HRDs being interviewed by journalists


Press release | A step forward for security and protection of human rights defenders #rethinkingprotection

14 December 2017

Brussels, 14 December 2017 – A year before the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on HRDs, Protection International and the Centre for Applied Human Rights (CAHR) of the University of York organised an international roundtable these 12 & 13 December 2017 to reflect collectively on the way security and protection of human rights defenders (HRDs) is operationalised and can be further strengthened.

The event gathered HRDs, practitioners, academics, and policymakers from all continents, allowing them to challenge the currently established protection approaches, tools, and practices. In his opening remarks Dr. Mukwege, said: “We are the sentinels of human rights protection, for which we must work together hand in hand”.

Based on a participatory and multi-format approach, the event “Rethinking the Protection of Human Rights Defenders: A Critical and Creative Reflection on protection approaches”, took participants through three different strands.

“It was essential for us to start the reflections by questioning the way HRDs are defined and whether that facilitates or hinders their protection, taking into account HRDs’ multiple identities and diverse practices. Only then could we look at the gaps in the current protection approaches and rethink collectively about concrete steps forward to make a difference on the ground”, says Alice Nah, President of Protection International and researcher at the Centre for Applied Human Rights.  

Although great progress has been made in the last two decades in the recognition of defenders and their role in building more democratic and fairer societies*, they continue to face increasing pressure, threats, and attacks both from state authorities and non-state actors. In parallel, the main approach taken by states towards HRDs is still to treat them as ‘objects’ of protection, whose security and protection therefore depend on the state’s willingness to offer protection measures.

Protection actors gathering in Brussels claimed a shift in focus, moving from this narrow and failing security approach towards the broader recognition of the right to defend rights, and of HRDs as primary actors when discussing their security and protection, but without downplaying states’ obligations to respect and protect the right to defend human rights.

Mr. Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights defenders, declared: “We should join our efforts into a global coalition of human rights defenders, to raise awareness on who they are and what they do and finally change the narrative driven by smear campaigns against them”.

The Roundtable reflected critically on existing protection tools and strategies, acknowledging for example that: the defense of human rights is a gendered activity that reflects the gender challenges that prevail in our societies; defenders become defenders through a shared relational construction process that includes emotional, and not only rational actions; HRDs are not “heroes”, but a diversity of persons and collectives working with others often in precarious situations and with limited resources.

Participants in the event expressed solidarity and joined the international campaign calling for the immediate release of HRDs facing spurious charges in Burundi, including Germain Rukuki, who has been unlawfully charged with “rebellion and endangering of state security” and remains in detention since last 13th of July.

 “Despite the many challenges we face, it is encouraging to see how much innovative thinking and common ground have emerged in the last two days. That is a great step forward in sketching the future of both the protection of HRDs and of the right to defend human rights”, said Liliana De Marco Coenen, Protection International’s Executive Director, in her closing remarks.




For more information related to the content of the event, contact Mauricio Ángel, Head of Policy, Research and Training Unit mangel [at]

For more information related to media issues, contact Nellie Epinat, Communications coordinator, nepinat [at]


See the event’s page on Protection International’s new website with key publications.

*The adoption in 1998 of the United Nations Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (UN Declaration on human rights defenders) has been a milestone in the promotion and defense of human rights. This has been followed by several decisions and resolutions from international bodies (i.e. UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council, Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, African Commission of Human and People’s Rights) recognizing the role that human rights defenders (HRDs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) play in building more democratic and just societies.

**These tools and strategies can range from reactive measures, such as emergency grants, temporary relocation, and urgent appeals in national and international instances, to preventive approaches including risk analysis and capacity-building training on security planning practices and networking.

*** For more information on this call, see #rukuki on Twitter.

Human Rights Defender Germain Rukuki was arrested on 13th July 2017 for “rebellion and undermining of State security”. As a human rights defender, he has always taken action for victims of abuses and violations of their human rights, of sexual violence, torture, for people detained in appalling conditions, condemned to death or missing, regardless of their origin, political opinions or religious beliefs. By the Rule of law, Germain Rukuki, as a Burundian citizen without any criminal record, has the right to bail as well as the right to a fair trial organized forthwith.


PROTECTION INTERNATIONAL is an international non-profit organization that provides protection strategies and tools for human rights defenders who are at risk. Protection International has been working since 2004 with local partners in over thirty countries across the globe.

The Centre for Applied Human Rights (CAHR) of the University of York is an interdisciplinary research and teaching center. It is a friendly community of scholars and visiting practitioners who have a shared focus on the real-world challenges of putting human rights into practice and protecting human rights defenders at risk. A focus on human rights and defenders shapes all of the Centre’s work.