Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders

The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (HRDs), adopted in 1998, states that all individuals, groups and organs of society have the right and the responsibility to promote and protect universally recognised human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Support for human rights defenders (HRDs) is an integral part of the European Union's external policy on human rights. HRDs represent natural and indispensable allies in the promotion of human rights and democratisation in their respective countries, in particular given the current worrying trend of the shrinking space for civil society.

In June 2004, and then revised in 2008, the Council adopted the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders, which provide practical recommendations to streamline EU actions in this field.

Political support granted by the European Union to HRDs (notably through public statements, political dialogues with partner countries, visits to HRDs by EU diplomats) goes hand in hand with dedicated financial assistance granted via the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR).

The EIDHR provides swift assistance to HRDs at risk to meet their most urgent needs and also reinforces their capacities to do their human rights work in the medium and longer term. Delivering support to HRDs remains one of the EIDHR priorities for the period 2014 – 2020. Indeed, 20 – 25% of the total financial envelope for the implementation of the EIDHR for this period has been allocated to the Objective 1: Support to Human Rights and Human Rights Defenders in situations where they are most at risk, corresponding to €200 – 250 million.

Emergency fund for HRDs at risk (small grants)

The EIDHR makes it possible to provide small grants up to €10,000 per grant on an ad-hoc basis to Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) in need of urgent support. This mechanism has been in place since 2010 and the increasing frequency of requests has confirmed its success. Indeed, since 2010 and until January 2017, over 330 grants amounting to a total sum of over €3 million have been disbursed and more than 500 HRDs and organisations in over 50 countries have received this type of direct support. 

The assistance provided through this emergency fund may include the coverage of fees for the legal representation of defenders as well as of medical emergency expenses and rehabilitation of victims of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment; the purchase of security material for local organizations; the temporary relocation of HRDs forced to leave their place of residence or their countries for security reason; temporary support to families of imprisoned or deceased defenders. The list of activities is non-exhaustive: what matters is the gravity of the situation, its emergency and the effectiveness of the action in favour of the HRD at risk are the criteria taken into account in assessing and prioritizing the cases.

Requests by NGOs and individuals should be addressed to by using the following template (EN, FR, ES). These emergency grants are managed with the utmost confidentiality in order to ensure the safety of the defenders. The European Commission evaluates each request on case-by-case basis and cannot guarantee support for all demands.

Medium/long-term support for HRDs and their organisations

Selected through global and local calls for proposals, the European Commission supports projects designed to protect HRDs, individuals and organisations alike, providing them with tangible means to work and reinforce their capacities. Such projects offer a comprehensive geographical coverage and include for instance actions aiming at protecting defenders in Guatemala in the context of the electoral process; supporting defenders of marginalised groups in Myanmar; building capacities of grassroots environmental defenders in Asia; advocating for an enhanced legal framework for the protection of defenders in Kenya; supporting Human Rights lawyers in East Africa.

'' is a comprehensive EU human rights defenders mechanism, implemented by a consortium of twelve civil society organisations active in protecting human rights defenders. It offers multifaceted assistance to human rights defenders at risk, including:

(i) urgent support, including physical/digital protection, legal support, medical support, trial and prison monitoring, urgent advocacy, urgent relocation, support to families, urgent monitoring and reporting, permanent helpline for Human Rights Defenders (24h/7);

(ii) medium-term support including monitoring of HRDs situation, early warning, reinforcement of capacities, trainings on risk prevention and security (including digital security), international, regional and national advocacy on both individual cases and legislative framework, temporary relocation and legal support to lengthy judicial procedures; and

(iii) long-term support including support to national networks, advocacy, lobbying and development of strategies to counter restrictions and sanctions imposed on human rights defenders by states, including defamation, laws on foreign funding and criminalization of Human Rights Defenders.

Another key component of this mechanism is the temporary relocation scheme of HRDs, who are forced to flee when the security risks become unbearable in their countries of residence. This activity offers HRDs the possibility for rest and respite by letting them escape from a temporarily threatening situation in their region. An important principle is that human rights defenders continue their work, even if they are temporarily relocated. All the stakeholders involved in relocation activities, including cities and universities, are eligible for funding.

Support to civil society organisations acting in particularly difficult contexts

In order to respond to countries or situations where there is a serious lack of fundamental freedoms, a more flexible funding modality has been introduced since 2014. Under the EIDHR Human Rights Crises Facility direct awards can now exceptionally be granted to finance civil society actions in the most difficult situations, where human security is most at risk, where human rights organisations and defenders work in exceptionally difficult conditions and/or where the publication of a call for proposals would be inappropriate. These grants, where appropriate without the need for co-funding, shall not exceed EUR 1 000 000 and shall have a duration of up to 18 months, which may be extended by a further 12 months in the event of objective and unforeseen obstacles to their implementation. The annual allocation of the EIDHR Human Rights Crises Facility is currently 3,5 million euros.

A freely formulated concept note by applying NGOs can be sent to Alternatively, the standard concept note template can be used (EN, FR). These proposals are managed with confidentiality in order to ensure the safety of the end beneficiaries. The European Commission evaluates each request on case-by-case basis, taking into consideration the exceptional conditions and relevance of the action. It can by no means guarantee support for all demands.


Selected results achieved with EU support through projects and programmes completed between mid-2014 and mid-2015


 Human rights, gender and democratic governance

  • 600 environmental and human rights activists from Asia, Europe, Latin America and Africa attended workshops for defending human rights and have demonstrated improvement in awareness about methods of protection, legal mechanisms and organizational development in human rights.
  • 3 400 victims of torture have received medical, psychiatric and psychological assistance.
  • 59 ratifications and accessions to international human rights treaties and protocols have been introduced (up from 2,199 in 2013).
  • 3 000 indigenous human rights defenders (1 700 women and 1 300 men) in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Myanmar, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Philippines and Thailand have received direct financial, material and other forms of support.
  • 48 death penalty abolition working groups have been created or supported in various countries including Benin, Burkina Faso, DRC, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Central African Republic, Tunisia, Zambia, Mongolia, Indonesia, Belarus.
  • 340 human rights defenders at immediate risk have been relocated.
  • 820 cases have been taken up by African and UN Special Rapporteurs.