These Are Scary Times for Human Rights Defenders—As This Funder Well Knows

We’re just over halfway through 2016 and it’s already been a bloody year for human rights defenders. From January to April, at least 24 human rights defenders were murdered in Brazil alone. This makes the country the most dangerous in the world for the brave men and women working on the front lines of the global human rights fight. Last year, over 150 human rights defenders were either murdered or died in custody. More than half of those murders took place in Latin America and Columbia.

The dangers faced by human rights defenders came closer to the forefront of the global rights dialogue when Berta Cáceres, who tirelessly fought for the rights the Lenca indigenous people in Honduras, was murdered earlier this year. Just one month after that March, 2016 killing, eight U.N. experts echoed their appeal to Honduran government officials for justice and increased protection of people defending the country’s environmental and human rights as well as increased transparency regarding the details of Cáceres’ murder and those that will surely come after her.

It’s not just Latin America and Columbia where human rights defenders are being murdered with impunity. This is happening in more than 25 countries across the world like the Philippines and Pakistan. You can also add Turkey to the list of countries where the heat has been growing.

As the number of murders of rights defenders continues to grow and with many of the world’s conflicts—armed or not—appear to be showing no signs of slowing, multilateral and bilateral groups are paying increased attention here. And there are, without a doubt, a large and seemingly growing number of NGOs working in the human rights arena. But there are comparatively few that are specifically focused on protecting human rights defenders.

We wrote last year about how the Open Society Foundations is a key player in this space, with offices in 37 countries and a keen focus right now on pushing back against growing authoritarianism. 

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Another major outfit that has been entrenched in this space for a while now is the U.K.-based Sigrid Rausing Trust (SRT).

SRTs Human Rights Defenders program supports organizations around the world that are providing security and increased media training to rights activists who are at risk of harassment, detention, torture and death.

Here’s a quick look at some of the organizations receiving support from the program:

Agir Ensemble pour les Droits de l’Homme or Act Together for Human Rights was awarded a one-year, £50,000 grant for its work strengthening capacity for local human rights groups. Funds were also earmarked for Act Together’s small emergency grant program for human rights defenders. While this group works around the world, it’s primarily focused on sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House has received a total of £300,000 in grant funding from SRT for its work assisting human rights activists in Belarus. The organization is also a member of the Human Rights House Network which provides safe spaces for rights defenders from different sectors to meet.

Council For At Risk Academics has received a total of £1,220,000 in grant in support of its activities related to helping university academic staff who have been forced from their own countries under the threat of harassment, detention, discrimination and torture.

Front Line, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, has been an SRT grantee for over a decade. A total of £2,940,000 in grant funds have been distributed to the organization which “provides round-the-clock protection for human rights defenders at risk.”

We are all aware that human rights work is inherently political but SRT, like many organizations working in the rights field, does not toe any political lines and remains completely non-partisan in this regard.

Here’s the deal with SRT—it’s not a big fan of bureaucracy. Which is a major plus for grantees on two fronts. First, SRT isn’t one to push its own rights agenda on its grantees. Rather, it “believe[s] that donors can best encourage innovation and imagination if they allow grantees to develop their own ideas.” This outlook is demonstrated in the trust’s penchant for giving grants for general operating support rather than the project specific variety—plus number two.

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SRT of course does not hand out large checks without keeping tabs on its grantees. It does this mainly for evaluation purposes because this funder likes to develop long-term relationships with its grantees. New grantees are awarded a one-year grant, after a review by the trust at the end of that initial period, and if all goes well, new grantees are eligible for apply for a three-year grant. Should things continue to go well, they are eligible to apply for two more terms of three-year grants.

SRT isn’t the only funder that's zeroed in on protecting human rights defenders, but it’s definitely one of the most active. What’s more, is that this is an outfit that has an eye on small to mid-sized rights groups or those that are largely overlooked by other by like-minded funders. 

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