Finland supports the work of human rights defenders

Human rights defenders play an important role in strengthening democracy-building and in supporting sustainable development. At the same time, however, human rights defenders continue to be subjected to sanctions, which are getting even tighter. The shrinking space of civil society and restrictions on freedom of expression threaten the position of human rights defenders. At an event in April, Minister for Foreign Affairs Pekka Haavisto exchanged views with women human rights defenders (WHRDs).

Phil Lynch, Memory Bandera, Marinel Ubaldo, Hina Jilani and Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto.

Finland has supported transparent consultations with human rights defenders. For example, during the Finnish Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2019, Foreign Minister Haavisto invited civil society representatives to tell about their views in connection with the informal Gymnich meeting.

On 28 April, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs together with Amnesty International Finland and Finnish NGO Foundation for Human Rights KIOS organised a virtual panel discussion on the work of human rights defenders. In the debate, moderated by Executive Director Phil Lynch from the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), leading WHRDs from the Philippines, Uganda and Pakistan shared their experiences and views of the work done by human rights defenders. They also submitted their recommendations on support for human rights defenders to Minister Haavisto.

Human rights defenders work in difficult conditions

The panel emphasised the demanding operating environments where human rights defenders must work. Award-winning pioneer in defending human rights and the rights of women and President of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) Hina Jilani expressed her concern over the arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders and the situation of detained human rights defenders. In these situations, the international community should provide more support for local human rights defenders.

The panellists also discussed about the so-called backlash phenomenon. Active WHRDs, in particular, become increasingly often victims of harassment, intimidation and violence. Director of Programs and Administration Memory Bandera from DefendDefenders said that many challenges encountered by human rights defenders, including harassment, have taken new forms on digital platforms for example. “Human rights defenders continue to do their work despite fears because they are motivated by their desire to achieve a more equitable world,” said climate activist Marinel Ubaldo.

Even though various groups are targeting WHRDs and organisations led by women, states have not sufficiently committed to protecting women. To protect themselves, WHRDs rely on mutual organisation and coordination. Collaboration between different actors is also important. For example, human rights and climate movements can be mutually supportive in promoting more sustainable development and in defending the right to a safe living environment.

Human rights defenders need dialogue and support in international forums

The work done by human rights defenders and the challenges they encounter should become more visible, and their voice should be heard at national, regional and international levels. Their work can be supported, for example, by guaranteeing adequate resources for human rights networks to ensure the continuity of their work.  Quiet diplomacy should also be used as a means of advocacy to improve the position of human rights defenders. This means bringing up the matter for discussion consistently in bilateral contexts.

Finland includes the protection of human rights defenders among the priorities of its human rights policy. Finland is a strong supporter of human rights defenders and keeps their situation on the agendas in various forums. In protecting the work of human rights defenders, Finland prioritises the position of women and girls and indigenous peoples as well as sexual and gender minorities and people with disabilities.

Human rights defenders are a central part of Finland’s campaign for membership of the UN Human Rights Council in 2022–2024. The panellists gave recommendations to Finland on how to support human rights defenders in international contexts.