The 70th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a celebratory moment for human history and progress in advancing equality, equity, peace, freedom, and justice for all persons and peoples. It is also a reflective moment to remember the global citizens, including McGill alumnus John Peters Humphrey, who embarked on the journey in working towards establishing this seminal document, and sought to emanate core values in protecting human dignity.
As this post will address, the anniversary is, pressingly, a moment that calls our attention to the key roles that human rights defenders, the people who uphold the core values of the UDHR, play in identifying vulnerable populations and violations, and building platforms to voice, promote, and protect their human rights.
The UDHR is a source of inspiration, mobilization, and standard for millions of champions who strive to protect human dignity in their local communities and abroad. It is a tool that demands resilience, defiance, strength, and empathy from its defenders. The UDHR remains seminal so long as we (can) continue to uphold its message. It should be celebrated, in its 70th anniversary, in conjunction to the 20th anniversary of 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, known as the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (UNDHRD).
Who is a human rights defender?
The profile of a human rights defender has evolved and diversified since 1948, and has only been defined since 2000 in the UNDHRD. They can be of any gender, sexual orientation, race, age, ethnicity, religion, or social condition. They can be one person or a group of people(s) operating within or outside Geneva and New York, on professional or personal levels of involvement. They can engage in human rights activities online and offline, such as journalism, academic research, peaceful protest, volunteering for a cause, and public campaigning, to name a few, at various levels of intensity. What unites the human rights defenders are their actions in challenging the status quo with a vision and passion to improve the human rights situation from the issue(s) they identify. Their intentions are tied to those of the UDHR drafters. They are all advocates of human rights.
It is appalling, however, that human rights defenders are also characterized by the persecutions and fear of reprisals they face in their day-to-day work. In 2018 alone, Medina Ali, Taner Akçam, Ny Chakrya, Natalia Estemirova, Alvaro Leiva, Hajer Mansoor, Lim Mony, Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, Oyub Titiev, Nay Vanda, Najah Yusuf, and Jamal Khashoggi, to name a few, have been marginalized, threatened with violence, persecuted, or killed.
It is important to note that their stories have been made known through media channels, and there is concern over the number of persecutions, violent acts, and threats of violence that are un-reported or under-reported. The precarious situations that human rights defenders continue to be exposed to in response to their work is a signal that much work remains to be done to realize and protect human rights in all local contexts and polities, in all of their forms of implementation.
Are human rights defenders effectively protected?
The UNDHRD and Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders were established in 2000 as rights-oriented mechanisms to support the important work of human rights defenders and to protect their lives. Several human rights provided in the UDHR are highlighted in the UNDHRD to further explicitly recognize their application to human rights defenders: the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and equal protection against the violation of human rights, among others.
The principled focus of the UNDHRD is inspiring, though an underlying criticism for how ineffective it is for human rights defenders stems from its emphasis on the actions of state governments for its implementation. It addresses states, not peoples. Many articles of the UNDHRD are only directed to states to protect the rights and freedoms of human rights defenders highlighted above, as well as mechanisms to report and investigate human rights violations. For example, Article 12(2) expresses that states will take measures in ensuring that human rights defenders are protected from violence or threats of violence in response to their work.
Yet, it is often states who create hostile relations with human rights defenders and civil society organizations through the police and public service with threats of violence, acts of violence, surveillance, and administrative barriers to exercise these rights that should be protected, leaving victims with limited avenues for justice. Moreover, discussions on the protection of human rights defenders take place in state-based international spaces among actors who have been accused of violating human rights, most recently within the new composition of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The right to protect human rights is often threatened by the institutions holding the responsibility for its protection. Several international human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Equitas, have adopted the term ‘shrinking space’ to describe the phenomenon of governmental and non-governmental entities creating barriers for human rights defenders to be visible and use civil society spaces for their work.
Civil society spaces ‘shrink’ when national laws deem human rights defenders as threats to government (most extremely as terrorists); prohibit foreign funding and resources to assist human rights defenders; and perpetuate a hostile environment affecting the security of human rights defenders. As a result, human rights defenders are isolated and vulnerable to persecution and violence.
How can we help human rights defenders?
It is important to continue exposing shrinking spaces and persecutions of human rights defenders in order to better understand how international instruments such as the UNDHRD could become stronger tools. Additionally, human rights education can provide a peoples-centred approach to enhance the accessibility of the protections provided by the UNDHRD for its targeted population beyond state borders. Most notably, Equitas delivers programs for human rights defenders in fostering a human rights culture that realizes the universality of human rights for all local contexts.
Through my recent internship at Equitas, I have learned and appreciate Equitas’s implementation of this peoples-centred approach by integrating professional and social aspects of human rights education, as well as personalizing the promotion and protection of human rights for each human rights defender in a safe and positive learning environment. The human rights culture that it advocates is made accessible and relevant.
For example, Equitas’s International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP) is an annual three-week intensive course that brings together human rights defenders from all corners of the world in sharing experiences, best practices, and resources to resist challenges impacting their work and personal safety. The IHRTP takes a participatory approach that repositions human rights defenders at the focal point for learning and change.
Equitas is exemplary for empowering human rights defenders on personal and professional levels by building relationships and applying resources stemming from international instruments like the UDHR and UNDHRD directly to their plans of action.
We can learn from this model approach to protect human rights defenders in (at least) four ways:
- Encourage networking among human rights defenders to build relationships, share best practices, and expose violations of their human rights;
- Empower human rights defenders with alternative and personalized means to access and build resources from international instruments within civil society spaces, such as through local, community, and regional initiatives;
- Ensure that human rights defenders, not states, are at the centre of local, regional, and international discussions on effectively implementing the UNDHRD; and
- Appreciate efforts and successes.
In tandem with our celebrations of the progresses made since the adoption of the UDHR and UNDHRD, we should venerate human rights defenders who courageously resist regression with great resilience.
About the author
Shaké Melanie Sarkhanian is a 4th-year McGill BCL/LLB student specializing in international human rights and development and the Management Chair ofInter Gentes: The McGill Journal of International Law and Legal Pluralism.She previously worked as a Summer Law Student at the Ontario Chief Coroner's Office as part of the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General's ALSSP and Junior Policy Officer at the Canadian Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva. She researches in the areas of domesticating international human rights law, human rights education, Indigenous rights, crimes against humanity, and genocide denial. Presently, she interns at Equitas in Montreal.
 International Service for Human Rights, “UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders” (20 November 2013), online: International Service for Human Rights <www.ishr.ch/news/un-declaration-human-rights-defenders>.
 Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, GA Res 53/144, UNGAOR, 53rd Sess, UN Doc A/RES/53/144 (1998) at art 12 [UNDHRD].
 For a comprehensive global overview of this phenomenon, see Human Rights Watch’s Executive Director Kenneth Roth’s essay “The Pushback Against the Populist Challenge” in Human Rights Watch, “World Report 2018: Events of 2017”, (2018), online (pdf): Human Rights Watch www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/world_report_download/201801world_report... at 1–13.
 Human Rights Watch, “UN: Philippines, Eritrea Don’t Belong on Rights Council: Competition-free Slates Undermine Body’s Credibility, Effectiveness” (11 October 2018), online: Human Rights Watch www.hrw.org/news/2018/10/11/un-philippines-eritrea-dont-belong-rights-co...
 For the most recent reporting from the Secretary-General of United Nations, see Report of the Secretary-General, Cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights, UNHRCOR, 39th Sess, UN Doc A/HRC/39/41 (2018).