Since the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998, there has been considerable effort to recognise and protect the right of individuals, groups and communities to promote and protect their own rights and the rights of others. Over time, a multi-level, multi-actor international protection regime for the rights of human rights defenders has emerged, derived from the international human rights regime. Actors in this goal-driven regime adopt a human security approach, emphasising the importance of having a holistic, multidimensional understanding of ‘security’. In this article, we note positive developments in state commitment to the protection of defenders, as well as the debates, tensions and contestation that continue to exist. We emphasise the need for critical appraisal of the construction, function and evolution of this protection regime as well as its multi-scalar social and political effects, both intended and unintended. We highlight three specific areas where critical scholarship is needed to understand the nature of this protection regime, discussing the contributions of authors in this special issue: the definition and use of the term ‘human rights defender’; the effectiveness of protection mechanisms; and the complex relationship between repression, activism and risk. In conclusion, we identify key areas for further research related to human rights defenders, stressing the need for the development of theory and practice related to their ‘risk’, ‘security’ and ‘protection’.
- Human rights defenders