Defending the Defenders: How the International Community Protects Human Rights Defenders

By Ulrike Hoessle

Berta Cáceres, human rights defender. Photo by coolloud via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

“I am always thinking about being killed or kidnapped. But I refuse to go into exile. I am a human rights fighter and I will not give up this fight.”

Berta Cáceres, cited by Amnesty International

Berta Cáceres, a human rights defender, indigenous leader, and environmental activist, knew the danger of her struggle against hydroelectric dams on the Gualcarque River in Honduras. She faced near-constant harassment and intimidation for her activities – until March 2016, when an armed gang entered her home and assassinated her. A year and a half later, an international team of lawyers issued a report implicating the leadership of the dam development company, and in March of this year, an executive from the company was arrested on charges of being an “intellectual author” of the crime – charges the company disputes.

The Deadliest Year for Human Rights Defenders

The UK-based watchdog Global Witness has called Honduras the deadliest country in the world to be an environmental activist. Sadly, Berta Cáceres’ case is not unique, and violence against human rights defenders goes far beyond environmental activism. The issues human rights defenders are fighting for are as multifarious as women’s rights, political, social, economic and cultural rights, LGBTIQ people’s rights, and the rights of children.

According to the recent Amnesty International report, Human Rights Defenders Under Threat – A Shrinking Space For Civil Society, about 3,500 human rights activists have been murdered worldwide since the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998. And the numbers are increasing. More than 300 activists were murdered in 2017, and it was the deadliest year for environmental and indigenous activists, transgender people and human rights defenders in Colombia.

A Year of Human Rights Milestones

2018 is a special year for human rights, as it marks three important milestones:

The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders is a landmark in human rights’ history. It acknowledges that our freedoms depend on those who would fight for their protection. The Declaration has not only played an important role in affirming the right to defend human rights, it has also outlined the duties of states in this regard. As such, it legitimized the work of human rights activists and formed the basis of key protection mechanisms, such as national and regional guidelines for the protection of human rights defenders.

Since the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on December 10, 1948, the international community has taken further steps to celebrate, protect and recognize human rights defenders. For example, December 9 is now officially recognized as the International Day of the Human Rights Defender, and since 2000 a UN Special Rapporteur reports on the status of defenders globally.

Emergency Hotlines, Grants, and Non-Violent Accompaniment

Due to the increasing violence against human rights defenders, non-profits whose work defends the defenders are more important than ever. In 2017, Amnesty International launched an international campaign called Stand up for the Brave, which features human rights activists all over the world – from those who fight for transgender rights in Finland, to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to political rights in Bahrain.

Another organization,, established a 24/7 emergency helpline and a temporary relocation fund for human rights defenders who may be facing immediate risk. The Urgent Action Fund – For Women’s Human Rights also maintains an open, online application process for rapid security grants.

Other groups increase the capacity of human rights activists and their organizations. Peace Brigades International sends international volunteers directly to conflict areas to non-violently accompany and protect activists. The World Organization Against Torture helps mobilize public opinion to counter abuses of power, while Protection International helps defenders develop security and protection strategies.

Technology Aids Protection of Human Rights Defenders

Information and Communication Technology is sometimes used by governments or corporations against human rights defenders to restrict, monitor or manipulate their mobile phones, computers and internet access. At the same time, these technologies enable defenders to gather, analyze and disseminate data locally and internationally about human rights abuses and allegations of abuse. There are multiple useful tools that protect them and facilitate their work.

Front Line Defenders assists activists in securing their computers and phones, in co-operation with the Berlin-based Tactical Tech, digital protection through security-in-a-box with open-source guides and tools available in 17 languages. Additionally, Front Line Defenders provides regional digital security training programs and consults with other human rights organizations to address changing digital security concerns.

The Geneva-based non-profit, Huridocs has also developed several data management systems, such as Uwasi, to publish documents; OpenEvsys, to understand patterns of human rights violations; and Casebox, to manage case documents securely.

While all of these tools were designed to support human rights defenders, their use is not without challenges. For example, sensitive data may require additional security, technology may not be appropriate to specific regional contexts, languages not written in Latin script may be incompatible, and the discontinuation of software tools can necessitate the transfer of huge amounts of sensitive data from one provider to another.

Human Rights Defenders’ Crucial Work for Just and Inclusive Societies

Human rights defenders, such as Berta Cáceres and many others who have been threatened or killed, are the safeguards of liberal democracies. They play a vital role in shaping societies towards more tolerance, respect and inclusion, the bedrock of healthy democratic society. Human rights and their defenders form the core of a just society. Without them, there can be no sustainable development, no peace, and no hope of a dignified life for everyone.


The following Global Washington members are working to support and defend human rights activists around the globe.


Breakthrough is a global human rights organization working to drive the culture change needed to build a world in which all people live with dignity, equality, and respect. Working out of centers in the U.S. and India, Breakthrough uses a potent mix of media, arts, and tech to reach people where they are and inspire them to take bold action to challenge the status quo. The organization often views the most crucial issues of our time through the lens of gender, because it believes that promoting equality for all genders is a pathway to promoting the human rights, and the humanity, of all people. Since 1999, Breakthrough has also worked to promote immigrant rights, racial justice, and the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS.

Outright Action International

As the leading US-based non-profit fighting for human rights for LGBTIQ people globally, OutRight Action International advances safety, dignity, freedom and equality in places where LGBTIQ people face extreme violence, discrimination, and persecution. OutRight documents human rights violations, supports grassroots activists on the frontlines, and holds governments accountable at the United Nations and beyond. For 28 years, OutRight has been working to change hearts, minds and laws all over the world.

Partners Asia

Partners Asia supports emerging leaders and community-led initiatives to improve the lives of the most vulnerable people in Myanmar and along its borders: ethnic minorities, displaced populations, women, children, LGBTQIs, and students.

World Justice Project                                                                                  

The World Justice Project is an independent, multidisciplinary organization working to advance the rule of law around the world. Effective rule of law reduces corruption, combats poverty and disease, and protects people from injustices large and small. It is the foundation for communities of peace, equity, and opportunity—underpinning development, accountable government, and respect for fundamental rights.