BLOG: It takes a village to defend human rights – my reflections on the Human Rights Defender World Summit

Human Rights Defenders gather in Paris
HRD Conference - Human Rights Defenders gather in Paris

BLOG: It takes a village to defend human rights – my reflections on the Human Rights Defender World Summit

After the Human Rights Defender World Summit where 150 human rights defenders gathered to celebrate 20 years since the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and 50 years since the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, Hannah Storey reflects on the need to adapt human rights defender protection schemes for whole communities.

 “They knew the only way to stop her was to kill her"

It may be difficult to convey raw human emotion in a conference room at an international meeting, but the defenders at the Human Rights Defender World Summit in Paris certainly succeeded. Over the three-day event several defenders took to the stage to describe their experiences of retaliation after bravely standing up for their rights.

 “I was told by a politician that they do not kill people but ‘eliminate’ obstacles along the way” said a defender from Burundi.

 “They knew the only way to stop her was to kill her" said Anielle Franco about her sister Marielle Franco whose was murdered after speaking out against gender violence and for LGBTQ rights in Brazil. 

 “They kill us off gradually. First of all, they assassinate our character by using misinformation, by stigmatizing us… because that means we are no longer human.” said Claudia Samayoa from Guatemala. “Then they start eroding our freedom.”

It was almost too much to take all at once.

After hearing such harrowing stories, it was inevitable that much of the conversation at the summit focused on protecting human rights defenders. Protecting defenders is essential but the question of how we can protect defenders is complicated.

There are many excellent organisations which offer protection to individuals who are under imminent threat, but defenders rarely work alone. Many, if not all, of the defenders in Paris represented whole communities of defenders, many of whom are also facing threats and harassment.

A defender from Colombia told the crowd about the collective incarceration of his whole community. Kirill Koroteev from the Human Rights Centre “Memorial” in Russia and Henri Tiphagne from People’s Watch, India told us of their colleagues being imprisoned on trumped up charges.

It is certainly true that the defenders we work with at the Forest Peoples Programme do not work alone. They are collective defenders, fighting for the right to their lands and livelihoods, for the environment and for their rights to determine, and preserve, their traditional ways of life. Often an individual will lead, and it is tempting to champion them, but we must never forget that they do not stand alone.

“One of the key messages is security must be collective. It affects families. It affects communities.” said Noira Candelo Riascos, reporting back from the Americas regional discussion.

Traditional protection schemes, which focus on removing individuals from risky situations, are unsuitable for collective defenders. We cannot simply move whole communities away from risks. In fact, this is the very thing their opposers are often fighting to achieve.  

So, how do we protect entire communities who are trying to defend their human rights?

Defenders at the summit may have already provided the answer.

“There are certain practices used by communities for their protection,” said Miriam Mirander from Honduras “and we need to work on them and use them.”

Strategies, such as surveillance or the use of community body guards, are already commonly used to protect communities. These strategies need to be supported and strengthened. We need to facilitate shared learning between communities and we need to ensure these strategies are adequately funded.

“Communities are already doing a great job at protecting themselves, but they need international support to continue” said Pranom Somwong when reporting back from the Asia regional session at the summit.

As Vilma Núñez de Escorcia, a human rights defender from Nicaragua said, “the legal development of human rights is not for free… it is the people’s struggle.”

At the Human Rights Defender World Summit, I was continually reminded that defenders rarely stand alone. If we are serious about protecting defenders, we must take the lead from defenders themselves and adapt protection schemes to suit communities as well as individuals. There are already some great ideas out there, we just have to listen.