The main international instrument on human rights defenders is the United Nations Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (commonly known as the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders). It was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1998, after 14 years of negotiation.
The Declaration codifies the international standards that protect the activity of human rights defenders around the world. It recognises the legitimacy of human rights activity and the need for this activity and those who carry it out to be protected. Under the Declaration, human rights defender is anyone working for the promotion and protection of human rights. This broad definition encompasses professional as well as non-professional human rights workers, volunteers, journalists, lawyers and anyone else carrying out, even on an occasional basis, a human rights activity.
The Declaration articulates existing rights in a way that makes it easier to apply them to the situation of human rights defenders. It specifies how the rights contained in the major human rights instruments, including the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly, apply to defenders. The Declaration outlines specific duties of States as well as the responsibility of everyone with regard to defending human rights.
The rights protected under the Declaration include the right to develop and discuss new human rights ideas and to advocate their acceptance; the right to criticise government bodies and agencies and to make proposals to improve their functioning; the right to provide legal assistance or other advice and assistance in defence of human rights; the right to observe trials; the right to unhindered access to and communication with non-governmental and intergovernmental organisations; the right to access resources for the purpose of protecting human rights, including the receipt of funds from abroad.
States have a responsibility to implement and respect all the provisions of the Declaration. In particular, States have the duty to protect human rights defenders against any violence, retaliation and intimidation as a consequence of their human rights work. The duty to protect is not limited to actions by State bodies and officials but extends to the actions of non-State actors, including corporations, "fundamentalist" groups and other private individuals.
Please note: All information concerning the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders has been excerpted from 'Human Rights Defenders: Protecting the Right to Defend Human Rights', Fact Sheet No. 29, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and from the Special Representative’s web site.