Defending Defenders: Providing Support to Grantees at Risk

Originally posted on the Nonprofit Quarterly blog.

In mid-March, following the news that Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a warlord from the DRC, had been convicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC), activists lauded the long-awaited verdict, calling on the ICC and the Congolese government to implement the arrest warrants of others who are also suspected of serious war crimes committed in the DRC. These calls for justice were met with hostility by warlords and their supporters, including some from within the DRC’s armed forces. Activists who have long worked on campaigns to bring justice to their communities received messages to stop meddling—and veiled threats of violence—from powerful actors.

One warlord who has also been threatening activists is Bosco Ntaganda, a former rebel leader who has been reintegrated into the Congolese national army for political reasons even though he is wanted by the ICC for suspected war crimes. Recently the government has announced its willingness to comply with the ICC mandate and arrest Bosco.

Throughout the past decade, human rights defenders (HRDs) around the world have reported increased pressure. For example, 10 years ago in Mexico, community activists Inés Fernández and Valentina Rosendo were raped and tortured by military personnel. It took eight years for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to rule that Mexico must try such cases in civilian court. And it wasn’t until December 2011 that President Calderon and the attorney general committed their support to the court’s ruling. Last month, the Mexican government officially recognized its responsibility regarding the violence inflicted on Fernández and Rosendo by the military. A decade later, the two women continue to pursue justice.

As attacks on human rights defenders become more frequent, it becomes clear that funders supporting human rights work have a responsibility to provide resources that will allow those defenders to respond to security situations and advocate for their rights. Decades of stress on activists can cause burnout, depression, and severe illness. In some cases, organizations become fragmented due to constant stress.

International organizations and funders have a responsibility to understand the risks that human rights defenders face and provide support so organizations can build a more secure environment for their work. AJWS’s experience supporting activists through challenging times has taught us to pursue a comprehensive, collaborative approach, allowing grantees to undertake ongoing risk assessments and develop holistic security strategies that address immediate and long-term security concerns. It is essential that funders support the long-term cases associated with these threats, supporting HRDs who seek justice and hold those who violate their human rights accountable.

In our grantmaking strategy paper published last year, we outline 10 practices to consider when supporting activists threatened because of their work:

1. Provide emergency, capacity-building, and long-term security grants.

2. Build the response capacity of grantmaking staff.

3. Support HRDs in developing and implementing a security plan.

4. Identify regional “hot zones” and issues that are likely to place HRDs in danger.

5. Improve digital security and support grantees in doing the same.

6. Work with grantees to establish security networks.

7. Fund psychosocial support.

8. Support local responses.

9. Consider gender identity and sexual orientation.

10. Foster dialogue among funders about security and protection.

The persecution of HRDs is a real, identifiable problem that has been acknowledged by the international community. AJWS staff members hope to continue a dialogue and hear from other funders as we move toward our goal of offering stronger protection and support to the courageous activists defending human rights around the world.

Rosalie Nezien is a program officer and Jesse Wrenn is a senior program officer for American Jewish World Service.