• Mr Anil Pararshar, Former Joint Registrar(Law) & Focal Point for HRDs at NHRC
  • Ms Mrinalini Mishra, Legal consultant at HRDA, India and an alumna of National Law University, Jodhpur


December 9 marks the day of adoption of the UN Declaration of Human Rights Defenders. This draws attention to contemplate the role of institutions to protect the rights of those who are on the forefront to protect the human rights. In the recent wake of events, the role of human rights defenders [HRD] has been noteworthy. They have taken key steps for promotion and प्रोटेक्शन of human rights and the constitutional ethos. From protesting against draconian legislation to custodial tortures, facing arbitrary detentions to lathi charge, they have seen it all. They have stood up and fought against human rights violations to the best of their capacities.

Mr Anil Pararshar

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) defines the term as ‘Human rights defender’ as “people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights.”1 HRDs are defined by their actions of protecting the human rights. There is no precise definition or eligibility criteria to become an HRD. The main objective of HRDs is to protect and promote civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. They raise their voice, through various means, whenever the constitutional goals are in jeopardy.

The year 2020 marks 22 years of enforcement of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders with multiple states coming forward and incorporating it in their national regimes. However, the question that still remains is the implementation of the basic objectives of the Declaration. With passing time, it could be seen that the world is becoming perilous for HRDs. With the rising state reprisals, their freedom of speech is being pushed back. There is a clear curtailment of their liberty to share opinions critical to the working of the government, resulting into fabricated charges, illegal arrests and even threats and violence.

Evolution of the concept of Human Rights Defenders
The discussion regarding a Declaration for protection of HRDs started in 1984 and then it was formally adopted in 1998. On December 9, 1998, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders with an objective to articulate existing rights in such a way that it becomes easier to apply it for the protection of HRDs.

The Declaration itself did not define the term but gave due recognition to individuals and groups who put their life at risks for the rights related work

The use of the term ‘human rights defender’ by individuals and groups has a set of attached list of pros and cons to it. On one hand it provides protection, support, redressal for violations and on the other hand creates a risk of them becoming victims of political motives. It has to be noted that the Declaration in itself is not binding in nature, however it has characteristics which can be enforced. The OHCHR has asked the states to enforce the Declaration with binding characteristics.

Steps taken for the protection of rights of HRDs

The UN initiated the protection regime by enforcing the 1998 Declaration. A step further was taken by appointment of Special Rapporteur, who can be approached for complaints regarding violation of rights of HRDs. Since the UN Declaration for HRDs, we as a nation have come a long way to protect the rights of HRDs. The NHRC, though still in the process of developing a protection regime for the HRDs, has taken a few remarkable steps in this regard. The first and foremost step taken by the NHRC is the creation of ‘Focal point’ for filing of complaints pertaining to violation of rights of HRDs. The objective behind this is to make the complaint filing mechanism easier for the defenders. Another plausible step was proactive involvement in the violations by giving requisite directions to the state authorities. Moreover, the Commission has also directed for a payment of compensation wherein
the violation of rights of HRDs has been proved.

Ms Mrinalini Mishra

The NHRC organizes workshops on HRDs at multiple occasions. In 2015, the Commission focused on review of FCRA, court intervention in HRD cases, creation of focal point, etc. in accordance with the recommendations given by United Nations. To mark this year’s Human Rights Defenders Day, the NHRC in its press release mentioned about its round the clock functioning phone number of the focal point for registration of complaints. The NHRC has asked the states and UTs to strengthen its focal point for speedy redressal in cases of causalities. The Commission has successfully achieved few of the objectives as stated in the workshop.
Current socio-political scenario
In light of the recent events, the UN OHCHR, Ms. Bachelet has highlighted her concerns regarding the worrying aspects which create a hindrance in safeguarding the rights of HRDs. She has raised concerns about the criminalization of speech for protesting against the debatable legislation, CAA and vaguely worded FCRA Act which leads to prohibition of foreign funds working for the rights of HRDs.

In fact, more than 1000 people were arrested merely for protesting against the legislation.  Post Bhima Koregaon incident, charges were framed under the draconian UAPA Act against eleven activists. Moreover, they were put under unlawful surveillance, in contravention with the Puttuswamy judgement. The UN Special Rapporteur has reflected upon the condition of HRDs in India in the recent times and has cited example of veteran poet Varavara Rao, a 79
year old HRD with serious health concerns who has been jailed in the times of pandemic. The HRDs are being subjected to killings, harassment, custodial torture, abuse on a regular basis by both state and non-state actors.
It is noteworthy that even the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 does not in explicit terms talks about HRDs and protection is provided based on interpretation. These incidents give an understanding of how the rights of HRDs are blatantly being violated by the state and non-state actors. The current socio-political scenario of India calls for a stronger regime to protect not only the rights but also the life of HRDs. The condition of HRDs globally is also a sad state of affairs. Since the adoption of the Declaration, more than 3500 HRDs have been killed, lack of accountability of state and non-state actors is at its peak, targeting in the name of terrorism, systemic stigmatization, is commonly known practices worldwide.

Suggestions & Conclusion:
The constraints faced by the HRDs have been briefly discussed above. It is essential that nations
come together and implement solutions to create a safer platform for the protection of HRDs. We
put forward the following suggestions for improvement:

  • Stronger legal regime – The nations should ensure that the essential characteristics of the
    1998 Declaration takes a shape of binding legislations. The aim of institutional protection
    of HRDs can be achieved in its truest sense if there is a strong legal backing involved.
  • Complaint handling mechanism- The states should create an easily accessible complaint
    handling mechanism so that in cases of violations, the procedure of filing complaints is not
    tiresome. This objective could be achieved by creation of ‘focal point’ in human rights
    institutions of all the states.
  • Cooperation with international human rights institutions- It is the need of the hour that
    nations and their respective human rights institutions work in cooperation with
    international institutions to ensure that better policies, protection, support etc. can be
    provided to the protectors of rights.
  • Greater accountability of public officials- As mentioned above, public officials have been
    harassing the HRDs time and again either by fabrication of charges, use of force during protests, etc. and usually they are not left scot free. In situations like this, stricter provisions
    should be enforced to increase accountability of involved officials.
  • Research and policy making- States should encourage drafting of policies to ensure safety
    and protection of HRDs. Moreover, the existing laws should be reviewed time and again
    to corroborate that laws don’t become draconian for the HRDs and act as a tool for
  • HRD Day- On December 9, the Declaration was formally adopted and this day should be
    marked as Human Rights Defenders Day every year to create a sense of solidarity among
    the defenders.

Despite efforts by the UN as well as NHRC, reprisal, intimidation, killing of HRDs has become a norm of the day not only in India but all over the world. The need for more protected and congenial environment for the HRDs has become a necessity. The human rights institutions have to come forward and take a united front for the well-being of HRDs. Let human rights defender’s fraternity grow leaps and bounds.

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