A.         Importance of the work of human rights defenders


330.          The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expresses its recognition for the admirable work of thousands of human rights defenders to ensure the effective observance of the human rights of the inhabitants of all the Americas. The Commission encourages and supports human rights defenders and recognizes that they are the liaison between civil society within each country and the system for the protection of human rights internationally. Their role in society is fundamental to guaranteeing and safeguarding democracy and the rule of law. 


331.          This irreplaceable role of human rights defenders has been acknowledged by the American States through many General Assembly resolutions and by the signing and ratification of treaties that protect defenders’ rights, among them, the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the American Declaration, and the American Convention. It has also been recognized by the organs of protection of the inter-American system of human rights and several international organs, such as the United Nations and the African Commission. 


B.         Problems human rights defenders face in their work


332.          The IACHR is seriously concerned by the grave situation of insecurity and danger in which human rights defenders must pursue their work in the hemisphere.  Assassinations, forced disappearances, assaults, threats, being identified as enemies or legitimate targets, smear campaigns, legal actions aimed at intimidating them, violation of their homes, and illegal activities targeting defenders – all of these mechanisms used to impede and encumber their work – are part of their day-to-day reality.  The Commission recalls that when a human rights defender is attacked, all those persons for whom he or she works are left without protection.


333.          Additionally, the Commission has found other direct forms of hindering the work of human rights defenders. These include, among others, the lack of access to information in the hands of the state, and restrictions on the possibilities of financing human rights defenders’ organizations, which range from financial restrictions to criminal sanctions; and the restrictions and delays in legal recognition for these organizations.


334.          The Commission laments the fact that statements by state agents put human rights defenders and their organizations at risk and make them vulnerable.  Such statements contradict the commitments assumed by the countries of the Americas on ratifying the American Convention and repeated statements of support for the work of defenders in the meetings of the General Assembly of the OAS. 


335.          The Commission notes in particular its profound concern over the alarming impunity in the countries of the hemisphere. Impunity contributes to the increased number of attacks, threats, and other violations against human rights defenders. The lack of a serious investigation into the complaints that involve defenders in some cases, as well as the sluggishness of the administration of justice, together with the failure by the states to acknowledge that defenders face obstacles in performing their activities, and that, accordingly, they need special protection, are all factors giving rise to impunity for human rights violators.  Impunity fosters the vulnerability of defenders since it gives rise to the perception that it is possible to violate human rights without being punished.


C.         Especially vulnerable groups of defenders


336.          The IACHR notes that the states owe special attention to certain groups of human rights defenders who are more exposed to the infringement of their rights than others.[188] These include trade union leaders, who are especially exposed in periods leading up to labor conflicts, social leaders who carry out or organize public demonstrations, indigenous leaders who defend their rights as indigenous peoples, afro-descendent leaders,  and judicial officers, especially insofar as they are involved in cases involving human rights violations. It should also be noted that women human rights defenders, by reason of their gender, are exposed to specifically sexual threats or attacks, such as threats of rape or sexual assault.


D.         Duty of guarantee and protection


337.          The IACHR concludes that despite some already-existing mechanisms of protection, and the growing support by the states internationally for the work of human rights defenders, in recent years the danger and insecurity defenders face have worsened in many countries of the hemisphere. The Commission understands that this is due to the fact that, unfortunately, progress in international provisions has not been accompanied by adequate domestic policies. 

338.          Even in those states that have created special mechanisms to protect threatened defenders, the desired results have not been obtained. The Commission observes that the lack of results is often due to the lack of political support for such institutions, the insufficient resources allocated for their operation, and the obstacles they face stemming from their lack of legitimacy in the eyes of the police, army, or judiciary.  


339.          In addition the Commission concludes that one of the first steps for providing effective protection to human rights defenders is publicly recognizing the legitimacy of their work, and protecting them from the moment the public authority learns that they are being threatened because of their as human rights defenders. The number of assassinations of defenders in the region shows that the states should take a defender’s complaint of threats seriously, and act immediately and effectively.  In this regard, the Commission recalls that in many cases in which defenders have died, their death was preceded by threats that were properly reported to the authorities, and ignored by them.


340.          The Commission sadly observes that many defenders who enjoyed special protection, whether at the initiative of the state or granted at the request of the IACHR or the Inter-American Court, have been assassinated. This situation reveals, if not the failure of the states to carry out the measures, at least the partial or ineffective manner in which they were carried out. In order to save their lives, the Commission reiterates once again the importance of special protection for those defenders whose lives are at risk, by granting precautionary measures. 


341.          The Commission underscores its conviction that the states have the right and the duty to adopt the measures needed to combat those who generate violence that threatens their populations. Such initiatives should be taken in keeping with the rule of law and the standards established in the American Declaration and the American Convention, which are adequate frameworks for obtaining the security to which the population legitimately aspires.




342.          Based on the information and analysis undertaken by the Commission throughout this report, and in order to contribute to the protection of human rights defenders and ensure the effective development of their work,




1.                  Foster a culture of human rights in which the fundamental role played by human rights defenders in guaranteeing democracy and the rule of law is recognized publicly and unequivocally.  The commitment to this policy should be reflected at every level of the state – local, state or provincial, and national – and in every branch of government – executive, legislative, and judicial.


2.                  Publicly recognize that the exercise of the protection and promotion of human rights is a legitimate action and that, on exercising these actions, human rights defenders are not working against state institutions, but rather, to the contrary, are contributing to the strengthening of the rule of law and the expansion of all persons’ rights and guarantees.  All state authorities and officials at the local level should be aware of the principles regarding the activities of human rights defenders and their protection, as well as the guidelines applicable to the observance of those principles. 


3.                  Undertake activities for education and dissemination for all state agents, society at large, and the press, to raise awareness about the importance and validity of the work of human rights defenders and their organizations. The Commission calls on the states to promote and widely disseminate the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Commission also calls on the states to design a program of specific measures to implement the Declaration.


4.                  Instruct their authorities to ensure that, from the highest level, forums for open dialogue are generated with human rights organizations to learn of both their opinions on public policies and the problems that beset them. 


5.                  Implement, as a priority matter, a comprehensive policy of protection for human rights defenders. Adopt an effective and exhaustive strategy of prevention in order to prevent attacks against human rights defenders. This requires granting appropriate funds and political support to the institutions and programs.  This policy of prevention and protection should take into account the periods when they are most vulnerable.  The state authorities should remain vigilant especially during those periods and make public their commitment of support and protection.


6.                  Urgently adopt effective measures to protect the life and physical integrity of human rights defenders who are threatened, and to ensure that these measures are decided on in consultation with the defenders.  Ensure the security of trade union leaders, community and campesino leaders, indigenous leaders, and judicial officers in the performance of their activities. In those countries in which the attacks on these actors are more systematic and numerous, the states should earmark all the resources needed and spelled out in this recommendation to prevent harm to the life and physical integrity of these leaders. 


7.                  Guarantee in particular the security of women human rights defenders whenever they are at risk of attack through specific mechanisms because of their gender, and to undertake measures to obtain recognition of the importance of their role within the movement to defend human rights.


8.                  Allocate human, budgetary, and logistical resources to implement the adequate measures of protection sought by the Inter-American Commission or the Inter-American Court to protect the life and physical integrity of human rights defenders. Such measures should be in force for the time requested by the Commission or Court, and they should be agreed upon in consultation with the defenders to ensure they are appropriate and allow them to continue carrying out their activities. 


9.                  Illegal armed groups are among the main perpetrators of violence against human rights defenders. States must implement a serious policy to investigate, prosecute, and punish all of the actors involved, not only their armed members, but also those who promote, direct, support, or finance such groups or participate in them.


10.              The governments should not tolerate any effort on the part of state authorities to cast in doubt the legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders and their organizations. Public officials must refrain from making statements that stigmatize human rights defenders or that suggest that human rights organizations act improperly or illegally, merely because of engaging in their work to promote and protect human rights. Governments should given precise instructions to their officials in this respect and should impose disciplinary sanctions on those who do not comply with such instructions.


11.              The states should ensure that their authorities or third persons will not manipulate the punitive power of the state and its organs of justice in order to harass those who are dedicated to legitimate activities, such as human rights defenders. The Commission reiterates that the states have the duty to investigate those who violate the law within their territory, but the states also have the obligation to take the measures needed to ensure that state investigations are not used to bring unjust and unfounded criminal proceedings against persons who legitimately call for respect and protection of human rights.


12.              Adopt mechanisms to prevent the excessive use of force during public demonstrations, through planning, prevention, and investigation measures that follow, among others, the guidelines set forth in paragraph 68 herein.


13.              Refrain from engaging in any type of arbitrary or abusive meddling in the home or offices of the organizations of human rights defenders, or in their correspondence and telephone and electronic communications. Instruct the authorities affiliated with the state security agencies to respect these rights, and impose disciplinary and criminal sanctions on those who engage in such practices.


14.              Revise the premises and procedures governing intelligence-gathering activities targeting human rights defenders and their organizations to ensure due protection of their rights. To this end, the implementation of a mechanism for periodic, independent review of such archives is recommended.


15.              Allow and facilitate the access of defenders, and the general public, to public information held by the state, as well as private information about them.  The state should establish an expedited, independent, and effective mechanism for this that includes review by civilian authorities of decisions taken by the security forces to deny access to information.                           


16.              Ensure that the procedure for entering human rights organizations in the public registries will not impede their work and that it will have a declaratory and not constitutive effect. The states should guarantee that the registry of the organizations will be processed quickly and that only the documents needed to obtain the information appropriate for registering will be required. Domestic laws should clearly establish the maximum time frames for state authorities to answer requests for registration.


17.              Refrain from promoting laws and policies regarding the registration of human rights organizations that use vague, imprecise, and broad definitions of the legitimate motives for restricting their establishment and operation.


18.              Ensure that the human rights organizations whose registrations are rejected have available to them a remedy to challenge that decision before an independent court.  The states should also ensure an impartial remedy for situations in which organizations’ registration is suspended or they are dissolved.


19.              Refrain from restricting the means of financing of human rights organizations.  The states should allow and facilitate human rights organizations’ access to foreign funds in the context of international cooperation, in transparent conditions.


20.              Guarantee effective administrative and legal measures for the protection of union delegates, including mainstream and minority unions and those in formation, against discrimination and harassment associated with carrying out their functions.


21.              Undertake, as a matter of public policy, the struggle against impunity for violations of the rights of human rights defenders. The Commission calls on the states to undertake exhaustive and independent investigations into the attacks suffered by human rights defenders, and to punish their perpetrators, as a fundamental means of preventing such attacks.


22.              Strengthen their mechanisms for the administration of justice and guarantee their independence, which is necessary if they are to perform their function of investigating, prosecuting, and punishing those who carry out attacks on human rights. It is essential, for such strengthening, that the states guarantee a sufficient budget and human resources adequate for ensuring effective administration of justice.


23.              Take the necessary steps to ensure adequate and clear coordination within the institutional spheres of jurisdiction for the investigation and prosecution of crimes against human rights defenders who are discredited due to their activities. Establish specialized units of the police and public ministry with the necessary resources and training to act in a coordinated fashion and respond with due diligence in investigating attacks on human rights defenders.


24.              Ensure that the military courts not have jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute members of the military who commit crimes against human rights and fundamental freedoms. 


25.              Create and strengthen legal mechanisms for effective precautionary remedies in situations of imminent threat or risk for the defense of human rights that adhere to the characteristics set forth by the Commission in paragraphs 120 and 121 herein.


26.              Provide as necessary to promptly and effectively comply with the recommendations of the Inter-American Commission and the judgments of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.


[188] In this regard, see also UN, E/CN.4/2003/104 § 23.