A functional Unit for the protection of human rights defenders

On December 7, 2001, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) decided to create a Human Rights Defenders Functional Unit within the Office of the Executive Secretary to coordinate the activities of the Executive Secretariat in this field.

This initiative took into account resolution AG/RES. 1818 (XXXI-O/01), adopted by the General Assembly of the Organization of the American States (OAS) in June 2001 at its thirty-first regular session, which requests the IACHR to continue to pay due attention to the situation of human rights defenders in the Americas and to consider preparing a comprehensive study in this area, which, inter alia, describes their work, for study by the pertinent political authorities.

The Unit’s main functions are:

- to gather information regarding the situation of human rights defenders in the Americas;
- liaise with nongovernmental and governmental human rights organisations, and other persons who can provide information on the subject;
- coordinate the work of the Executive Secretariat with regard to the situation of human rights defenders in the Americas and assist the Secretariat’s specialists in their work on this matter;
- liaise with State bodies responsible for human rights policies in each member state of the OAS, and with any other agencies capable of providing information on the general or specific situation faced by human rights defenders under any jurisdiction;
- encourage the IACHR to adopt any precautionary measures or measures of any other kind that the Commission deems appropriate, in order to protect threatened human rights defenders in the hemisphere;
- prepare a thorough analysis of the precautionary measures that the IACHR extends to human rights defenders in the hemisphere, to be used both as the basis for reports and to standardise guidelines for the granting of such measures;
- liaise with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, and cooperate whenever possible.

The Human Rights Defenders Unit has various means at its disposal to carry out its work:

Press Releases

The Unit issues press releases to express concern regarding threats, killings, attempted killings, and kidnappings, and on the general situation of human rights workers in the member States of the OAS.

Precautionary measures

The Unit can ask the Commission to request precautionary measures. According to the Commission’s regulations: “In serious and urgent cases, and whenever necessary according to the information available, the Commission may, on its own initiative or at the request of a party, request that the State concerned adopt precautionary measures to prevent irreparable harm to persons”.

In many of the instances where precautionary measures are granted, the authorities must enter into contact with the beneficiaries to agree upon the kind of protection to be afforded. The Commission has granted precautionary measures in cases involving attempted killings, death threats, other kinds of threat, harassment, physical attacks, breaking and entering into offices and homes, individuals identified as military targets by paramilitary forces, and human rights workers accused of belonging to guerrilla organisations. When a member of an NGO has been killed, the Commission has sought protection for the rest of its members. The protection covers, as necessary, some or all of the members of one or several organisations and, when applicable, their families. 

Country visits

Since the Unit’s creation, much emphasis has been placed on the importance of visiting countries with the purpose of assessing the situation of local human rights defenders. This is of particular importance for gathering first-hand and complete information.

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