Summary of international standards and protections that exist to ensure human rights defenders are able to conduct their work in safety.
International law provides for a right to unhindered access to and communication with international bodies on issues relating to human rights and fundamental freedoms. This right is derived from the human rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and movement contained in international human rights instruments and in customary international law.
The right to unhindered access to and communication with international bodies is also explicitly recognised in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and is codified in other international instruments.
Enjoyment of this right implies that those accessing or attempting to access or communicate with these bodies should not face any form of intimidation or reprisal for doing so. The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders recognises the right of human rights defenders to be protected from reprisals linked to their communication or cooperation, or attempted communication or cooperation, with the UN’s human rights bodies.
The right to be free from reprisals that threaten an individual’s life or physical liberty is also an aspect of the protection afforded by other international human rights, such as freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention or deprivation of liberty, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and arbitrary deprivation of life. Furthermore, international human rights law establishes that States that confiscate passports, issue travel bans or prevent human rights defenders or representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from attending international meetings may contravene the right to freedom of movement under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
States have the primary duty to uphold the rights to unhindered access to the UN and to be protected from intimidation and reprisals in connection with any cooperation or attempted cooperation with the UN. As subjects of international law, UN bodies such as the Human Rights Council and the Committee on NGOs of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) may also be bound by these obligations.
Since the creation of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders in 2000, successive mandate holders have made concrete contributions to the protection of those defending human rights and the dissemination and implementation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. The mandate plays a crucial role in supporting and protecting defenders and in engaging constructively with States to ensure a safe and enabling environment for their work. The Special Rapporteur is also key to providing visibility of the situation of defenders and highlighting the need for their protection. In particular, the mandate has made significant contributions to acknowledging attacks targeting specific groups of defenders – such as women human rights defenders and environmental rights defenders – and the need to develop intersectional responses.
ISHR Academy: Reprisals Handbook