From Varanasi to the UN: The Journey of the International Human Rights Defenders Day

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The recent declaration of the UN, Dec 9 as the International Human Rights Defenders Day has its genesis in a Human Rights Convention, at Varanasi, four years back. Lenin records the advocacy, intensive campaigning and the journey from Varanasi to the UN that he and some Human Rights activists spearheaded to realise their dreams. It’s a milestone in the Human Rights Movement of the world.

The UN Special Rapporteur Michel Forst observed December 9, this year, as the International Human
Rights Defenders Day (1). I recall the four-year long campaigning that the Human Rights Defenders began in 2011. It has fructified now.

I recall my talks with Anil Kumar Parashar, joint registrar and Focal Point of Human Rights Defenders at the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). He received the prestigious Justice V R Krishna Iyer Centenary Award, Justice Rang Nath Misra Award and Jan Mitra Award. He was in Varanasi on March 16, 2011, to participate in a convention on Human Rights defenders. The Peoples’ Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, PVCHRs’, advisor Dr. Mohan Lal Panda and I received him at airport. We drove directly to the convention held at Paradkar Bhawan, Maidagin.

Parashar mooted the idea of celebrating December 9 as Human Rights Defenders, which was supported by Dr. Mohan Lal Panda and me. I tabled this idea in the convention. It was passed by the convention of 260 Human Rights defenders from 45 Human Rights organisations, across the country organised by Peoples’ Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), and DIGNITY (Danish Institute against Torture) with the support of the European Union.Human Rights Defenders Day

PVCHR advocated this idea to the NHRC and different policy makers in world, including the UN. It was for the first time, on December 9, 2011, that NHRC declared that day as the Human Rights Defenders Day. This was reported in the media then.

Ahead of the International Human Rights Defenders Day, on December 9 this year, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights defenders Michel Forst called for better support and protection of defenders by the States, funders and the general public.

Here is a text of his speech:

“They are ‘Gandhis’ and ‘Mandelas’. They are ‘Rosa Parks’ and ‘Malalas’. They are also ordinary individuals, lawyers, women activists, community leaders, journalists, unionists and environmentalists who strive to re-claim our rights and promote our freedoms.

“They are called Human Rights defenders, countless individuals and groups advocating for Human Rights, educating and raising awareness of situations around the world, andMichel Forst holding governments to account for their actions.

“For that reason, international law clearly recognises the crucial role of rights defenders to effectively eliminate Human Rights violations. The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders calls on States to support them and protect them from harm.

“In commemoration of the International Human Rights Defenders Day on 9 December, I call on States to support and protect Human Rights defenders at the international, regional and national levels through building defenders-friendly alliances and adopting concrete measures to protect rights activists.

“I urge Parliamentarians to be vigilant against laws that restrict civil society space, criminalise Human Rights activities and stifle funding for defenders.”

Meanwhile, the NHRC Acting Chairperson Justice Cyriac Joseph’s message on the eve of Human Rights Defenders Day, this year, is:

Justice Cyriac Joseph, acting Chairperson of NHRC

Justice Cyriac Joseph, acting Chairperson of NHRC

“By Resolution A/RES/53/144 dated 9th December, 1998, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, popularly known as “the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders”. Significantly, the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was adopted on the occasion of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. `Human Rights Defender’ is a term used to describe people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect Human Rights. The date on which the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was adopted i.e. “9th December” is traditionally observed as “the International Human Rights Defenders Day”. The object of observing `9th December’ as the Human Rights Defenders Day is to highlight and recognise the important role being played by Human Rights Defenders all over the world in the protection and promotion of Human Rights. The National Human Rights Commission considers the Human Rights Defenders as supporters, collaborators and partners in its endeavour to promote and protect Human Rights. In this connection, it may be mentioned that protection of Human Rights is a Constitutional value and a Constitutional goal in India. As per the Constitution of India, the State has an obligation to protect Human Rights and the citizen also has a duty to promote and protect Human Rights. Thus, in India protection of Human Rights is not merely an obligation of the State, but it is a duty of the citizen as well.

“It is a matter of deep concern that in many countries, persons and organsations engaged in promoting and defending Human Rights and fundamental freedoms frequently face threats and harassment and suffer insecurity as a result of those activities, including through the curtailment of freedom of association or expression or the right to peaceful assembly or the abuse of civil or criminal proceedings. It is also to be observed that women defenders are at the risk of and suffer from violations and abuses, including systematic violations and abuses of their fundamental rights to life, liberty and security of person, to psychological and physical integrity, to privacy and respect for private and family life and to freedom of opinion and expression, association and peaceful assembly. They also experience gender based violence, rape and other forms of sexual violence, harassment and verbal abuse and attacks on reputation, online and offline, by State actors including law enforcement personnel and security forces, and non-State actors such as those related to family and community, in both public and private spheres. The General Assembly of the United Nations had to pass a Resolution on 18th December, 2013 for “Promotion of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: protecting women defenders.

“Hence, on the occasion of observing Human Rights Defenders Day, I, on behalf of the National Human Rights Commission, salute all the Human Rights Defenders including the women defenders in India and express solidarity with them in their endeavour to protect and promote . I appeal to the Central Government and State Governments to take effective steps for protecting the recognised rights of the defenders. I also appeal to the citizens of India to realize that they have a Constitutional duty to protect and that protection of is impossible without protecting the defenders.

“I wish to share with the esteemed defenders the following verses from the Bible:

Fortunate are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied;

Fortunate are those who work for peace, they shall be called children of God;

Fortunate are those who are persecuted for the cause of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

                                                                        (Gospel according to Saint Mathew, Chapter V)

“The Human Rights Defenders are persons who hunger and thirst for justice and who work for peace. Even if they are persecuted for the cause of justice, let us hope that the kingdom of heaven will be theirs.”


Lenin Raghuvanshi is a Dalit rights activist from India. He is one of the founding members of People’s Vigilance Committee on Human
Rights (PVCHR), which works for the upliftment of the marginalised sections of the society. His work has been recognized with awards like Gwangju Human Rights Award (2007), the ACHA Star Peace award (2008) and the International Human Rights Prize of the city of Weimar (2010). Police brutality and state terrorism enrages Lenin. He works for the upliftment Dalits, particularly the Mushahars.