Criminalisation is a multifaceted phenomenon that makes use of criminal laws and provisions in other types of laws to attack human rights defenders (HRDs) with the aim to hamper their work in the defence and promotion of human rights.

Understanding the nature of criminalisation:

  • It is a process, which takes place through police interventions, criminal investigations and proceedings, and even the condemnation of HRDs.
  • It is an outcome that produces a negative impact not only on the work of individual HRDs, but also on the security and well-being of their families, civil society organisations, and the social movement in a country as a whole.

Stages of criminalisation

  1. A primary stage involves laws and normative frameworks like criminal law, regulation against terrorism, and criminal provisions contained in administrative or labour laws to pursue political goals. The so-called “NGO laws”, which are adopted to regulate heavily on the registration and operations of civil society organisations (CSOs), have become the quintessential manifestation of legal frameworks geared at shrinking civil society space and criminalise the work of HRDs.
  2. The secondary stage involves a set of different actors who intervene in the criminalisation process: public actors (e.g. police, government officials, lawmakers, justice systems operators – e.g. judges, prosecutors, etc.) and private ones (e.g. businesses, media). 


There are two main kinds of actions:

  1. Reactive actions deal with concrete cases.
  2. Preventive actions that aim to fight back and confront stigmatisation and the preliminary steps leading to criminalisation.

Thus interventions to counter criminalisation need to adopt a multipronged approach to make an impact:

  • Political: There are three scales of intervention – local, national and international – that can be intertwined. It involves activating and fostering networks of support at the local, national, and international levels. It also involves carrying out more public diplomacy by key stakeholders.
  • Legal: legal strategies are used to counter “negative” national laws that need to be challenged through regional and international courts while promoting “positive” laws which recognise the role of HRDs and provide a framework for state action when at risk. Moreover, legal strategies can also be geared at pushing for greater accountability of judicial system operators (e.g. prosecutors or judges) who are instrumental in criminalising HRDs.
  • Financial: Financial support to CSOs needs to involve more flexible funding and support to setup resistance funds to cover the expenses linked to the legal defence of the criminalised HRDs. Support should not be limited to assist criminalised individual HRDs, but should also cover their families and even the civil society organisations (CSOs) defenders collaborate with. It should also include psychosocial support in order to counter the insidious effects that come with stigmatisation.

Criminalisation is as a priority thematic area of the organization for fundamental and applied research.

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