Human rights defenders are individuals or groups who act to promote or protect human rights. They include NGOs, lawyers, journalists, academics and politicians. They frequently risk harassment, arrest, detention or death for their activities. As well as surveillance and physical attacks by police and security forces, governments deploy tactics such as restrictions on funding, restrictive registration processes, travel bans and campaigns of defamation and slander against these individuals. In Russia, legislation categorises NGOs as “foreign agents” if they accept funding from overseas.
The UK continued to support “Lifeline: the Embattled NGO Assistance Fund” in 2012, bringing to £500,000 the funding we have made available since it was established in 2011. The fund provides emergency assistance and small grants to human rights defenders who face repression and harassment because of their work. By the end of 2012 it had provided some 130 civil society organisations with either emergency assistance or advocacy support, allowing them to respond rapidly to crackdowns on civil society, to continue their work and to draw international attention to continuing threats. In September, the UK took part in an event hosted by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in support of Lifeline at the margins of the UN General Assembly. We also joined other Freedom Online Coalition members in supporting a new fund, the Digital Defenders Partnership, which supports human rights defenders online. This fund is due to begin seeking bids in early 2013.
We continued in 2012 to take action in support of human rights defenders in international and regional forums such as the UN, the OSCE and the Council of Europe. We continue strongly to support the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders. We commend the part that Special Rapporteurs played in raising the alarm about arbitrary detentions of those defending human rights linked to the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression. We took part in a session on female human rights defenders during the June Human Rights Council, and at the September Council we supported a resolution on freedom of assembly and association.
In the OSCE, we supported an EU intervention at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in September. With EU partners, we have also raised concerns about individual human rights defenders, including about a clampdown in Kazakhstan on opposition activists; news of a court decision to release human rights defender Yevgeniy Zhovtis was welcome, however. We also expressed deep concerns about reports of continued mistreatment of political prisoners in Belarus and reiterated the EU’s call on the Belarusian authorities immediately to release and rehabilitate all political prisoners. We remain committed to working with and protecting human rights defenders by implementing the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders.
Ministers and officials have raised individual cases of persecution or harassment with host governments, and our staff overseas have observed trials and public gatherings. In Cambodia, the UK has been involved in EU support for human rights defenders, including raising the case of radio station owner Mam Sonando, sentenced to 20 years in October for criticising the government. There are 31 human rights defenders imprisoned in Cambodia. In August, then FCO Minister Jeremy Browne met the President of Fiji and underlined the importance of a strong civil society and respect for human rights.
For his first overseas visit of 2012, the Foreign Secretary chose to visit Burma, where he called for the release of remaining political prisoners. Several hundred political prisoners were released in 2012, including prominent 88 Generation and ethnic leaders, in a continuation of the trend from 2011. The Burmese government also enacted a number of laws vital to human rights defenders, including on freedom of association and assembly. Despite these changes, however, many still face intimidation and prosecution. The UK Government provides small grants to innovative Burmese NGO projects to advance women’s rights and support for political prisoners; it also provides capacity development for Burmese civil society organisations.
In April, then FCO Minister Jeremy Browne raised the cases of a number of human rights defenders in a letter to the Chinese Ambassador, including imprisoned lawyers Gao Zhisheng, Ni Yulan (whose state of health was of concern) and her husband Dong Jiqin. Visits to Afghanistan by FCO Ministers Alistair Burt in March and Senior Minister of State Baroness Warsi in October included meetings with a number of Afghan human rights interlocutors such as the Deputy Minister for Women’s Affairs, Chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and civil society figures. They discussed a wide range of issues, including challenges on women’s rights, governance, the political process and security. In December, the Foreign Secretary addressed imprisoned Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh directly in a video message. He assured her that the UK will continue to hold the Iranian government to account for her treatment.