EXILED DEFENDERS

United Nations Human Rights Council logo.

United Nations Human Rights Council logo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“CONTINUING THE STRUGGLE”

                  HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS IN EXILE

Every year, thousands of people flee their countries leaving behind shattered lives and loved ones, in search of safety and refuge from violence and destruction. Hundreds among those forced to leave their homes are human rights defenders who fought for justice in their home countries and communities. Little is known about their particular struggle since no official data can be found on the number of human rights defenders living in exile around the world.

There is still lacked a clear understanding of the needs and experiences of exiled human rights defenders. There is no any strategies that can be taken to promote their well being and to ensure that their wealth of knowledge and experience in fighting for social justice is not lost and  better support these activists living in exile.

Challenges of human rights defenders

All over the world grassroots human rights defenders with passion, commitment, and creativity are taking a stand for human rights and social justice in their communities. They risk their lives to challenge powerful and abusive structures – be they despotic governments, belligerent forces or repressive dictatorships– that trample the rights and civil liberties of their people. These human rights defenders do so at great odds and with serious personal risk to their lives and those of their families. Everyday human rights defenders are arrested, imprisoned, harassed, threatened or even killed.
Throughout history, oppressive governments have realized that the best way to stifle social and political change is to suppress human rights defenders, especially at the grassroots level, where they are planting seeds of change in their own communities. While the global human rights community responds with support and denunciations after activists are threatened, imprisoned or killed, we still grapple with ways to defend
those who defend the rights of others and ensure they have a safe work environment. Little has been done to develop systematic efforts to strengthen and protect these activists when they are forced to flee and when they are in exile.

Adequately supporting grassroots human rights defenders is a major challenge facing the human rights movement today. On a daily basis, more and more of those who have chosen to promote human rights and to defend the victims of abuse are themselves becoming targets of human rights abuses themselves. Not only does this undermine the resolve of human rights activists and their families to continue their human rights struggles, it also adversely affects movements towards building a global culture of human rights. Targeting human rights activists also creates a feeling of cynicism among the population and seemingly supports claims of autocratic governments and other human rights abusers that human rights activists are nothing but troublemakers who cannot even defend themselves, lest defend others.

As opposed to more established human rights defenders, grassroots human rights defenders typically lack support and resources outside of their homelands. Many of them are psychologically traumatized from the harassment and violence they faced before or during the exile process. They frequently arrive in their country of exile without the necessary language skills, job training or proper documentation, often lacking support of the community. Without having these essential needs met, activists spend much of their time struggling to survive. They often take on low-skill jobs in an
effort to reconstruct their lives. Unfortunately, this means that many must abandon their human rights work. When this occurs, it is not only a personal defeat for the activist, but also a defeat for the entire human rights movement as their valuable

Many human rights defenders in exile cope with strong feelings of guilt from having to “abandon” their work and possibly their colleagues back home. Many have gone through traumatic experiences and violence, having had to live under duress and extremely difficult circumstances before going into exile. Psychological support in the host country, therefore, was rated as important by most of the respondents. The majority of them received some sort of social and/or therapeutic support, mostly in support groups offered by agencies providing services to refugees. All of the
participants in this study talked about feelings of impotence and irrelevance, feelings of regret, frustration and discouragement (“it was all for nothing’ feeling”), feelings of cowardice mixed with the fear of not being able to save their family and co-workers, feelings of uselessness, and feeling unappreciated in their “new life”.

Current Action and Legislation regarding Human Rights Defenders
In 1998, the year that marked the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted what has become known as the “Declaration of Human Rights Defenders”.2 Although it is not recognized as a legally binding instrument, it has come to serve as a strong starting point for dialogue regarding this population. As a result of the adoption of the “Declaration of Human Rights Defenders” a Special Representative of the Secretary- General on the situation of human rights defenders was mandated in 2000 to enhance the protection of this
population in full compliance with the Declaration. This new UN special procedure is the most advanced existing international mechanism dedicated specifically for the protection of human rights defenders.

Other international treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (ICAT) and others, provide legally binding obligations relevant to the protection of human rights defenders, such as the right to security and liberty, and the right to legal recourse in the case of arrest, detention or deprivation of rights. Additionally, guidelines, principles, rules, and declarations form a body of nonbinding norms in protecting human rights and its defenders. Some of those instruments for the protection of human rights defenders have been in place for decades.

Over the past years, many human rights organizations worldwide have started focusing on the violations committed against human rights defenders and protecting them from persecution.4 For instance, Amnesty International, through its Defenders Project, has held regional conferences addressing the challenges and protection of human rights defenders and has made their protection one of its priorities. In 1997, the
World Organization Against Torture created the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in association with the International Federation for Human Rights.

Progress has also been made in the regional and international protection of human rights defenders. In June 2004, The European Union (EU) adopted the “EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders”. This document entitled “Ensuring Protection – European Union Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders” addresses the role of EU Missions in supporting and protecting human rights defenders outside the EU. They determine what practical support the EU can provide to defenders through its Development Policy. The Guidelines assert EU support for Special Procedures of the
Officially known as the “Declaration on the Rights and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”.

UN Commission on Human Rights and the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for Human Rights Defenders. They also promote the strengthening of existing regional mechanisms, such as the section on human rights defenders in the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and the Human Rights Defenders Unit within the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for the protection of human rights defenders. A Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders has been appointed in the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.

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