Anti-corruption protesters in Eastern Europe.
Anti-corruption protesters in Eastern Europe.

The UK can and must do more to defend the human rights defenders

A report released today calls on the UK government to do more to protect human rights defenders and civil society activists who are at risk.

The paper, On the Human Rights Frontline, was published by Amnesty with support from Bond and a host of other development, peacebuilding and human rights organisations. It finds that 94% of activists interviewed have experienced, harassment, abuse or death threats as a result of their work. However, only 6% said they had received support from the UK government despite these threats.

Who are human rights defenders?

A human rights defender is someone who promotes or protects human rights. They could be a teacher, lawyer, journalist, trade unionist, school pupil or an NGO worker.

Bond members work with human rights defenders worldwide, supporting them to promote and protect the rights of particular groups, from women and children to people living with disabilities, indigenous communities and LGBTQ+ people. They champion a range of causes, from anti-corruption to racial equality and environmental protection.

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As agents for change, human rights defenders are important development actors. The UN Human Rights Council has publicly recognised their contribution to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, particularly when it comes to ensuring that we Leave No One Behind. If we are serious about ending poverty, reducing inequality and conserving our environment, we need to protect the people working, day in and day out, to deliver these development outcomes.

The threat facing human rights defenders

The situation facing human rights defenders is urgent and alarming. According to Frontline Defenders, 304 activists were killed as a result of their work in 2019, of which 40% were land or environmental defenders.

Global Witness recorded 212 killings of environmental campaigners in the same year, and 156 journalists were murdered in 2018-9 according to Unesco. Those most at risk are activists who challenge powerful, vested interests or who champion the rights of marginalised groups, with women and LGBTQ+ defenders more likely to face threats of violence.

The UK must act

In 2019, the UK published a policy document, UK Support for Human Rights Defenders, which acknowledged the important role they play and outlined practical steps UK embassies and high commissions can take to support activists. However, this paper is not a strategy and a lack of direct resources and action has limited its impact. Only 12% of activists interviewed by Amnesty International for the report had ever heard of it.

The gravity and scale of the situation necessitates further action. The UK government must develop a clear and comprehensive strategy, which results in human rights defenders being better recognised and protected by their governments and better able to access appropriate and flexible funding for their work. At risk defenders must have access to rapid response, individual and collective protection mechanisms.

This needs to be accompanied by stronger measures to support healthy and diverse civil societies, where people are able to come together to respond to global and local challenges. This should mean more sustainable, core funding for civil society organisations, networks and movements, as well as making greater use of diplomatic channels to protect civic space and promote fundamental rights and freedoms that enable civil society to flourish. This includes the right to association, assembly, participation, information and expression.

Announcing the creation of the FCDO in June last year, the Prime Minister said the merger would allow the government to unite development and diplomacy. Protecting human rights defenders and supporting civil society worldwide requires both.

Since then, the Secretary of State has confirmed that human rights and open societies will be a priority for the new department, and it will also be a focus at the G7 in Cornwall later this year. Human rights defenders need the UK government to seize these opportunities and deliver strategic, principled and effective action on civic space.