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Human Rights Defenders
Volume 21 Number 1
Tuesday, 24 November 2009 13:37

by Rommel Yamzon

People often come across important issues that they need to take a stand on. People often ask how they can be of help. People usually have to balance their support to an issue with all of the other aspects of their lives, as well as with their own skills and resources. Some are even afraid to ask how they can be of help because this might mean committing themselves to something far beyond what they are willing or are able to do.

It is a sad fact that the more impact a person wishes to make, the more effort it will take. One important factor in a cause being realized is the number of people who are willing to stand up and make their voice known in defense of human rights. But becoming an activist is easier than one thinks. If a person is interested in women's rights or any particular right, she or he is probably already an activist waiting to thrive, or perhaps, already a human rights defender who needs to expand her or his reach.

United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders


The United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (also known as the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders) was elaborated over a 13-year period that began in 1984 and adopted by the General Assembly in December 1998.

A human rights defender, according to UN Declaration of Human Rights Defenders, is anyone who, individually or in association with others, promotes and strives for the protection and fulfillment of human rights and basic freedoms, regardless of her or his role in society.

Human rights defenders may be people who work for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), or people or authorities, who, among their duties, protect, enforce, promote or defend the peoples’ rights.

They are also characterized by the values they promote and adhere to: respect the universality and indivisibility of human rights; the notion that all human rights should be enjoyed by all people, regardless of gender, race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation or any other distinction.

Human rights defenders may be people who work to defend and monitor democratic principles and peace; people who defend workers’ rights, women and children’s rights, indigenous peoples and other vulnerable groups.

They address any human rights concerns such as summary executions, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, discrimination, employment issues, forced evictions, access to health care and toxic waste and its impact on the environment.

Defenders are active in support of the rights to life, to food and water, to the highest attainable standard of health, to adequate housing, to a name and a nationality, to education, to freedom of movement and to non-discrimination.

Human rights defenders are identified by their actions, rather than their occupation, job title or organization. They may also be public officials of the State, such as local officials, public defenders, or representatives of the state institution’s human rights offices.

Role of human rights defenders

Human rights defenders investigate, gather information regarding and report on human rights violations. They may, for example, use lobby strategies to draw their reports to the attention of the public and of key political and judicial officials to ensure that their investigative work is given consideration and that human rights violations are addressed. Most commonly, such work is conducted by human rights organizations, which publish reports on their findings.

A very large proportion of the activities of human rights defenders can be characterized as action in support of victims of human rights violations. Investigating and reporting on violations can help end ongoing violations, prevent their repetition and assist victims in taking their cases to courts. Some human rights defenders provide professional legal advice or assistance and represent victims in the judicial process. Others provide victims with counseling and rehabilitation support.

Many human rights defenders work to secure accountability for the respect of human rights legal standards. In its broadest sense, this might involve lobbying authorities to implement the international human rights obligations it has accepted by its ratification of international treaties.

In more specific instances, the focus on accountability can lead human rights defenders to bear witness, either in a public forum or before a court or tribunal, to human rights violations that have already occurred. In this way, human rights defenders contribute to securing justice on behalf of victims in specific cases of human rights violation and to breaking patterns of impunity, thereby preventing future violations.

A significant number of defenders, frequently through organizations established for the purpose, focus exclusively on ending impunity for violations.

Gathering and disseminating information, advocacy and the mobilization of public opinion are often the most common tools used by human rights defenders in their work. They also provide information to empower or train others.

How to become a human rights defender

There is no formal school for one to become a human rights defender. No university degree qualifies the graduate to practice grassroots organizing to establish a human rights organization. On the other hand, we should be able to benefit from the experience of others in defending human rights.

Sometimes abuses and harassments create human rights defenders. More often than not, people suddenly find themselves in a situation that requires a certain moral heroism. They had not planned to become a human rights defender.

But when a violation of human rights take place, people suddenly find themselves wondering how to write a fact sheet, press release, circulate petitions, and, even conduct a dialogue with local government officials. By the time they are in the thick of a campaign, it is hard to know where to turn for help and advice.

Human rights defenders in our midst

Fifty-eight years after the states ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), cases of human rights violations are still of an alarming number and must be urgently addressed.

Thousands of urban poor communities are victims of forced eviction and are left without decent housing. Minimum wage earners receive an amount below the actual livable wage - an outright violation of their right to live with dignity.

Reports of an increased number of killings of political activists, predominately those associated with leftist or left-orientated groups, have caused increasing concern in our country. Most of the killings are carried out by unidentified men believed to be members of the military which constitute a politically motivated pattern of assassinations.

Freedom of the press is also uncertain. The harassment and killings of journalist and media practitioners have not yet been solved. The situation we have now is not getting better.

To make matters worse, GMA administration passed into law the Anti-Terror Act or the Human Security Act of 2007 and will take effect on July 17, 2007. It is feared that the law strengthens impunity and further weakens the protection of every citizen’s constitutional rights.

Ours is a country where narrow access to justice leads to further injustice, where the culture of impunity is aggravated by a culture of fear and hopelessness, where a corrupt and lawless government in all its brazenness invokes “due process” and “rule of law” to justify assaults on democratic rights and civil liberties.

The prevailing trend in our country’s situation of human rights leaves much to be desired.

At this point, we encourage initiatives and foster involvement of individuals and groups to become a human rights defender.

Educate yourself. Educate others.
Speak your mind. Get involved.

Reference:
http://www.ohchr.org/english/issues/defenders/who.htm

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