminded of their responsibilities. However, their right to promote and protect human rights, as developed in national and international laws, continue too often to be denied and unprotected in the region. As a result, HRDs are confronted with attempts to limit their capacities to carry out their work. These attempts take various forms, ranging from physical threats, administrative and judicial harassment, to violent crimes such as beatings, tortures, and killings.
The response of the States, which are ultimately responsible for HRDs’ protection and safety, are too often deficient. States authorities often perceive HRDs as political opponents and a threat to their powers. This confusion in the role of HRDs has the direct consequence that the States do not prioritize the implementation of State mechanisms to protect HRDs. Even if such mechanisms exist in each country of the region, they remain largely inoperative due to a lack of political will and resources.
In addition, gaps in the the current legal framework (both at national and regional level), do not allow for a safe and conducive environment for HRDs. In particular, the absence of specific laws explicitly designed to protect HRDs, combined with the practice of public authorities who use existing legislation in abusive ways, and the recent adoption of a series of restrictive legislations and regulations in the region, tends to directly restrict HRDs’ ability to work and undermines their working environment.
In parallel, the justice system responses to cases involving HRDs are characterized by important deficit and malfunctions. A comparative case study conducted by partner organisations to analyse the responses of judicial and quasi-judicial bodies to cases involving HRDs in the region showed a broad range of issues and dysfunctions, such as failure to investigate, misapplication of the rights of defense and due process, violations of public freedoms and personal liberties, etc.
In order to respond to these gaps, CSOs became increasingly active in the sector. However, their actions would benefit from an increased cohesion and a reinforced collaboration to directly increase their overall efficiency.
The following key needs were identified at this level:
A similar need for enhanced coordination is also observed among international organization involved with national civil societies to strengthen HRDs’ protection. These actors recognize the need to enhance the efficiency, visibility and sometimes the sustainability of their actions.
The mandate and partnership structure of the Fund has been designed to answer the needs identified above.
We strongly believe that one of the important keys to protecting and promoting human rights is to protect the rights of those who speak out for others. Such rights include the right to communicate or express opinion, to form association, to meet or assemble peacefully or to seek and hold information. In addition to these, it is also the HRDs right not to be detained illegally, not to be victims of malicious prosecution or be physically harmed.