International mechanisms for protecting Human Rights Defenders at risk for their work on land rights

Human Rights Defender (HRD) is the term used to describe someone who, individually or with others, acts to promote and protect human rights.1 Although the work of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) emanates directly from international human rights instruments, the first step to formally recognise the “defence” of human rights as a right in itself was given by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1998, through the adoption of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms2 (known as the ‘Declaration on Human Rights Defenders’). This Declaration contains several norms enshrined in legally binding treaties, including the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966) and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, 1976).

HRDs are a highly heterogeneous group. According to Hina Jilani, former Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, HRDs working on land rights and natural resources are “the second most vulnerable group when it comes to danger of being killed because of their activities in the defence of human rights” (A/HRC/4/37). The relevance of this group is confirmed by the current Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, who in 2011 devoted a report to them on the basis of 106 cases of alleged violations acted upon by her mandate between 2006 and 2011 (A/HRC/19/55).

The role played by HRDs in land governance is affirmed in the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security, which affirm that ““[…] States should respect and protect the civil and political rights of defenders of human rights, including the human rights of peasants, indigenous peoples, fishers, pastoralists and rural workers, and should observe their human rights obligations when dealing with individuals and associations acting in defence of land, fisheries and forests (VGGT, 4.8).”

The International Land Coalition (ILC) frequently receives requests of solidarity from members in Africa, Asia and Latin America for or on behalf of HRDs working on land rights, especially activists. This infonote is meant to support their invaluable work with information on international protection mechanisms and organisations addressing human rights violations related to land.