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FOCUS March 1999 Volume 15

Human Rights Defenders


It is common knowledge that people who work on human rights and related issues face repression in various forms. This is true in Asia-Pacific as in other regions of the world. Some have suffered physical harm, or harassed with legal actions. Some others have been killed. If these victims of human rights violations have committed a wrong they were not properly charged and given the chance to defend themselves. Governments in many cases fail to provide even a satisfactory investigation to shed light on these cases. Human rights remains elusive even for those who work for it.

The issue of protecting human rights defenders is at the heart of the basic requirement of human rights promotion and protection - a principle repeatedly stated in most United Nations human rights documents. During the last decade, the role of individuals and organizations in protecting and promoting human rights have become increasingly crucial at both national and international levels. Their indispensable role in the series of world conferences of the United Nations as well as in the domestic activities of monitoring human rights situation, educating people on their rights, lobbying for legal reform, and advocating for ratification and/or implimentation of international human rights instruments is beyond doubt. If not for their courageous work, much of the human rights violations would remain unknown and without any possibility of redress.

The United Nations General Assembly "Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups, and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms" (December, 1998) provides a much-needed and long-awaited recognition of the work of human rights defenders. The document essentially affirms the right as well as responsibility of various sectors of society to act on human rights issues. It restates rights which are already provided for by international human rights instruments and which would normally be construed as rights of people who promote and protect human rights. The document becomes a necessity in assuring that governments will not have the excuse of depriving rights to individuals and organizations just because they work on human rights issues.

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