Defining ‘defenders’: Implications for protection

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Defining ‘defenders’: Implications for protection

Thank you to all the Conversation Leaders for their time and commitment to taking part in this important conversation. Please take a moment to learn about the conversation leaders by clicking on their profile photos. Thank you!

Below is a list of questions to serve as a framework for the discussion in this thread:

  • How do we define who is and who is not a ‘human rights defender’?
  • How does this affect the way that protection and support is provided for and accessed by defenders?
  • When do defenders refer to themselves in public as a ‘human rights defender’, and when do they avoid doing so? What are the implications of such self-identification?
A starting point - What is an HRD?

Although the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders itself does not use the term ‘human rights defender’, in practice, the definition is derived from Article 1, which states that:

Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.

This term has been used to refer to a broad range of individuals and collectives promoting or protecting human rights, including lawyers, journalists, activists, trade unionists, members of community-based organisations, people in social movements and staff of human rights organisations involved in different work in very different contexts.

It has also been used to refer to those less obviously characterised as rights defenders, including protesters, teachers, students, social workers, health care professionals, community workers, sexual minorities, religious minorities and peace builders, amongst others. The term ‘human rights defender’ tends to be invoked when those engaged in rights-related work are threatened or put at risk for what they do – it is a way of legitimising, bringing visibility to and reiterating their right to do this type of work.

There are clear reasons and benefits for using this term, not least that it confers on defenders recognition and status within the international human rights framework through which they can access support, protection and redress for violations. Furthermore, many funds, programmes and resources are specifically allocated for work related to human rights defenders, and those who want to access these funds use this term in their proposals and activities.

However, being called a human rights defender is not always advantageous – in some cases, the use of the term can inadvertently raise the level of risk that defenders face and be used to politicise their work.

Protection-oriented actors are concerned about ensuring that the definition corresponds to the breadth of actors put at risk for defending human rights. Matters are complicated by the fact that, in many cases, human rights defenders do not refer to themselves as ‘human rights defenders’. Furthermore, the declaration and associated protection mechanisms do not set out clear decision-making processes to help with status determination.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has tried to provide guidance on who should be referred to as a human rights defender through a factsheet called Human Rights Defenders: Protecting the Right to Defend Human Rights (Fact Sheet 29). Fact Sheet 29 suggests three ‘minimum standards’ required for a human rights defender: that the person accepts the universality of human rights; that the person’s arguments fall within the scope of human rights (regardless of whether or not the argument is technically correct); and that the person engages in ‘peaceful action’.

However, some essential questions remain, including: To what extent does a defender need to demonstrate that his/her actions are ‘non-violent’? To what extent should a defender be expected to demonstrate knowledge of and respect for the universality of human rights? What criteria and process should be adopted to determine this?

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Politicians and HRD:The Case of Aung San Suu Kyi

Defining who is or who is not a human rights defender is complex. Nelson Mandela, who many view as a human rights icon does not fit the OHCHR definition of a HRD because of his use of violence. While his case may be controversial, Mandela’s clearly violated the ‘peaceful action’ requisite. However, other situations are less black and white.

 Let’s consider the case of Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi as a human rights defender. In 1998, Suu Kyi founded the National League for Democracy (NLD). In 1991, she received the Nobel Peace Prize.  During 15 years on house arrest, San Suu Kyi and the NLD won enormous support from the international human rights community. On the international stage, the NLD’s credibility is dependent on its reputation as a tool for human rights reformation in Myanmar. However, recently this has come into question.  San Suu Kyi has been criticized for her silence on the ethnic cleansing and (disputed) genocide of the Rohingya people. In the past San Suu Kyi rejected claims of ethnic cleansing as simply an “immigration issue.” The Rohingya are not citizens of Burma, so officials claim they are not entitled to the same rights. However, does this mean they should be denied universal human rights? San Suu Kyi has largely been silent on this issue, a silence that media outlets such as Al Jazeera deem “inexcusable.”

Does this silence exclude San Suu Kyi from being a human rights defender? Because of her status as a powerful icon does her silence constitute a violation of this first clause, “acceptance of the universality of human rights”?

Furthermore, this prompts us to examine the role politics plays in guaranteeing human rights. Many view this silence as a political strategy that San Suu Kyi has used to ensure NLD victory in Burma, which she won this November. Maybe San Suu Kyi will use her victory to change the status of the Rohingya. However, there has been little evidence to suggest this will be the case.  Is her silence on human rights abuses a necessary compromise to crawl out from under an oppressive regime?

However, the truth is San Suu Kyi has always claimed not to be a human rights defender, merely a politician. For a country facing genocide, this technical distinction should not be an excuse, especially for a politician.

 For more see:

Issues in the broad definition of a defender

I think the term 'human rights defender' is defined quite broadly at the moment. This is positive in some ways, but may raise potential problems.

Firstly, different people may disagree with each other about who constitutes a 'human rights defender'. Governments who dislike the actions of some individuals may label them a 'terrorist', a 'dissident', or a 'criminal', rather than a 'human rights defender'. Indeed, as Margaret Sekaggya, the previous Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders emphasised, the stigmatisation of human rights defenders in this way is a common method of delegitimising their work and increasing their vulnerability.

What complicates matters is that some human rights defenders don't identify themselves as a 'human rights defender'. They may refer to themselves an activist, an advocate, a volunteer or a community worker. They may refer to themselves by their professional identity (e.g. a lawyer, teacher, trade unionist, artist, poet, scholar, or journalist). They may not even frame their work as 'human rights work' or use human rights terminology to explain their work.

Furthermore, human rights defenders may disagree amongst themselves about who constitutes a human rights defender. In some contexts, depending on their actions, police officers, immigration officers, and government officials, for example, can be considered 'human rights defenders' because their work promotes/ protects/ realises human rights. This can be a point of contention for human rights advocates who work in the same country, who may see these individuals as perpetrators of human rights abuse rather than protectors of rights.

Human rights defenders are expected to accept the universality of human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In practice, this is more complicated than it seems. Firstly, as the human rights regime evolves, 'new rights' emerge (Bob, 2009). As Bob explains, these 'new rights' emerge when human rights leaders (including governments) accept a grievance that has previously been ignored, devote significant resources to address it, and in some cases, develop laws to recognise it. However, not all human rights defenders know of the existence of these 'new rights', and may not necessarily agree with them.

Secondly, not all issues that are framed in terms of human rights and which draw upon human rights vocabulary are really human rights issues. It can tricky to distinguish between what constitute a human right and what doesn't.

Thirdly, we also need to recognise that human rights defenders are people raised in their own societies, and as such, often absorb and hold the cultural and religious values of their own societies. Human rights defenders may have liberal views on one issue (e.g. the right to political opinion; the right to freedom of assembly) but find it difficult to think liberally on other issues (e.g. the right to religious freedom; reproductive rights; or rights related to sexual orientation and gender identity).

It is important that human rights defenders have space and time to think through, reflect upon, and consider key issues and debates concerning human rights. This allows them to consider, adapt, and reconcile competing ideas and world views. All of us need this space; human rights defenders need this space too.

These are some of the ongoing debates around the broad definition of the term 'human rights defender'. As human rights work grows in breadth and complexity, these issues becoming more, rather than less, complicated. Nevertheless, we can clearly see that the concept of 'human rights defender' has had a distinctive protective function. By identifying a person as a 'human rights defender', members of the international community have been able to help human rights defenders build visibility and legitimacy about their work at the local level.


Is or should HRD be a restrictive technical term?

It is exactly for the issues that you highlight that I prefer to keep ‘HRD’ a board a term/definition as possible.  Especially in light of the fact that being an HRD can afford people some protections and security resources, in the end it should not be about the label but what they do.  Even if someone does not self-identify or resists the HRD label due to contextual factors, it shouldn’t mean that they are choosing to opt-out of protection measures.  The work they are doing is still in defense of human rights, it is just that the label doesn’t suit.


I worry that being too prescriptive on who is an ‘HRD’ would lead to exclusions from protection mechanisms & regimes, which could create a hierarchy of privilege and access.  


What do others think? Should Human Rights Defender be a technical/legal term? Or a general way to refer to anyone working to support and defend human rights?

Who is a human rights defender?

The range of reflections already provided are very important. I agree with Danna, I worry about a definition that would be too prescriptive. I also worry about a definition that would exclude people based on a person's entire life history.  MCarray shared an excellent example of this regarding Nelson Mandela being excluded due to his pro-violence stance in the ANC under Apartheid.

In my experience in our New Tactics in Human Rights work, so many of the people I have come in contact with around the world have not viewed themselves as a "human rights defender". Instead, each will frame their work in terms of improving the lives of women, children, minorities, victims of abuse/torture, protection of the environment, etc., etc.... Perhaps taking on an identify of "human rights defender" would feel too self-important for those who put themselves at risk in their efforts to advance human rights principles in their communities. However, in order to avail of protections offered to human rights defenders, they must claim that identity.

I came across this 2015 Report of the study of the situation of women human rights defenders in Africa: Who are women human rights defenders? The source is the Africa Commission on Human & People's Rights. Regarding a definition of women human rights defenders - the report provided two definition ideas coming from two different mechanisms. The bolded text is my emphasis.  (Please note, I provided the paragraph numbers for an easy search of the document for these paragraphs). I found it interesting that 


There is no precise definition of women human rights defenders in the international and regional legal instruments for the promotion and protection of human rights. However, in her report on the situation of women human rights defenders, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders refers to the activities of WHRDs and individuals involved in issues related to gender and sexuality, including those working on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Special Rapporteur describes human rights defenders as "a very heterogeneous group".


Based on its experiences in the field, the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Africa suggests, for her part, that WHRDs are "any women engaged, individually or in association with others, in the promotion and protection of human rights and all those working for women's rights and rights related to gender and sexuality, regardless of their sexual orientation. This includes those who work in human rights organizations and the activists of grassroots organizations".


Thus, in the absence of a doctrinal definition, or any readymade definition, these two mechanisms attempt a definition of their own in terms of the real-life experiences of women human rights defenders. These definitions will be fine-tuned in the course of time and developments in the field of human rights.

The dilemma of allowing the definition to develop over time as the field of human rights changes, continues to make it difficult for those people who need to avail of the protections outlined in national, regional and international mechanisms defined as "human rights defenders" to claim those protections.  

I look forward to hearing from others on this question of a definition that technical/legal or leaving it more general to refer to anyone working to support and defend human rights.

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Who is a WHRD? And why do words matter?


Thanks for this post and in particular for bringing up woman human rights defenders (WHRDs).  I prefer to go with the broader approach that WHRDs do not have to be women. 

While there is some discrepancy in language in various documents, the WHRD International Coalition, when referring to their ‘identity’ states:

“If you are a woman activist; or a man who defends women’s rights; or a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) human rights defender; or you represent a group committed to the advancement of women’s human rights and sexual rights, then this coalition is for you”

While this semantically becomes difficult it is extremely important at international lobby fora such as the United Nations, where states have consistently tried to use a binary definition of WHRD in order to exclude GBTI activists from UN related protection and support.

Has anyone had experience with this? Would be great to hear about it here… 

Defining a defender

Its great to read your comments, Danna, Nancy, Mariah.

I don't think that the solution is in creating a restrictive or technical term. There are definite benefits to having a broad interpretation. I think having spaces like this for discussion are valuable, because it allows us to compare situations, share thoughts, and think through issues. Mariah's highlighting of Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi as examples are interesting. I agree with Nancy that one should not be excluded for life on the basis of particular actions.

I wonder if anyone has any thoughts on how the term 'human rights defender' is perceived in different contexts? I know that in some countries, some actors have tried to create stigma around this term, and thus people who would qualify to self-identify as a defender avoid the label on purpose, in order to avoid trouble.

I would be glad to hear how this term is understood and used in your context.



Thanks Alice.  From a few of the situations that I have encountered or heard about over the years the stigma that can often come with being a ‘Human Rights Defender’ is rooted in the privilege (real or perceived) that comes with it. It can be a term that breaks communities and causes hierarchy where actions are meant or thought to be community led. This is again, one of the reasons that I support a broader definition and a focus on the actions rather than labels


There is a really interesting and informative article that touches on this issue in Volume 5, Issue 3 of the Journal of Human Rights Practice by Raghad Jaraisy and Tamar Feldman: Protesting for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory: Assessing the Challenges and Revisiting the Human Rights Defenders Framework.


This article also reflects on nuanced issues around the no violence requirement. This is something that has been long debated by human rights organization – what constitutes violence? Is rock throwing violence? Is throwing shoes violence? Does the consideration of whether these things are violent change depending on the context?

Broad approach to HRD..also in reality?

Thank you all for these interesting exchanges. On the topic of the broad or restrictive approach to the concept of HRD, I´d say that I thing almost no one "out there" explicitely defends nowadays a restrictive approach to the concept of HRD. There were some discussions aorund some of the protetion mechanisms in Latin America, for example, in which some officials intented to provide lists of categories of defenders, but they dropped it. What worries me is that actually you may find many examples of de facto established differences. For example, some HRD may have more access to support than others, depending on whether they are labelled as "trouble makers" (such as for community and environmental defenders struggling against some practices by mining companies), or whether they are socially excluded (such as LGTBI defenders). We may have to recognize that while on paper every citizen may become a defender, in reality many are actually excluded from this.

Same reasoning could be applied to those defenders who may be labelled as "violent" adition to Dana´s suggestion we also deal with this topic in our article on a critical and ethical approach for better recognizing and protecting HRD (

Looking forward to more exchanges



Understanding the defender in context -regardless of label

Just jumping over from the discussion we're having on effectiveness of protection mechanisms and seeing a lot of really thorny, interesting issues being explored here. The core tenets of the broad UN 'definition' or guidance we should probably term it, are put to the test every day by actors who engage as or with defenders around issues of security and protection. Often, trying to interpret these in real time, in the real world brings into sharp focus the issues of rights work done through peaceful means, acceptance of the universality of human rights etc. that the UN guidance requires.

What strikes me from the examples given to explore these issues and Quique's last post is that much of this navigation and negotiation is done in its context. And this is where the paper written in the special issue of the IJHR by Quique and Champa Patel (see link above in Quique's post) is so fascinating and challenging as it proposes an approach to understanding the defender not solely by their actionsm but by their actions in context, and bringing a critical and ethical lens to this.

Quique - for those who perhaps don't have time to read your article right now, can you expand on this briefly in another post, to explain what this way of looking at who is an HRD consists of and its implications for protection? You allude for example to issues of access, which I should flag we are exploring in our conversation on effectiveness.

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Defenders in context (do we have an image in mind?)

Why should we look at defenders in context? Perhaps because defenders are not "DEFENDERS"?, it is to say, they are not "fixed subjects", persons who have an established expertise and always have an eagle view of their own work and circumstances.....defenders are (outstanding) plain citizens deeply embedded in a dense network of relationships, power assymetries, contradictory pieces of information, different levels of precariousness, etc.; also defenders are  constantly mediating and navigating differing local norms and global human rights norms. Which is the defender Governments have in mind when they design a protection policy? Do they assume that by offering a 24/7 phone for emergencies, this really becomes a meaningful tool for defenders? .... many questions, few answers? What do you think out there?

HRDs - the people (and their action) behind the label

Picking up Quique’s point that defenders are not ‘fixed subjects’ but ‘plain citizens’… I’d like to share some feedback on the term ‘human rights defender’ that I have received previously from Amnesty colleagues and members and that today I have heard reported this time from businesses attending the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights. Namely, that the term ‘human rights defender’ is too abstract for people outside the human rights circle to engage with, and that if we want to build understanding and elicit their support we should unpack the term and talk more about the people, organisations, groups, communities and movements behind the label, what they do in their day to day lives and work to promote and protect human rights, and what contribution / difference this makes to their societies and communities.

On the simple level of building understanding around defenders this makes a lot of sense to me. I can also see how it could help strengthen protection for HRDs which, as is noted in the IJHR research and this conversation, is critically derived from local, national, regional and international constituencies of support and the actions they take.

That said, I also think it’s important this more accessible way of describing rights defence and those who do it is linked –where appropriate and where the promoters and defenders of rights wish it be done- to the term ‘human rights defender’ as it provides recognition and access to protection, especially by intergovernmental mechanisms.

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Do we seek a world in which all people defend human rights?

At Urgent Action Fund,, we also take a broad and inclusive approach to this question -- echoing the definitions touched on by Danna and others above. In our organizational "theory of change", we write "human rights defenders are diverse – they can be found in any nation and come from all walks of life. They may be journalists, NGO workers, social workers, civil servants, grandmothers, artists, construction workers, etc. It is not their livelihood that matters. What unites them is that they have each taken steps to advocate for and protect the human rights of others when those rights have come under threat." 

Indeed, the world we strive for is a world in which everyone is a human rights defender. That is: each and every person takes it as part of their responsibility as a human being to take steps to move their society toward a fuller realization of human rights. 

That said, not everyone who advocates for human rights comes under threat because of their efforts. The formal protection and support mechanisms that exist are designed for defenders who face threats and reprisals for their work and/or unusually difficult or repressive circumstances. Support and funding may also prioritize those defenders with the least access to these and other resources. So, we can aim for a world in which everyone sees them selves as a defender of human rights while reserving protection mechanisms for those under threat and with especially limited access to other support networks or resources. These protection mechanisms become then, the world's way of saying "if you do take up this work, we've got your back if something goes wrong."

At Urgent Action Fund, which focuses on supporting both women human rights defenders and women's human rights defenders, we also use these terms broadly and inclusively. Explicitely, we include transgender defenders in our work. Broadly, in our experience, "women human rights defenders", as defined by feminist organisations, are “women active in human rights defence.” "Women’s human rights defenders" include all those active in the defence of women's human rights, regardless of sex or gender. 



How to avoid perpetrating power structures?

The formal protection and support mechanisms that exist are designed for defenders who face threats and reprisals for their work and/or unusually difficult or repressive circumstances. Support and funding may also prioritize those defenders with the least access to these and other resources. 

I agree that this is the aim, but worry about how well it currently works in practice. I'm sure many of us have worked with defenders whose access to support and funding, not to mention protection mechanisms are limited, in many cases because they themselves are marginalised even within the human rights communities - the examples of WHRDs and LGBTI HRDs given upthread often fall into these categories. And then of course, there are defenders who have no links with support networks at all.

One issue that I've often struggled with is working with HRDs who feel that space (and by implication, funding and other forms of support) has been 'claimed' by more privileged individuals and professionalised organisations within the contexts in which they work - for example, trans and intersex activists who feel that 'LGBTI organisations' may mostly work in the interested of the L, G and B populations. I'd be interested to hear what others feel are good practices for supporting HRDs without perpetrating existing hierarchies and power structures?

Issues of recognition, access and empowerment

I share your concern Laura and just want to draw attention to the nexus here between definition and identity of HRDs, their access to protection mechanisms and the response of those protection actors, which are being explored as well as aspects of the 'effectiveness of protection mechanisms' strand to this conversation.

One positive example I've seen came in the context of work we in Amnesty UK were doing to support the struggle for justice by Valentina Rosendo Cantú and Inés Fernández Ortega, two Indigenous women who were both raped by members of the Mexican military in 2002. They pursed their cases through the Mexican system and, unable to get justice in Mexico, Valentina and Inés took their cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which found in their favour in 2010. Although they eventually secured some justice in their own cases Valentina and Inés also campaigned for the Mexican authorities to end military jurisdiction over cases of human rights violations committed by members of the armed forces. Amnesty supported them and their families in this.

The positive pracitce in this that I'd like to highlight is the vital enabling role that the Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Montaña Tlachinollan has played throughout Valentina and Inés's struggle. More than just provide legal representation and accompaniment to them as 'clients', Tlachi has accompanied them on a journey to empower them to be their own and others' advocates, to learn and grow as human rights defenders defending their rights and those of Indigenous women and Indigenous communities in Mexico. Tlachi has conducted this accompaniment with humility and respect for their agency, their gender, their culture, which I saw when they came to the UK on a brief speaking and advocacy tour we organised.



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Joining..., in memory of Jeannette Kawas & Ken Saro-Wiwa
Dear friends and colleagues,
(hello Quique, it's been a long time! and regards to Danna too...)

I'm sorry to be joining the conversation so late, but I have been a bit overwhelmed for the past week attending (with 2,000 other participants!) the 4th Annual UN Forum on Business & Human Rights here in Geneva (where I had a great meeting with James Savage, and where I'm finishing up Friday with the 2 day post-Forum consultation on Accountability and Access to Remedy):
I will come back later on Friday Nov. 20th and next week and respond further to various threads, comments and question, but for now (late Thursday night) I would like to share with you the link to my short Oxford Press Journal of Human Rights Practice article on the landmark environmental defenders case Kawas v. Honduras.
I'd like to request that we all honor and recall in these days not just the murder 20 years ago of Ken Saro-Wiwa, but also the assassination of the renowned activist who was murdered the same year 1995, Jeannette Kawas.
In this groundbreaking case we find the first-ever definition of environmental (& by extension, land rights) activists as human rights defenders, and the related holding that in order to function as effective enviro defenders, EHRDs must be allowed to exercise their human right to freedom of association.
Especially significant in the article is the Epilogue (co-written with Jonathan Kaufman of EarthRights International addressing the controversial subsequent Cabrera/Montiel v. Mexico case, including critical advice for all human rights defenders, particularly land & environmental defenders and those advocates shining a spotlight on and helping to protect these courageous activists.
Even though this Kawas case took place in the Inter-American Human Rights Court, its precedent-setting requirement that governments must protect at-risk environmental activists has global relevance, and should be utilized and cited in every possible context  (including all accountability mechanisms) by these defenders who are being attacked and criminalized around the world.
Free PDF to download:
Free Full Text online:
Note: Translators Without Borders just completed a pro bono translation of my article into Spanish, and it can be downloaded as a PDF via my personal site:

There are other articles & links on the site that may be of interest, including the still-relevant Guest Commentary I wrote for the Institute for Human Rights & Business about HRDs, enviro & land defenders, Ruggie's Guiding Principles and the OECD Guidelines for Multi-National Enterprises: 
I look forward to comments from any and all of you about the Kawas article when you have time to read it (it's actually quite short as a "Practice & Policy Note", compared to full articles in JHRP!)

Thanks much,
Lauri Tanner
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Owning the term 'human rights defender'

I have been doing human rights work now for over a decade. Before starting research on human rights defenders at risk and engaging with human rights defenders on our Protective Fellowship Scheme at the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York, UK (in 2012), I never referred to myself as a 'human rights defender'. In my mind, a 'human rights defender' was a term used for high-profile, famous activists like Irene Fernandez in Malaysia. In my mind, I was 'just' an activist.

Laura, I find your post thought provoking. I believe that those of us who support and promote the rights of human rights defenders have their best interests at heart. We truly want them to have space to fight for their own rights. One common tactic is to increase their visibility, thus increasing the political cost of action to repress them. We have awards, fellowships, ceremonies and so on to bring them international visibility. We treat them with honour and respect; we celebrate them. I think such actions are important, but I also do worry that this creates inequality amongst defenders at the local level. That is, some defenders will become 'celebrities' (and have access to most of the resources) while others stay in the shadows (unsupported). I worry that the celebrities are the ones with international connections, language skills, social skills, and who 'behave appropriately'. What then happens to other defenders?

The irony of the protection regime for human rights defenders is that we want to do two things that perhaps operates in tension with each other - the Declaration forsees that anyone and everyone who promotes and protects human rights using peaceful means is a human rights defender. However, most of our resources are devoted to a relatively small number of human rights defenders at risk, and giving them publicity and resources. This, I think, does create a difference between all human rights defenders (a large number of people) and those at risk (a small number of people).

Perhaps we should focus more attention on the former - that is, encouraging everyone who promotes and protects human rights using peaceful means to embrace the term human rights defender - to own it, love it, and feel proud of it. This might perhaps also help to counter the (sometimes manufactured) stigma against human rights defenders.

We who promote and protect human rights should all be proud of being human rights defenders. :-)