"Human/Cultural Rights Defenders" - within the AIS


“Human/Cultural rights defender” is a term used globally to describe people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights. Human rights defenders are identified above all by what they do and it is through a description of their actions (section A below) and of some of the contexts in which they work (section B below) that the term can best be explained. The examples given of the activities of human rights defenders are not an exhaustive list..

A. What do human rights defenders do?

To be a human rights defender, a person can act to address any human right (or rights) on behalf of individuals or groups. Human rights defenders seek the promotion and protection of civil and political rights as well as the promotion, protection and realization of economic, social and cultural rights.

Local, national, regional and international action

The majority of human rights defenders work at the local or national level, supporting respect for human rights within their own communities and countries. In such situations, their main counterparts are local authorities charged with ensuring respect for human rights within a province or the country as a whole. However, some defenders act at the regional or international level. They may, for example, monitor a regional or worldwide human rights situation and submit information to regional or international human rights mechanisms, including the other special rapporteurs of the United Nations Human Rights Council and treaty bodies.

B. Who can be a human rights defender?

There is no specific definition of who is or can be a human rights defender. The Declaration on human rights defenders (see annex I) refers to “individuals, groups and associations … contributing to … the effective elimination of all violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms of peoples and individuals” (fourth preambular paragraph).

In particular, it is important to note that human rights defenders are not only found within NGOs and intergovernmental organizations but might also, in some instances, be government officials, civil servants or members of the private sector.

Defending human rights in a non-professional context

Many people act as human rights defenders outside any professional or employment context. Clearly, it is impossible to catalogue the huge variety of contexts in which human rights defenders are active.

However, common to most defenders are:

  • a commitment to helping others,
  • a commitment to international human rights standards,
  • a belief in equality and in non-discrimination,
  • determination and,
  • in many instances, tremendous courage.


The term “human rights defender” has been used increasingly since the adoption of the Declaration on human rights defenders in 1998. Until then, terms such as human rights “activist”, “professional”, “worker” or “monitor” had been most common. The term “human rights defender” is seen as a more relevant and useful term.

An important issue of a “human rights defender” concerns the validity of the arguments being presented. It is not essential for a human rights defender to be correct in his or her arguments in order to be a genuine defender. The critical test is whether or not the person is defending a human right.

Finally, the actions taken by human rights defenders must be peaceful in order to comply with the Declaration on human rights defenders.

Defending human/cultural rights and the AIS

The United Nations and their 'Special Rapporteurs' on both racism and cultural rights, along with national and international NGO's have recognised Robert Wilkinson and Andrew Nixon of the AIS as “human/cultural rights defender's”, with regards to the arguments being presented, and the defence being made, concerning the recognition and protection of the UK travelling Showmen's way of life and culture.