In light of unprecedented attacks on human rights defenders, Andrew Anderson of Front Line Defenders argues for increased direct support to human rights defenders working at the local and national levels, flexibility in funding, and a greater focus on core, multi-year support.
The last two years have seen unprecedented attacks on those working to protect and defend human rights at local and national levels. At least 186 human rights defenders (HRDs) were killed in 2015 and, with over seventy reportedly killed in Colombia and Brazil in the first half of the year, it looks like 2016 will be even worse. Forty-five percent of the killings of human rights defenders were linked to the defense of environmental, land and indigenous peoples’ rights. Other groups targeted included HRDs working on corruption and impunity as well as journalists and social media activists.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, and other autocrats understand that HRDs working at local and national levels are key agents of change and use massive resources to spy on, disrupt, threaten, smear, harass, detain, torture, prosecute, and jail human rights defenders. Take, for example, the huge investment involved in repeated – and technologically unprecedented – attempts to spy on the iPhone of human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor in the UAE. Physical repression is coupled with defamation campaigns and an ideological assault on human rights. The Chinese government even has a video warning of the “dark shadow of the stars and stripes” on YouTube. Copy-cat repressive legislation restricting civil society organizations’ ability to register and access funding has spread like a viral epidemic.
And what is the scale of our response? It seems clear that donors are not giving this issue the same priority that Putin and his friends are.
The latest research by IHRFG and Foundation Center indicates that just one percent of foundation funding and one percent of bilateral/multilateral human rights funding supported HRDs in 2013 (the latest year for which data are complete). The largest portion – 43% – of this funding supported security and resilience, totalling $6,923,851 out of the total funds ($16.1 Million) supporting HRDs. Even taking into account the challenges in accurately categorizing data amid heightened security concerns and difficulties in tagging, these resources fall short given the scale of the attacks on HRDs.
The Human Rights Defenders Working Group has identified several key challenges, including donors’ limited reactive capacity, the need for increased support for HRDs working at the local and national levels, and the need for greater flexibility in funding (particularly in countries with restrictive legislation).
Funders should provide flexible and multi-year support for long term solutions and/or preventive measures that address root causes.
HRDs working at local and national levels are best able to identify and respond to these root cases, which is why at Front Line we advocate for direct support to HRDs, a greater focus on core support and multi-year funding, and greater flexibility in sustaining support for those grappling with restrictive legislation. It remains a concern that those doing the most important work on the ground are forced to spend too much time fundraising, filling in difficult and time consuming forms with each funder using different formats and frameworks. There is a need in the human rights philanthropic community for greater capacity to understand how to support locally owned priorities and strategy making.
Rapid and practical direct support to HRDs at immediate risk is reactive, but in sustaining the human rights movements, it is also crucial in the long term.
Human rights defenders at risk continue to tell us that their greatest need is rapid and practical support when they are under attack. That speed of response can save lives, that flexibility can enable HRDs to sustain their struggle in spite of the onslaught against them. Khadija Ismayilova, an Azerbaijani investigative journalist, radio host, and human rights defender, attended an Open Society Foundations-hosted discussion on shrinking civic space just before her recent period in jail. She stressed how important it was to get funding to the families of detained HRDs, by whatever means, so that they could buy food and medicines to keep them alive in prison. And also that by demonstrating such practical support in this way it helped to sustain other HRDs and send a message that the international community was not indifferent to their suffering.
There are many ways to support the security and protection of human rights defenders. Direct support to HRDs working at the local and national levels. Support for one of the regional or international organizations providing direct support to HRDs. As the backlash against HRDs intensifies, what is clear is that the international community needs to significantly increase funding and strategic focus. We are not facing attacks on individual activists; we are facing a global attack on the very idea of human rights.
For additional information and resources on funding human rights defenders around the world:
- Directory of Emergency and Rapid Response Grants: The HRD Working Group has compiled this list of funding sources for HRDs.
- Workbook on Security: Practical Steps for Human Rights Defenders at Risk: The Workbook takes you through the steps to producing a security plan – for yourself and for your organisation (for those HRDs who are working in organisations).
- The Holistic Security Manual: This manual by Tactical Tech is designed to guide a process of establishing or improving security strategies for individuals, collectives or organisations.
- ProtectDefenders.eu: The European Union Human Rights Defenders mechanism, established to protect defenders at high risk and facing the most difficult situations worldwide. Led by a Consortium of 12 NGOs active in the field of Human Rights.
- New Tactics Resources on the Well-Being and Security of Defenders: New Tactics in Human Rights, a program of the Center for Victims of Torture, hosts an online community and shares information to help human rights defenders work more effectively.
- The ISC Project (also available in Arabic, Russian, and Spanish): The Information Safety and Capacity Project provides data security and capacity-building assistance to organizations, activists, and independent media in countries where free expression, journalism, and advocacy are critical but potentially risky to personal safety.
- Keeping Defenders Safe: A Call to Donor Action: This report reviews existing responses to the security challenges that human rights defenders face and recommends several changes to grantmakers’ focus and approach.
This In Focus article was contributed by Andrew Anderson, the Deputy Director of Front Line Defenders since March 2003.