More than two decades have passed since the United Nations General Assembly approved the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which encourages countries to protect people who fight for human rights around the world. So why has the situation deteriorated, especially for women who defend human rights?
Fears of terrorism and the rise of fundamentalism and nationalism are to blame, says a new report by the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, an advocacy group in Stockholm that supports women’s organizations in more than 20 conflict-affected countries in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the South Caucasus. Kvinna till Kvinna (in English, “woman to woman”) was founded in 1993 to help support women’s-rights groups in the Balkans, after the news media reported on mass rapes in the wars there.
The Swedish report, which surveyed 123 women human-rights defenders in 32 countries, described a range of new obstacles, from travel bans to paralyzing smear campaigns. The report includes excerpts from interviews with women’s rights activists in eight countries; it found that 85 percent of those surveyed believed that women human-rights defenders are affected differently than men who do such work, especially because of “decreasing possibilities for women’s organizations.”
In the post-9/11 world, efforts to fight terrorism and improve national security have become an easy excuse to limit debate and advocacy. These excuses have been coupled with the rise of fundamentalist groups and far-right nationalist parties pigeonholing women as mothers and caretakers, further limiting their role in the public sphere.
“Before 9/11, you had this sort of slow but steady progress in human rights, including women’s rights,” said Karin Ryan, a senior policy adviser on human rights and the special representative on women and girls at the Carter Center, in Atlanta, which focuses on human rights.
“After 9/11, respect for human rights dropped, including in the United States,” Ryan said. “The US practiced and continues to defend torture, even though you can never justify it under any circumstances.”
In some countries, a devastating government tactic has been to limit or completely ban foreign funding for civic groups. Russia’s “foreign agent law” labels any civil society group that receives money from outside the country as “traitors” or “spies,” fostering public mistrust of the group.
In Egypt, what Amnesty International refers to as a “politically motivated” court case, has given the government license to imprison independent human-rights organizations for receiving foreign financing. As a result, local affiliates of nonprofit groups, like the International Center for Journalists, have closed. The groups that have remained open are subject to asset freezes and attacks in the news media. The report calls what is happening in Egypt as the “peak of shrinking space.”
“It’s important to remember the purpose of this funding is to provide for the greater good of their communities, and this argument that foreign funding is somehow not good for society forgets the important work these people do,” said Lyndal Rowlands, an advocacy and networks officer at Civicus, a global alliance of citizens’ groups, based in Johannesburg, South Africa, with a hub in New York.
In Egypt, the report says the reason for repression of civil society is patriarchy and the state not trusting any element outside its structure. “It is problematic with a state that is paranoid all the time,” said an advocate quoted in the document.
In countries where advocacy is still allowed, donors to such nonprofit groups increasingly favor large international organizations and United Nations agencies at the expense of grass-roots entities. Even in Europe, a large majority of women human-rights defenders say women’s organizations struggle with finding money.
“It’s important to remind donors of the important work local groups do, because they know their communities,” Rowlands said.
Ryan agrees. “The people in the trenches are the only ones who can win these battles in these countries. Anyone who has power and resources, like the US, should be asking themselves, How are we standing with those who are on the frontlines [defending human rights]?”
In addition to funding restrictions, some governments have banned freedom of assembly and association and prevent activists from traveling to international conferences. For example, Spain’s “gag law” has severely restricted public demonstrations and protests. Other governments impose stringent licensing, reporting and accounting requirements, miring advocacy groups in bureaucracies that eat into resources — if the groups operate at all.
Forces outside the government in many countries run roughshod over human-rights defenders as well, using online platforms to blackmail, slander, harass and stalk women, according to the report. More than half of the 123 women activists it surveyed reported facing online threats. Some 72 percent of survey respondents in conflict-affected areas said they had been exposed to violence or threats of violence online or elsewhere.
“An ongoing trend we see is digital harassment,” Rowlands said. “Although women have been able to find a platform to speak freely, it’s also led to being more exposed to trolling and harassment online that can lead to offline violence.”
In societies where a woman’s honor reflects on her entire family, blackmail and slander silence and discredit women and their organizations. Women are stigmatized by even the possibility they were raped or assaulted in prison. Slander campaigns and imprisonments are then used to legitimize government crackdowns on civil society organizations.
“One of the dirtiest and strongest tools is to threaten the activist by saying they have compromising material about her,” said a human-rights defender in Azerbaijan in the report. “Calls may be tapped, apartments bugged; this is how the authorities manage to silent the activists.”
Even at the UN, the report claims, women’s and sexual reproductive rights have become more difficult to discuss openly.
Rowland noted that some women’s groups and regular global gatherings remain strong, including the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), whose annual conference take places at the UN in March. “But we also see that, increasingly, there are groups coming [to the UN] to campaign to restrict women’s rights and reproductive freedoms.” That includes actions by the US under the Trump administration.
The report calls for more diplomatic and political pressure on repressive governments. Ryan also recommends strengthening the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism to protect human-rights defenders. Currently, the review bases its reports on a government-provided “national report,” information from independent human-rights groups, UN entities and relevant nongovernmental organizations in the country.
“UPR can hold governments accountable and could be made stronger with more resources and funding,” Ryan said. “The special rapporteurs — the fact finders — are the best feature of the UPR process, but they are underfunded. If they were allowed to be the voice of human rights at the UN, that could be huge.”
Before that can occur, women human-rights defenders who cooperate with special rapporteurs need more protection. Once the rapporteurs leave a given country, human-rights defenders may be punished with travel bans, asset freezes, detention and even torture, according to the report.
“If women human-rights defenders and peace-builders could be protected, they could do their work safely and bring their work to the UN,” Ryan added, suggesting grants as a way to get them to the Human Rights Council in Geneva to present their reports.
“There are so many opportunities — through the UPR, at CSW, etc. — for women defenders and peace-builders to be heard and their wisdom amplified at the UN,” she said. “It would change everything.”