Rethinking campaigns on human rights defenders

Credit: Alejandro Ospina

When the “human rights defender” framework emerged in the 1990s, it promised something big, but its implementation in attention-based campaigning has fallen short of its aspirations. The 1998 UN Declaration on human rights defenders certified the right of anyone to defend any human right by nonviolent means and to receive support and funding for this purpose. As a result, various international human rights advocates started to adopt this framework to shift their focus from the mere exposure of injustice to the direct support of such human rights defenders as local agents of human rights change.

Previously, supporting individuals took a prominent role in human rights work, pioneered by Amnesty International’s urgent action campaigns on political prisoners and later institutionalized by UN special procedures. However, the focus on human rights defenders introduced a transformative, impact-oriented aspiration into this traditionally humanitarian and almost apolitical casework. 

The theory of change put forward by actors, including Front Line Defenders, International Service for Human Rights, and many others, claims that by protecting local human rights activists, international campaigns can support them in their work to advance human rights protection on the ground. This assumption appears plausible and aligns with prominent accounts in academic human rights literature, where domestic activists’ protection from repression is seen as a way to open spaces for them to challenge the regime and enact change.

That said, empirical evidence from UN casework and the experience of Tunisian defenders shows that this promise has not been fulfilled when it comes to human rights defenders in authoritarian regimes, as I show in my recent book. There, I argue that, while international attention can have important protective benefits, it does little to support individual human rights defenders as agents of change in repressive contexts.

The reason for this is that international casework on defenders, including urgent action–like campaigns or UN communications, maintain the traditional focus on physical integrity rights that has guided the long-standing casework on political imprisonment, torture, or enforced disappearances. In doing so, it overlooks the many administrative, discursive, and covert forms of repression that typically bypass international scrutiny more broadly but that often very effectively disrupt and thwart defenders’ work toward change.

The analysis of over 12,000 individual cases of human rights activists taken up by the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders between 2000 and 2016 reveals that, in almost three-quarters of them, at least one of the violations described fell within the category of physical integrity violations. Detention cases alone made up 56% of all cases raised during that period. In contrast, only 4% of the cases dealt exclusively with softer types of repression, such as travel bans, bureaucratic issues, job dismissals, surveillance, or defamation.

This distribution far from represents the everyday experience of human rights defenders in authoritarian states—instead, it is reflective of a humanitarian instinct in human rights casework to privilege cases that are considered most severe. One could argue that UN communications, and perhaps attention-based campaigning more broadly, are inherently humanitarian, not transformative instruments. But one should ask: What, then, is the purpose of focusing on human rights defenders, as opposed to any victim of repression?

The priority given to physical integrity violations has two important adverse consequences. First, we can see that the data profoundly shape our understanding of what human rights defenders are struggling with. For example, on the basis of such data a CIVICUS report claims that in order to repress civic space, states resort “most often” to detention of activists, attacks against journalists, and excessive use of force against protesters. The human rights community’s own focus on violent repression thus paradoxically misleads us to believe that this is where most attention is needed.

Secondly, this focus reinforces a protection gap for violations that fall outside of the conventional notion of state repression as physically harmful and as undeniably politically motivated. Research on repression highlights that authoritarian states engage in repressive substitution, where they replace highly scrutinized coercive tactics—typically harder and overt types of repression—with softer and more covert measures. The case of Tunisia under Ben Ali aptly illustrates the strong impact of such tactics on defenders’ ability to carry out meaningful work.

When analyzing the further development of cases taken up by the UN, I also found that, while some positive effects of the UN’s attention could be identified for most of them, many did not see an actual improvement relative to the reported violations over the course of the next year; where they did, it was mostly an easing of harder repression. Ultimately, there is a real risk that governments continue to use hard repression to increase their bargaining power and then pass off a release from prison as a costly concession, while in reality imposing softer but equally effective measures against the activist in question.

With this problem in mind, what could be done differently? Casework that follows a transformative logic should not seek to maximize the reduction of physical harm—the humanitarian logic—but should define protection needs in terms of safeguarding a defender’s ability to do effective human rights work. 

Those engaging in casework and campaigns on human rights defenders should actively revisit their priorities in terms of the violations they tend to address. Far too often, softer repression remains unreported, unnoticed, and not acted upon, which effectively creates a twilight zone in which authoritarian states can comfortably stifle opposition voices without risking much pushback. We owe it to the countless number of human rights activists around the world to ensure that the label of “human rights defender” does not merely serve to laud their heroism and excite donors and the media, but that it is dedicated to fulfilling its promise of human rights change.