Over the past three years, ProtectDefenders.eu - the EU Human Rights Defenders mechanism implemented by a Consortium of international civil society organisations, has emerged as a solid, successful and crucial tool for at-risk human rights defenders, and as an increasingly referenced instrument within the international human rights defenders community. As per the three-years report, ProtectDefenders.eu has stepped up the practical support available to HRDs at risk and local human rights NGOs, and mobilised resources in favour of at least 30,018 defenders in a timely and comprehensive manner.
In a context marked by the increasing demand for support from human rights defenders operating in the most difficult contexts, ProtectDefenders.eu...
Read on to learn more about the key highlights of the EU Human Rights Defenders mechanism
ProtectDefenders.eu aims at reaching out to the less connected and particularly targeted defenders and these groups (such as Women Human Rights Defenders, LGBTI+ rights defenders, land and environment rights defenders, indigenous rights defenders, or defenders from remote areas) represent approximately 75% of the beneficiaries.
ProtectDefenders.eu has offered life-saving support to hundreds of defenders and enabled several thousands of them to continue their human rights work with more security. It has contributed to addressing emergency needs of HRDs and the pushback against shrinking space for local organisations supported via the different programmes, and to build an enabling environment conducive to better human rights protection and democratic development. Human rights defenders have been better equipped to navigate their work in the face of repression and threats and to pursue their activities for the respect and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the local level.
The unique combination of several strategic interventions including immediate support, financial assistance, capacity-building, strategic communications and advocacy, and outreach has together amplified one another and presents a strong, consolidated and comprehensive approach to supporting human rights defenders. The complementarity and the comprehensiveness of the mechanism have made a remarkable difference by linking individual support to defenders at risk, to building resilience among local communities, while successfully addressing emergency situations and broadening the space for civil society through intensive advocacy.
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Therefore, a higher number of HRDs at risk have been taken away from harm or have been equipped with security skills and tools to protect themselves and their families. ProtectDefenders.eu has also enabled the provision of lifeline support including core- funding to groups and organisations facing increasing restrictions in carrying out their work and even the threat of closure in very repressive contexts. The management of the Temporary Relocation Programme, in coordination with the management of the EUTRP, has also strengthened the leverage for temporary relocation programmes for Human Rights Defenders, increased accommodation capacity and built stronger partnerships.
ProtectDefenders.eu has also successfully reinforced the network of support available for human rights defenders at risk by intensifying the collaboration with multiple stakeholders engaged in the defence of human rights defenders, such as local organisations, international NGOs, and European institutions, in particular the European Parliament, and the European External Action Service.
Lastly, ProtectDefenders.eu has successfully developed, consolidated and multiplied its public visibility and position as a reference for HRDs at risk, and increased its outreach to isolated defenders and those working in the most difficult contexts e.g. rural, WHRDs, LGBTI, indigenous, land/environmental defenders or journalists. This combination of visibility and recognition, as well as the prominent role of ProtectDefenders.eu as an instrument of action and influence, culminated in the organisation of the Human Rights Defenders World Summit in Paris, in October 2018.
Today, ProtectDefenders.eu is fully established and widely recognised as a visible, accessible, efficient and regularly referenced instrument to support Human Rights Defenders at risk worldwide. The EU HRD Mechanism has reportedly amplified, optimised and maximised the support previously provided to human rights defenders, and brought coordination among organisations to a new dimension, both in the daily management of the mechanism and to advance the HRDs agenda at the international level.
These results were made possible thanks to the unified consortium of NGOs, contributing with their own expertise and ensuring coordination and coherence throughout all the programmes. All these elements have laid down the foundation for the continuation of the EU HRD Mechanism and guarantee the ability of ProtectDefenders.eu to deliver practical and efficient support while adapting to new challenges posed by political, social and economic changes and an increasing trend of shrinking space for civil society.
The situation of human rights defenders supported through the EU HRD mechanism has improved as a result of accessing grants, support, and multi-faceted assistance. This has prompted communities and defenders to continue advocating for human rights, mobilising for action, and forming or joining social movements. However, in every region of the world, human rights defenders have continued to face reprisals, harassment, and attacks because of their non-violent work and in response to their demands for basic rights.
Smear campaigns, judicial harassment, criminalisation, and stigmatisation are widely employed by both state and non-state actors to try to intimidate HRDs. Defenders working in a context of conflict, crisis or political transition zones attempting to document atrocities are also subjected to appalling violations. Moreover, the rise of ISIS, religious fundamentalism, and other non-state actors, as well as populism and authoritarianism, continues to impact directly on the work of HRDs. More than 2,600 attacks and severe cases of targeting have been documented by ProtectDefenders.eu partners in the 37 months of implementation, and killings of human rights defenders continued to rise - 281 killings reported in 2016, 312 in 2017, and 321 in 2018, with a striking increase in the number of defenders killed in specific countries, such as Colombia, Brazil, Philippines, or Guatemala. Many of the attacks and threats continue to go unreported, and a vast majority of perpetrators are still not held accountable.
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Defenders remained particularly targeted in countries where there is serious unrest, systematic conflict or political transition (Syria, Colombia, Egypt, Turkey, Kenya, Burundi, DRC, Philippines, Cambodia, among others) and a greater demand has been reported from land and environmental rights defenders, pro-democracy activists, and defenders advocating for freedom of expression, as a result of an increase or perpetuation of attacks, judicial harassment, and criminalisation against them. In this regard, ProtectDefenders.eu has contributed by responding to the repression and crackdown on land and environmental rights defenders, which have been particularly acute in countries such as Honduras, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Cambodia, Colombia, Guatemala, India, Cameroon, and the Philippines. In the case of Colombia, violence against human rights defenders and social leaders has increased significantly and the escalation of the attacks against social leaders and human rights defenders remained critical in the context of the implementation of the Peace Agreement.
There has been a growing backlash from governments against human rights defenders: National security legislation, ‘foreign agents’ laws, and travel bans are being introduced around the world in an attempt to limit the ability of defenders to continue their activities, in addition to an uptake in arbitrary detentions against HRDs and administrative harassment against human rights NGOs in several difficult countries. An increasing number of criminalisation cases on spurious or trumped-up charges have been reported.
Since the launch of ProtectDefenders.eu to-date, highly repressive new anti-NGO legislation - including limitations to their right to access funding - has been introduced in Bangladesh, China, Egypt and many more; in Cambodia, there has been an unprecedented increase in attacks and restrictions against the political opposition, civil society organizations and independent and critical media, as well as individuals exercising their fundamental freedoms; similar repressive laws include the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act and anti-torture law in India, the Sedition Act in Malaysia, Cyber-crimes laws in Pakistan, and so on. Draconian measures in Egypt following adoption of the “NGO law” have served to harass and silence the human rights movement, while respected rights organisations and prominent NGO directors/board members have been subjected to persecution, asset freezes or to travel bans, and many NGO staff and directors have been summoned for interrogation by investigative judges. These measures appear to be at risk of being replicated in other countries and the situation in Turkey has deteriorated to the point that there is very limited space for any human rights activities. The work of the international community in support of human rights, including international NGOs or inter-governmental agencies, has also been restricted across all regions, such as the attacks against the CICIG and the diplomatic community in Guatemala, the expulsion of the OHCHR team from Nicaragua; attacks against the UN and its Special Rapporteurs in the Philippines and Burundi; as well as efforts to dismantle the African Commission and to restrict the work of the International Criminal Court in African countries.
ProtectDefenders.eu has provided targeted emergency responses to certain crises affecting human rights defenders, as in the case of Syria, Egypt, Burundi, Bangladesh, Turkey, or Nicaragua, as well as responding to the backlash reported against defenders of land and environmental rights or defenders advocating for the freedom of expression -including journalists and bloggers -, or LGBTI rights defenders. Moreover, a particular effort was made to support and reach out to particularly vulnerable HRDs and those working in the most difficult contexts.
Thanks to ProtectDefenders.eu support, organisations working in these hostile contexts and facing difficulties were able to maintain their core activities, increase their own capacity in security and protection and therefore improve their capability to continue their work in this repressive context, to find and access funding and to set up new initiatives to strengthen their advocacy capacities and structures. A number of organisations in particularly critical situations avoided closure as a result of that support. Many organisations were supported in creating bigger coalitions and networks in order to work together to overcome common obstacles and achieve better results, including as a measure of protection. In other situations where return to the country proved impossible. the mechanism could provide the seed funds for the creation of new human rights structures to continue addressing the protection of human rights defenders and crucial victim support.
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Thanks to ProtectDefenders.eu support, organisations working in these hostile contexts and facing difficulties were able to maintain their core activities, increase their own capacity in security and protection and therefore improve their capability to continue their work in this repressive context, to find and access funding and to set up new initiatives to strengthen their advocacy capacities and structures. A number of organisations in particularly critical situations avoided closure as a result of that support. Many organisations were supported in creating bigger coalitions and networks in order to work together to overcome common obstacles and achieve better results, including as a measure of protection. In other situations where return to the country proved impossible. the mechanism could provide the seed funds for the creation of new human rights structure to continue addressing the protection of human rights defenders and crucial victim support.
The increased demand for funds attests not only the success of ProtectDefenders.eu in terms of outreach and visibility but also the deteriorating situation of the human rights situation across all regions and the crucial need for international community to increase resources to protect defenders and to adapt to the continuous transformation processes evolving at the societal level. At the same time a low and declining level of funding for human rights defenders and their organisations is available at the global level, as was concluded by a ProtectDefenders.eu report, commissioned and presented in 2018.
Human rights defenders, including groups and communities, reported unanimously that support received via training and capacity-building has increased their skills and tools to better manage their security situation and to better develop their work. Defenders and groups have been able to develop and strengthen protection, support and advocacy networks, as well as strategic activities enabling them to address the restrictive contexts where they carry out their activities. Training on digital security proved particularly useful in contexts where cyber-attacks continued to be widely used as a means of disrupting the HRDs' work or obtaining information which could be used to prosecute defenders or otherwise harm them, as sophisticated digital attacks, surveillance, monitoring - including surveillance of the HRDs in exile -, as well as offline and online censorship of the work of human rights defenders continue to increase across the world. Growth in the targeted stigmatization of HRDs in order to delegitimize their activities across all regions has further increased, including through digital communication means, and together with the increased criminalisation of individuals and their activities present distinct challenges in terms of providing protection.
The accompaniment and advocacy work at the local level, as well as the ongoing monitoring of the situation of individuals and the environments, have reportedly dissuaded direct attacks and allow the defenders to continue their work even in very hostile and risky environments. ProtectDefenders.eu has contributed to the improvement of the situations of the defenders reporting attacks and threats, and it has been a notable contributing factor in the release of HRDs in several countries such as Algeria, Belarus, Cambodia, Cameroon, Colombia, Chad, Chile, Djibouti, the DRC, Ecuador, Egypt, Mauritania, Sudan, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, Zimbabwe, among others. Finally, ProtectDefenders.eu contributed to increasing the visibility, solidarity and legitimacy of defenders within the international community and raising awareness and visibility within national, regional and international media, in social networks and has in turn been reflected in international diplomacy actions.
The Hamburg Foundation for Politically Persecuted People, with the support of ProtectDefenders.eu temporary relocation programme, has granted Maldivian human rights defenders Shahindha Ismail a one-year fellowship in the metropolitan city at the river Elbe. During this time, the South-Asian activist wants to meet and network with German and European representatives in politics and civil society. At public appearances, she also wants to educate her audience on her home country’s state of affairs.
Since its launch, ProtectDefenders.eu's temporary relocation programme for human rights defenders at risk has supported more than 330 relocation initiatives, benefiting at least 475 individuals worldwide.
Click to learn more about Shahindha Ismail.
14 years ago, Shahindha Ismail (40) founded the “Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN)“. This non-governmental organization opposes religious fundamentalism and fights for the restoration of basic democratic values and human rights. It is also committed to protecting the interests of political prisoners, ultimately fighting for their release. Due to her efforts against religious fanatics, Shahindha Ismail has become a target of radical Islamist groups. Via Facebook and Twitter, she has been receiving threats on a regular basis. Investigations into the MDN founder’s alleged infringement of the Blasphemy law also continue. In the so-called holiday paradise, the proposed sentence level for such a “crime“ ranges between five years in prison and a death penalty.
In Europe, the Maldives is a popular dream holiday destination. Little is known about the political and social issues the island state at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent has been facing for years. This primarily includes the effects of climate change as well as the proliferation of Islamist extremism. Although the chances for democratic reforms have slightly improved after the election of a new president and the recent forming of a new parliament, the life of human rights activist Shahindha Ismail is still in grave danger.
Human rights defenders in the Philippines have been increasingly subjected to killings, attacks, threats, and other forms of harassment under President Rodrigo Duterte, according to the new report released by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint FIDH-OMCT programme.
The 40-page report, produced in the framework of ProtectDefenders.eu and titled “ I’ll kill you along with drug addicts - President Duterte’s war on human rights defenders in the Philippines,” documents the dramatic deterioration of the situation for human rights defenders in the Philippines as a direct result of Duterte’s policies, actions, and words.
Click to learn more about the Observatory's report.
Since President Rodrigo Duterte took office on June 30, 2016, his ‘war on drugs,’ the continued impunity for human rights abuses, the imposition of martial law over the entire island of Mindanao since May 2017, and his crude anti-human rights rhetoric have all directly contributed to an increasingly hostile environment for human rights defenders.
The number of land and environmental defenders, as well as journalists, killed in the Philippines has increased dramatically during Duterte’s presidency. From July 2016 to November 2018, at least 76 land and environmental rights defenders and 12 journalists were killed in connection with their work. Labour rights activists have also been the target of attacks and at least eight of them have been killed on Duterte’s watch.
Civil society groups working on human rights issues have been demonised and vilified under the current administration and reported increased surveillance, intimidation, threats, and other acts of harassment by the authorities.
Likewise, members of the independent Commission on Human Rights (CHR) have been harassed and their mandate called into question by Duterte’s administration. The credibility of United Nations (UN) experts has similarly been attacked, with Duterte’s slandering of UN officials.
In the political sphere, the Department of Justice has pursued criminal charges against a number of Duterte’s political opponents who have taken strong pro-human rights stances. In an emblematic case, Senator Leila de Lima has been detained without trial for more than two years under spurious charges.
President Duterte has demonstrated utter disregard for human rights and the rule of law by condoning, and even encouraging, extrajudicial killings and other serious human rights violations. This behaviour has further reinforced the Philippines’ long-standing culture of impunity. In February 2018, the ongoing impunity for Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ killings was one of the key factors that triggered the opening of a preliminary examination by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The report urges authorities in the Philippines to put an end to the prevailing culture of impunity for human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings and attacks against human rights defenders. This requires carrying out prompt, thorough, impartial, and transparent investigations into all allegations of human rights violations against human rights defenders.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.
Organised on 7 February 2019 in collaboration with the International Civil Society Center, this webinar focused on the different tools and resources that ProtectDefenders.eu has available for activists at risk working in the frontline. ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders mechanism, provides emergency assistance and support to activists in many ways: from advocacy and capacity-building to material support, including temporary relocation, tailored to the specific needs of each individual, community or organization. The recording of the webinar is available here.