Supporting human rights defenders

(State Dept./M. Gregory)

Ei Thinzar Maung remains in hiding from authorities for her work defending human rights in Burma. “They will kill me if I ever get arrested,” she told the Coalition For Women in Journalism.

Woman speaking into microphone (© Sai Aung Main/AFP/Getty Images)
Ei Thinzar Maung in 2020. She had been imprisoned in 2015 for opposing a law banning student unions. (© Sai Aung Main/AFP/Getty Images)

She is a symbol of the peaceful public resistance that emerged following the Burmese military’s 2021 coup. The post-coup regime issued a warrant for her arrest for her peaceful pro-democracy activism.

Ei Thinzar Maung is among many human rights defenders around the world who are exposed to danger for promoting universally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Some are imprisoned. Others endure discrimination, threats, harassment, enforced disappearances, torture, sexual violence and extrajudicial killings. The families and loved ones of human rights defenders also are often at risk.

Who are human rights defenders?

Human rights defenders are individuals, working alone or in groups, who peacefully advocate for the promotion and protection of universally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms. They come from any region, social class or background and work on a wide range of issues.

Human rights defenders:

  • Press for the release of political prisoners.
  • Advocate for free and fair elections, democratic reforms and rule of law.
  • Expose corruption and promote responsible land and environmental policies.
  • Combat intolerance and discrimination.
  • Work to prevent conflict and ease its cruel impacts.

Woman speaking into microphone (© Samuel Corum/Andalou Agency/Getty Images)
Malebogo Molefhe (© Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

These are a few areas in which human rights activists make important contributions to freedom, prosperity and peace.

Some defenders of human rights became active after their own rights or those of their community members have been violated.

Malebogo Molefhe, a former basketball player for Botswana’s national team, became an activist for disability rights and against gender-based violence after her boyfriend shot her eight times. Today she uses workshops and training programs to inspire women and girls to “walk out when they’re in situations of violence.”

Carmen Gheorghe defends women and minority groups facing discrimination in Romania, especially the Roma community. “I think it is very important for us to reset our position as Roma women not only within the community, but also in society.”

How does the U.S. support human rights defenders?

Protecting and supporting human rights defenders is a key priority of U.S. foreign policy.

The Department of State protects and supports human rights defenders in a variety of ways, including:

  • Documenting and reporting on the situation of human rights defenders worldwide throughout the year and in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.
  • Maintaining regular contact with human rights defenders and helping obtain international protection when they request it.
  • Working with like-minded governments, the United Nations and regional/international organizations to address threats to human rights defenders and discourage laws that restrict their activities.

To underscore and recognize the critical role that human rights defenders play in the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, the Biden administration relaunched the Human Rights Defender Award in December 2021. The 2022 cohort of awardees will be celebrated at a ceremony in February 2023.

In addition, the United States raises the profile of human rights defenders through its annual International Women of Courage Awards. Ei Thinzar Maung, Molefhe and Gheorghe all are recipients.

The department also celebrates Human Rights Day December 10, which commemorates the U.N. General Assembly’s 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That document articulated the human rights and fundamental freedoms to which every person is entitled.

President Biden described the declaration as “a foundational document that proclaims a truth too often overlooked or ignored — that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’”

Next year will be the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the declaration. The U.N. is planning a yearlong campaign to “promote and recognise” the declaration’s legacy. Throughout 2023, the State Department will spotlight human rights defenders across the globe.