Human Rights Defenders Initiative

Human rights defenders have always faced severe risks as they work to ensure respect for human rights here in the United States and around the world. In the current political environment, these risks are on the rise. One of the greatest crises in human rights today is the shrinking of civic space and the threat to the individuals, groups, and organizations that work to defend human rights. We are bringing together our already existing work and future projects to create the Human Rights Defenders initiative.

The Human Rights Defenders initiative strives to support human rights defenders by:

  • Engaging students, faculty, and staff in research designed to advance the rights and freedoms of human rights defenders
  • Inviting human rights defenders to join us as visiting scholars to enhance our students' learning and provide the human rights defenders with an opportunity to advance their work in a supportive and restorative environment.
  • Provide space for interdisciplinary discussion on the issues facing human rights defenders 

What is a Human Rights Defender? 

The category of “human rights defender” (or “HRD”) is inevitably broad. People all over the world promote and protect human rights in diverse ways, from organizing street protests to quiet diplomacy. 

The rights of HRDs were initially set forth in the 1998 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, or “Declaration on HRDs.”  The declaration does not provide a definition for HRD; however, Article 1 of the declaration states that “everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms”—thus scholars recognize that it is a person’s actions that determine whether they are a human rights defender. 

Protection Networks for Human Rights Defenders

Protection networks (PNs) are collaborative groups of actors working together to provide support, recognition, personal security, and solidarity for HRDs. They serve to strengthen non-violent advocacy and self-protection capacities for HRDs and raise awareness of defenders' work. Protection networks are a particular type of transnational advocacy network bound together by shared values, a common discourse, and frequent information exchanges. 

Working with civil society, the Human Rights Program has undertaken research to help understand the effectiveness of protection networks as strategies for ensuring guarantees of the rights and freedoms of HRDs. Read more about this project on the Protection Networks page

Academic Freedom 

By bringing together students, scholars, and human rights defenders, we are exploring the ways in which the repression of academic freedom is affecting not only the production of academic knowledge but also the ability of human rights defenders to do their work.