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The Criminalisation of Human Rights Defenders

12 March 2013

Written by Maab

Last week WILPF attended the side discussion organised by the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights (CIHR) on the criminalisation of human rights defenders and the role of some states in preventing the activity of human rights defenders. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Mrs. Margaret Sekaggya shared her report on recent visits confirming that “governments use the legal system to inHRC on Human Rights Defenderstimidate and harass human rights defenders in carrying out their work”.

The attack of women human rights defenders in Egypt, Bahrain and Libya, the recent cases of non-existent abortion rights for women in the state of Mississippi, the post-coup abuses against human rights defenders in Honduras, and the criminalising of ‘homosexual propaganda’ in Russia and Ukraine all have one thing in common:  judiciary systems abuse and manipulate the law to further restrict human rights defenders’ activism.

In response to these violations and following up on the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA), Norway is taking the lead in on-going negotiations for a resolution reforming the laws that restrict the work of human rights defenders; it is to be adopted by 21st March 2013. The resolution encourages all states to protect and respect the work of human rights defenders. According to the Special Rapporteur Margaret Sekaggya, “if these rights are criminalised, democracy will no longer exist”.


There is no doubt that the situation of women human rights defenders has deteriorated as a result of the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa region. Although the uprisings have formed a social ‘space’ for female human rights defenders, they are constantly harassed and attacked for their activism.

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights (CIHR) reported that the constant attack of women human rights defenders in Egypt further marginalizes women on the wider national scene. Also Ms. Mariam al-Hadari, human rights activist from Libya, reported that women defenders taken by militia groups are constantly harassed and tortured.

According to Bahraini activist Ms. Maryam al-Khawaja, the proposition of the King of Bahrain in the initiation of an ‘Arab Human Rights Court’ is an optimistic resolution to improve the human rights situation in MENA but there is doubt of its legitimacy in it being a new form of enforcement further criminalising human rights defenders in the region.

The discussion had a promising yet worrying outcome in tackling the criminalisation of the human rights defenders question around the world.  One of the resolutions from the panels was that “we must de-stigmatise defenders in the society as that can lead to selective reinforcement of laws and creates a disabling environment for activists”. In addition, Mrs. Margaret Sekaggya also acknowledged that “we need to strengthen national human rights institutions that act as human rights defenders”.

Now, how these need to be particularised on each country case and implemented is still a question at hand and depends on the resolution of reforming laws that restrict the work of human rights defenders.

WILPF joins the international community as it awaits the adoption of this substantial resolution to be adopted on 21 March; whether that will improve the situation of human rights defenders will depend on implementation on a national level and on the advocacy from civil society.


We will keep you updated on this matter!

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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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