Protecting human rights defenders from attacks and reprisals


As published in the Global Post on 8 August 2013:

(Geneva, 5 August 2013) – It is almost 50 years since the world’s most famous and celebrated human rights defender, Nelson Mandela, spent the first of 27 years in prison in retaliation for his work to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms.

As published in the Global Post on 8 August 2013:

(Geneva, 5 August 2013) – It is almost 50 years since the world’s most famous and celebrated human rights defender, Nelson Mandela, spent the first of 27 years in prison in retaliation for his work to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Human rights defenders are people who work – whether as journalists, lawyers, whistleblowers or activists – to promote and protect human rights, to expose and ensure accountability for violations, and to obtain redress and justice for victims.

It is a consequence of this work that human rights defenders are often subject to attacks, intimidation and reprisals; acts perpetrated by powerful actors, including governments and corporations, with an interest in covering up violations, maintaining the status quo, or resisting change.

Regrettably, attacks and reprisals against human rights defenders have continued unabated in all corners of the world since Mandela’s imprisonment in 1964, including, ironically, many corners where Mandela is rightly lionised and feted.

In early July, in Cameroon, journalist and LGBT rights activist Eric Ohena Lembembe was found brutally tortured and murdered in his home. Just weeks before he had spoken out on threats and attacks against LGBT human rights defenders.

Days later, Indonesia’s parliament passed an odious law severely restricting the right of non-governmental organisations and human rights defenders to freedom of association and expression. The law also restricts the ability of NGOs to access funds from overseas – all signs of regrettable regress in a state purportedly committed to democracy.

And just days ago, in Russia, authorities raided the offices of Memorial, one of the country’s leading human rights organisations. The raid occurred the day after Memorial filed a complaint alleging serious workers’ rights violations by a major Russian company, leading Human Rights Watch to state that ‘the timing of this surprise inspection makes it difficult to draw any conclusion other than it is sheer retribution’. Unfortunately, the Russian raid is not isolated, with a disturbing global increase in attacks, intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders who work on issues of corporate accountability.

Come September, the UN’s Human Rights Council will have the opportunity to consider and pronounce itself on some of these regrettable developments. The Council is the world’s peak multilateral human rights body and a group of States – led by Hungary – has already indicated that they will press the Council to take action to combat intimidation and reprisals.

There are four key steps that the Council should take in this regard.

First, the Council should urge governments to review and amend legislation – such as that enacted in Indonesia – which restricts or interferes with the important and legitimate work of human rights defenders and NGOs. Laws should support and enable the work of human rights defenders, not subject them to illegitimate interference and restrictions.

Second, the Council should urge States to consider adopting specific laws and policies to protect human rights defenders, prevent reprisals and ensure accountability for violations. Activists such as Eric Ohena Lembembe should be protected from attacks and, where they occur, cases should be rigorously investigated and the perpetrators prosecuted and held to account. A recent bill proposed in Australia, which would make it a criminal offence to subject a person to detriment in retaliation for complaining about their conditions of detention to the UN Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture, is a good model in this regard.

Third, the Council should call on the UN Secretary-General himself to appoint a high-level representative to prevent and respond to allegations of intimidation and reprisal against those who cooperate with the UN. In 2011, former UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Philip Alston, spoke of having to ‘confront the reality that people who had the courage to provide me with information subsequently suffered reprisals carried out or orchestrated by officials of the governments concerned.’ He went on to testify that, ‘in several cases, individuals with whom I met paid the ultimate price – they were targeted and killed, almost certainly by the security forces and almost certainly, at least in part, because they had provided me with evidence of serious wrongdoing by those forces’. Sadly attacks against human rights defenders and NGOs by some States in retaliation for their advocacy at the UN remain a reality, with recent reports of such retaliation in Russia, China, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, among others.

Finally, the Human Rights Council should support the development of a model national law on the protection of human rights defenders. A model law could provide valuable technical assistance to States in developing legislation to implement their obligations under international law to support human rights defenders, and also provide a valuable advocacy tool to NGOs to hold States to account in this regard.

In a recent speech the UN’s human rights chief, Navi Pillay, described human rights defenders as ‘the heroes of our time – the promoters of change who ring the alarm about abuse, poor legislation and creeping authoritarianism’. They are the Mandelas, the Memorials and the Lembembes.

It is precisely because of the nature of this work that they are subject to attack and precisely because of the value of this work that they must be protected and supported.

Phil Lynch is Director of the International Service for Human Rights ( He is on Twitter @PhilALynch.


  • Human rights defenders
  • LGBT rights
  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • Australia
  • Cameroon
  • China
  • Indonesia
  • Maldives
  • Russia
  • Sri Lanka