This document represents more than 20 years of experience in the field of protection for human rights defenders – since much of our members’ experience originates from former involvement with Peace Brigades International (PBI) and other international organizations. At the end of 2007, the former European Office of PBI became an independent association called Protection International. This Annual Report for 2008, our first, is an exciting development for us. Protection International aims to contribute to ensuring fulfilment of national and international obligations for the protection of human rights defenders – people who, individually or together with others, take action to promote or protect human rights.
The ‘UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders’ stresses that the state is primarily responsible for protecting human rights defenders. It also acknowledges “the valuable work of individuals, groups and associations in contributing to the effective elimination of all violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms”. Over the last few years, general awareness has increased about the enormous risks human rights defenders face in their work.
The risk is clear when defenders work in hostile situations – such as armed conflict situations or when a country’s laws penalise people engaged in human rights work. Defenders are even at risk when the law fully sanctions the activities of individuals working to protect human rights, but fails to punish those who threaten or attack defenders. These challenges require human rights defenders to incorporate comprehensive and dynamic protection and security strategies into their work. Giving defenders well-meant advice is not enough. Better security management and better protection strategies among defenders, and among those intending to protect them, is key. At the same time we must not forget that defenders are normal people undertaking dangerous work. As a result, defenders’ strategies for dealing with risk are often ineffective.
Defenders may be knowledgeable in their field of expertise, but less able to deal with death threats, hit squads attacks and bombings. Fear and work overload are real obstacles to maintaining security and self-protection for both individuals and organizations. The main risk for defenders is that threats often materialise into actual attacks. Aggressors have the will, the means and the impunity to put threats into action. The best tool for protecting defenders is political action to ensure that governments and civil society put pressure on, and act against, those who threaten, harass and kill defenders. Our assistance does not detract from the responsibility of all governments to protect human rights defenders.
Our role is not to replace governments in this role, but instead to advise defenders on improving their security by following tried-and-tested procedures. Many NGOs and institutions already work on human rights and defenders issues, and Protection International aims to complement them. Our areas of activity range from protection and security capacity building, to protection research (including advocacy and video-advocacy for the protection of defenders), the publication of manuals, running the website www.protectionline.org and other activities.
An important and recent development has been the setting-up of Protection Desks – which are protection projects, run in partnership with defenders networks or organizations. In 2008, the Protection Desk Nepal Project was established and the Protection Desks Uganda and Guatemala have recently been set up, in conjunction with local partners. We aim to set up further Protection Desks in Colombia, Thailand and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) among others. We are grateful to all the governments, institutions and individuals that have supported the work of Protection International in 2008 and made it possible to operate in so many different situations throughout the world. We are especially grateful to the defenders, with whom we work in our day-to-day activities: we learn from their example every day, and it is to them that we dedicate all our efforts.
The team of Protection International