The Barcelona Guidelines: supporting human rights defenders in temporary relocation

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Human rights defenders (HRD) are under immense pressure in many parts of the world as a result of their activism. In many parts of the world, recent restrictions introduced by governments in response to COVID-19 have made the promotion and protection of human rights even more complicated and dangerous. As a result, human rights defenders have been facing unprecedented restrictions of movement and freedom of expression.

Temporary International Relocation Initiatives (TIRIs) respond to the risks they face by helping defenders move to (relative) safety outside of their country of work, either within the immediate region or internationally. Some of these initiatives support specific constituencies of defenders such as artists and creative professionals, while others have specific regional scopes or are open to all defenders, including journalists, lawyers, LGBTIQ rights defenders and environmental activists. Many defenders access TIRIs only after a period of time in hiding or after having relocated elsewhere within their country. While in relocation, which may last from several weeks up to two years, defenders have access to a number of benefits, including capacity building, networking, and professional solidarity.

Besides safety, the wellbeing of defenders is a priority for these initiatives. We view wellbeing as encompassing mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health, as well as healthy relationships with others and with the environment. A person who feels physically, mentally and emotionally strong is better able to work for the good of others. Many defenders arrive at their relocation exhausted and struggling with mental health issues, such as burnout, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Defenders can also feel guilt, shame, and isolation both while in relocation as well as upon return home.

As a community of practice, we have gained valuable experience working with defenders in relocation. For many of them, temporary relocation has been a life changing experience, providing much needed relief and safety from the everyday pressures and threats they face.

For many defenders, temporary relocation has been a life changing experience, providing much needed relief and safety from the everyday pressures and threats they face.

In some cases, however, the relocation itself does not always have a positive impact on the defender’s wellbeing. Being removed from social support networks, culture shock, and the relationships with hosts, often based on dependency and a real or perceived power imbalance, can exacerbate the existing difficulties they already face. Some managers of relocation have noted that, particularly for more intensive relocation programmes, “[we have] realized that [defenders] are too traumatized to deal with what's expected of them.”

TIRIs offer sessions with psychologists, cultural coaches, counsellors and other professionals as well as opportunities for yoga, meditation, art therapy, or other activities that defenders may find beneficial for their wellbeing. Despite their expertise however, the needs of defenders are often beyond the range of experience of the psychological and medical professional communities employed in TIRIs. Lacking understanding of the political nature of the work of HRDs, in some cases professionals have unhelpfully urged defenders to cease their activism because of the risks involved. Insufficient awareness of the ways in which their own background, outlook, and trainings impact the relationship with defenders can result in a lack of trust, further hampering the efficacy of the therapeutic intervention.

Amongst defenders, understandings and beliefs concerning the concept of wellbeing are diverse and informed by their religious, cultural, social, political and economic backgrounds. Defenders often find it difficult to talk about their own mental and emotional wellbeing; the very language used in relation to this topic can result in disengagement. Stigma, bias, and misconceptions about mental health in their societies may further impede efforts to strengthen their wellbeing. Aspects of identity, such as gender, ethnicity, class, and ability intersect to exacerbate this.

To address these challenges but also to reiterate and share good practices, Justice and Peace Netherlands, the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York, the International City of Refuge Network, Martin Roth Initiative, and independent experts Adam Brown and Sasha Koulaeva embarked on a research project to better understand the norms, beliefs, and practices that both hinder and support HRDs in strengthening their wellbeing. The outcomes of this research, as well as discussions between coordinators, wellbeing service providers, and researchers from around the world have resulted in the Barcelona Guidelines on Wellbeing and Temporary International Relocation of Human Rights Defenders at Risk.

The Barcelona Guidelines invite all of us involved in temporary relocation for defenders to reflect and re-evaluate if we are providing the safety and support we promise to offer.

The Barcelona Guidelines are directed at service providers of TIRIs and highlight that the wellbeing of defenders needs specific attention, from the very way relocation initiatives are designed, to the activities planned, expectations of defenders and the resources and allocated funding. They articulate shared principles about our collective approach to wellbeing and provide guidance on good practices for those involved in these initiatives.

The starting point of support should be the recognition of the perseverance and accomplishments of defenders. TIRIs should allow them, as the subjects of relocation, to choose from a wide variety of activities and therapeutic methods and to decide what works for them and what not. Framing wellbeing as a political strategy and an essential part of security—tied not just to the individual but to the collective care within movements—appeals to defenders.

Return should be considered when designing wellbeing programmes. Therapeutic interventions initiated during relocation that require follow-up should be accessible upon return without the need for high financial investment. Service providers, including coordinators and health professionals, should also be cognizant of the power relations that exist within these programmes, and how they affect the sense of agency of defenders.

Recognising the resource constraints of TIRIs, the Barcelona Guidelines are aspirational in nature. In some locations for instance, it may be hard to find health professionals with experience beyond working with the general public. Despite their best intentions, these professionals may not be sufficiently sensitive to a defender’s needs. In places with a shortage of affordable housing, it can be challenging to find appropriate accommodation available throughout the year to host defenders. In some cases, at the end of their planned period of relocation, defenders are not ready to return home and alternative arrangements become necessary.

The Barcelona Guidelines invite all of us involved in temporary relocation for defenders to reflect and re-evaluate if we are providing the safety and support we promise to offer. They also encourage us to continue to learn and improve our efforts by creating more opportunities to share experiences, knowledge, and lessons learned within and between the various programmes.

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, most temporary relocation programmes have now been halted, to the detriment of defenders in dire need of a safe space. Many of us working for these programmes have felt powerless not being able to support defenders, many of whom now face new threats as a result of the crisis.

The Barcelona Guidelines recognize that everyone involved in temporary relocation programmes, including coordinators, may suffer in terms of their own wellbeing. Therefore, as a community of practice, we underline the importance of modelling good wellbeing practices. In this sense, the Barcelona Guidelines are located within the bigger project of ensuring not just the wellbeing of defenders but that of the human rights movement to become communities of mutual care.