European Commission continues commitment to support shelter initiatives for the protection of human rights defenders

In its recent Multi-annual Indicative Programme (2018-2020) and Multi-annual Action Programme (2018-2020) for the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), the European Commission shows its continued recognition of the critical role of civil society and human rights defenders in promoting and protecting human rights and the rule of law, as well as their indispensable contribution to democratisation and development. Firmly rooted in the EU policy priorities in the area of human rights and democracy, the Multi-annual Action Programme provides a clear vision and strategy on how to “strengthen local ownership and invigorate support to human rights defenders” without leaving anyone behind.  

Acknowledging the ever increasing needs of relocation for human rights defenders at risk, the European Commission recognises, among others, the importance of increasing assistance to shelters inside and outside Europe in order to cope with these needs. The European Commission commits to support and act in complementarity with existing shelter initiatives like the Shelter City Network, as well as donors supporting safe shelters like ours, a welcome response to the deteriorating situations for human rights defenders worldwide.

“The recognition by the EC to support existing shelter initiatives such as the Shelter City Network shows its unwavering commitment to protecting human rights defenders at risk. We welcome this support, and take this opportunity to reiterate our own commitment to providing safe shelters for human rights defenders, in strengthening their capacities while in relocation, and creating a culture of human rights understanding locally in the Shelter Cities.” – Sebastiaan van der Zwaan, Director of Justice and Peace

Support for human rights defenders at risk

The support for human rights defenders is a long established component of the European Union’s human rights policy and one of its major priorities. In 2006, the European Commission established the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) to support projects in the area of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Since its establishment, the ‘Support to human rights and human rights defenders in situations where they are most at risk’ has been one of the key objectives of the EIDHR.

Since 2014, the situation of human rights and human rights defenders has deteriorated globally. A higher number of human rights organisations and defenders find themselves in difficult and helpless situations. These challenges have been highlighted in the new EC Action Programme for EIDHR, which focus on the most at risk and vulnerable human rights defenders.

“There is more than ever a crucial need for strengthened assistance to human rights organisations and defenders in this situation.” – European Commission

Shelter and temporary relocation initiatives to be enhanced

Alongside offering assistance to HRDs most at risk and human rights organisations operating in restrictive working environments, the European Commission also states its commitment to “relocation and shelter capacities including with regard to facilitating their social reinsertion; to develop strategies to counter offline and online smear campaigns; [and] to strengthen networks amongst human rights defenders and organisations at the national and international levels.”

Under the second component (Section 4.2 of Annex 1), specific focus will be given to enhancing shelter capacities for HRDs at risk “who should be relocated away from danger and benefitting from rest and respite”. These shelters may be in and outside Europe (e.g. regional ‘safe-havens’).

“The EIDHR will act in complementarity with existing shelter initiatives (Justice and Peace, ICORN, and others) as well as donors supporting them” – European Commission

Since 2012, Justice and Peace has worked to expand the Shelter City initiative, a temporary relocation and capacity-building programme for human rights defenders at risk. If a human rights defender is threatened or under pressure because of their work, they are eligible for a three-month stay in a Shelter City in which they can catch their breath, re-energise, and temporarily escape a potentially threatening situation. During their relocation, HRDs can rest, expand their network, strengthen their capacity, access medical care and psychological well-being sessions, security training, and reach out to the local community about their human rights work. The network now consists of 11 Dutch cities, and 4 regional hubs in Georgia, Tanzania, Costa Rica, and Italy.

“The Shelter City experience was enlightening.  It broadened my vision. During Shelter City, I was treated with respect and dignity for the first time ever in my life.  I learned what real human rights are, human rights as a lifestyle.  I gained knowledge and power and am now passing it on.” – Kiruba, human rights defender and former Shelter City participant

To date, the Shelter City initiative has temporarily relocated 79 human rights defenders within the Dutch Shelter Cities. Of these 79 HRDs, 29 were relocated with EIDHR emergency support.

With the support of EIDHR, Justice and Peace hopes to be able to enhance its shelter capacities within the Shelter City initiative, and expand the Shelter City Network to be able to reach more human rights defenders at risk.