Mary Lawlor: States must recognise that human rights defenders are not the enemy

The failure of governments and corporate leaders to listen to the voices of human rights organisations has contributed to many of the biggest problems the world faces today

I look back on 2022 with a mixture of admiration for those brave human rights defenders who have refused to be silenced, and dismay at the weasel words of politicians and corporate leaders who in their pursuit of power undermine human rights and marginalise those who defend them.

I am humbled by the courage and dedication of people like this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners Ales Bialiaski, from Belarus, Russian human rights organisation Memorial, and the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties. Ales has been in pre-trial detention since 2021 in Belarus, Memorial has been declared a foreign agent and has spent most of the last year in court fighting against its forced closure, and the Centre for Civil Liberties continues its work documenting war crimes in Ukraine. All three refuse to give up.

They are not alone. All over the world, thousands of human rights defenders continue the peaceful struggle for the rights of others. Their reward is intimidation, unfair trials on spurious charges, physical and digital attacks, torture, imprisonment and killings. In its 2022 report, Front Line Defenders documented the killings of at least 358 human rights defenders around the world in 2021. The majority of these killings remain in impunity, an issue directly linked to corruption, which Transparency International indicates is a serious problem in two-thirds of the world’s countries.

If we are to find solutions to the climate emergency, and reverse the human and economic destruction caused by the current devastating crises in Myanmar, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria, we need to find ways of working together. One starting point is for states to recognise that human rights defenders are not the enemy. They have a crucial role to play in creating more just and equal societies, and the failure of governments and corporate leaders to listen to their voices has contributed to many of the problems we are facing today.


It is a sad fact that human rights defenders are under attack in almost every corner of the globe, including Europe. The recent corruption scandal in the European Parliament has brought home to us all just how vulnerable our democratic institutions are to attack.

But corruption isn’t only about envelopes of cash. Corruption destroys lives: every time someone takes a bribe, gives a job to an unqualified relative, or diverts money for a hospital or school to their own pocket, it is an attack on human rights.

In the struggle for human rights, social media can be a force for good by facilitating communication and agency for those on the margins. But all too often, it descends into a toxic sludge of innuendo and false accusations, with smears directed at human rights defenders who have the temerity to challenge the rich and powerful.

Fatma Moatemri is a female human rights defender, a journalist in Tunisia and a member of the Tunisian Association for Democratic Women. Her work is primarily focused on promoting women’s rights in her country, and on exposing corruption.

On May 12th, 2020, a video of her chatting with friends and having an alcoholic drink was posted on social media. The video was labelled “girls having sex”, and was posted during the month of Ramadan, despite the fact that it had been taken months previously. Since the video was posted online, Fatma has received several death threats and has been labelled an “infidel”. The authorities have taken no action to investigate the incident, and Fatma believes that it was an attempt to discredit her because of her investigations into high-level corruption.

In this period of wars and conflict, the issue of national security is uppermost in governments’ minds. In many cases they respond by introducing national security or anti-terrorism laws which are so vaguely worded and open to interpretation that any human rights defender who is critical of the government can be branded as an extremist or, a terrorist or a foreign agent. 24 countries have imprisoned human rights defenders for sentences of 10 years or more using fabricated charges in the guise of security.

I have just returned from Tajikistan, where human rights defenders operate in a climate of fear. Lack of independence in the judicial system, with closed, unfair trials means human rights defenders are sentenced to long prison terms as extremists or terrorists- even for something like documenting housing evictions. The country has little independent media or access to information,

Governments claim that all this repression is about national security. In reality it is about power and money. They want to maintain power so they control information: they control the message, and they control the ability of civil society and human rights defenders to do their work just in case they are a threat. Human rights defenders are, after all, agents of social change.

In other countries, such as Brazil it seems that the only law is the law of the gun. On December 13th, 2022, land rights activist Raimundo Oliveira was at home asleep when two hit men burst into the house and shot him dead. Raimundo was a member of the Movimento Sem Terra, (Landless Peasants Movement) in the Tocantins state of Brazil, which campaigns for the right of peasant communities to own even part of the land which has been seized illegally by big landowners and large companies.

When he was a small boy, Raimundo saw his father shot dead by two gunmen sent by a local land grabber. Since then he had campaigned for the rights of poor farmers to be given enough land to feed their families, and as a result was the target of repeated assassination attempts between 2000 and 2015.

At a time of increasingly polarised political discourse and escalating conflict, it is worth remembering the power of a single voice to combat injustice and the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller, who moved from being a borderline fascist to confronting the horrors of Nazism. “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out –because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Mary Lawlor is United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and Adjunct Professor, Centre for Social Innovation, Trinity Business School