The more ‘classic’ human rights NGOs are devoted to document and denounce human rights violations and to influence government policy. However, the UN broad concept of “human rights defender” encompasses a large group of people. Any person who, individually or in association with others, peacefully promotes and strives for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national or international level, is a human rights defender[3]. This includes persons addressing environmental and land issues and corporate responsibility, as well as those working on governance issues, promoting transparency and accountability, and those exposing discrimination, corruption and violence at the hands of States, business enterprises and other non-State actors. This can also include, in some instances, government officials, civil servants or members of the private sector[4].


However, human rights defenders themselves and the organizations through which they work are under growing pressure from governments and face serious challenges to their work worldwide, such as being target of death threats, torture, harassment, violations against family members, and restrictions on their access to funding and freedoms of association, movement and expression. Criminal justice systems are increasingly used to arbitrarily convict and sentence human rights defenders, forcing them to suspend their activities.

Selected materials by human rights bodies of intergovernmental organisations

Human Rights Defenders



[1] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, preamble.

[2] This includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

[3] UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (adopted by General Assembly resolution 53/144 of 9 December 1998).

[4] UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, ‘Who is a defender’, accessed 4 September 2016.