Defending defenders? An assessment of EU action on human rights defenders

Human rights Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) European Union
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Defending defenders? (report) 3.15 MB

Around the world, people are speaking up and working to defend human rights, frequently at risk to their safety, freedom or life. All too often, these human rights defenders (HRDs) are labelled as “criminals”, “foreign agents”, “terrorists” or threats to “development” or “traditional values”. Many suffer violations of the very rights they defend. They are harassed and intimidated, unjustly prosecuted and imprisoned. Some are tortured, killed or forcibly disappeared.

Many states have introduced restrictive laws to silence and repress HRDs and attack the civic space in which they work. Some states have turned their back on previous commitments to the international human rights framework, even questioning the definition of a human rights defender.

Simultaneously, challenges around specific human rights issues, and for the HRDs working on them, have intensified. Social media threats, smear campaigns and surveillance are an everyday reality for HRDs worldwide. At heightened and intersecting risk are women HRDs as well as those working on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) people, Indigenous communities and refugees and migrants.

In this changing world, the European Union (EU) and its member states are increasingly called on to exercise leadership on human rights and HRDs. The EU’s global status, along with its broad range of policies and instruments on human rights, means it can exert significant influence through its relations with third countries and its role in multilateral fora.

This report focuses on EU and member state action for HRDs in line with their human rights commitments, above all the European Union Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders (EU Guidelines on HRDs). It is based on research by Amnesty International focusing on implementation of the Guidelines between January 2014 and April 2019 in Burundi, China, Honduras, Russia and Saudi Arabia, and draws on compelling testimony of individual HRDs from these countries.

This report looks at how the EU and its member states have acted practically and politically to:

  • protect individual HRDs and promote their work;
  • engage governments and other key stakeholders on HRDs’ working environment and civil society space; and
  • validate human rights concerns raised by HRDs by giving them full political backing and supporting their efforts to address these issues.

The report provides background on the EU and HRDs, including key commitments and challenges in implementing the EU Guidelines on HRDs.

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