Human Rights Defenders

A human rights defender
Human rights defenders and even their families are often subjected to arbitrary treatment, threats and violence. For this reason they need protection. From the exhibition «Faces of Human Rights Defenders and the Extractive Industry» © Daniel Schweizer 2013

A human rights defender works to ensure that human rights are actually respected. They are often exposed to considerable dangers and threats of physical violence. The FDFA aims to provide better protection for human rights defenders and through this give legitimacy to their work. Switzerland’s representations abroad play an important role in achieving this. The “Swiss Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders“ form the basis of its commitment.

Human rights defenders come from different professional and personal backgrounds: for example, they work as lawyers, journalists, farmers or in other occupations. As a result of their work they themselves often become victims of human rights violations.

The UN defines human rights defenders as persons who, in either a private or professional capacity, individually or as part of a group, work to defend human rights by peaceful means. Human rights defenders recognise the universality, interdependence and indivisibility of human rights, regardless of gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation or other characteristics. 

The following areas of law are of central importance for human rights defenders:

  • Right to freedom of expression (Art. 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights)
  • Right of peaceful assembly (Art. 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights)
  • Right to freedom of association (Art. 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights)

Special protection needed

Human rights defenders and even their families are often subjected to arbitrary treatment, threats and violence. For this reason they need protection. The protection and promotion of human rights is one of Switzerland’s foreign policy objectives and is therefore a high priority. In implementing these objectives, the FDFA works closely with its representations abroad, the department’s political affairs divisions, the SDC cooperation offices and civil society.

The Swiss Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, published by the FDFA in 2013, provide a set of proven practices in working with human rights defenders and in particular are designed to provide the representations with a uniform approach to this aspect of their work.

The guidelines contain the following recommendations:

  • Information-gathering and reporting:
    The representations abroad should assist human rights defenders with the documentation on human rights violations and ensure that the legal framework is not changed to their disadvantage.
  • Direct contact with human rights defenders:
    Direct contact with a Swiss representation can be a major help. International attention and open official support can give legitimacy to the work of human rights defenders and contribute to their better protection.
  • Contact with the responsible authorities:
    In talks with the responsible authorities or with governments, Switzerland can gather information about human rights defenders and propose negotiations.
  • Public statements on individual cases:
    Switzerland can intervene in cases of restrictions on freedom of expression, torture or extrajudicial executions of human rights defenders.
  • Cooperation with international actors:
    In cases of interventions, Switzerland works wherever possible with international actors, representatives of like-minded states, regional and local non-governmental organisations. It is also active in multilateral bodies.
  • Media:
    Media releases or reports on human rights defenders in local newspapers can help to protect them.
  • Presence at the United Nations in Geneva:
    Human rights defenders should also be allowed to participate in meetings at the UN in Geneva.
  • Reprisals against human rights defenders:
    Due to the attention they draw to themselves if they cooperate with UN institutions or other international organisations, human rights defenders need an enhanced level of protection.
  • Visa policy:
    Switzerland aims to achieve the best possible degree of protection for human rights defenders in the places where they live and work. Temporary stays abroad are considered only in the most extreme emergencies.

Protection of human rights defenders – political context

A human rights defender
From the exhibition «Faces of Human Rights Defenders and the Extractive Industry» © Daniel Schweizer 2013

In 1998 after almost 14 years of negotiations, the UN adopted the Declaration on the protection of human rights defenders. This document sets out for the first time international standards on the protection of human rights defenders. Switzerland took part in the negotiations to draft the text of the Declaration.

The Declaration is not legally binding but it has political weight. It refers to the different UN conventions and was adopted by the UN General Assembly by consensus. The Declaration stipulates that the states are obliged to protect human rights defenders. The document served as the basis for the position of the UN special rapporteur for human rights defenders that was established in 2000. Various resolutions within the framework of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly strengthened the declaration.

Documents

The Swiss Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (PDF, Number of pages 24, 748.9 kB)

Swiss Guidelines on the Protection of human Rights Defenders (ES) (PDF, Number of pages 24, 753.3 kB)

Swiss Guidelines on the Protection of human Rights Defenders (RU) (PDF, Number of pages 24, 419.9 kB)

Swiss Guidelines on the Protection of human Rights Defenders (AR) (PDF, Number of pages 24, 1.1 MB)