Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Dec. 9, 1998, United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which has helped the public understand who human rights defenders (HRDs) are and what they do.

By mandate first established in 2000, the U.N. established a Special Rapporteur to report on the situation of HRDs, and more than 60 countries now have laws, policies, or protection mechanisms to protect HRDs.

After the EU in 2004 produced guidelines for how its missions abroad engage with HRDs, Human Rights First (which I lead) urged the United States to create its own version. It did in 2013, and reissued it in 2021. Other countries provide similar advice for their embassies and consulates, outlining ways for them to help HRDs, such as by observing their trials, inviting them to events, and providing greater protection through a visible association with the relevant embassy.

Some countries, including the United States, sometimes sanction those who target HRDs with financial penalties and visa bans. Mechanisms like these are important, but they can be slow and used selectively. Being an HRD remains enormously dangerous.

Perpetrators often feel so protected from legal accountability that they openly threaten and attack HRDs. In 2022, more than 400 defenders were killed for their human rights work. This year the number killed is likely to be higher.

The international community needs to do more to protect HRDs.

In our work with HRDs, they often recommend public exposure of those who target them as one step that can be taken for their protection. Some HRDs try to socially sanction perpetrators, publicly naming them as part of campaigns to shame and deter perpetrators. This is sometimes done in tandem with a legal approach, sometimes not.

For example, more than a dozen HRDs working for Karapatan – an alliance of HRDs in the Philippines that provides advocacy, legal advice, welfare, and other social services – have been murdered in recent years.

Last year, Karapatan and other activists filed a series of high-profile legal cases against government official Lorraine Badoy for vilifying and threatening them. As a result, Badoy received an embarrassing public reprimand by the Philippines’ Ombudsman office.

Social sanctions were a key part of the campaign, says Karapatan’s Secretary General Tinay Palabay. These efforts “look at putting the public and the court on notice about these threats.” They “raise the activists’ public profiles, and therefore provide some protection for them,” she said. “While the public threats have not necessarily stopped, they have significantly declined after the public exposures and court cases.”

Professor Richard Wilson, founding director of the University of Connecticut’s Human Rights Institute, agrees: “Going public empowers [HRDs] to name their persecutors and that gives them a sense of agency and brings them out of a position of weakness, passivity, and feeling like a victim.”

While many perpetrators of attacks on HRDs enjoy de facto legal impunity, they have been shown to be vulnerable to social consequences for their actions.

In 2020, Carrie Lam was Chief Executive of the Hong Kong government, a position created after Britain’s 1997 handover to China, and which now serves largely as a puppet for Beijing. Lam had targeted HRDs after a series of anti-government protests.

She had an honorary fellowship position at Wolfson College of Cambridge University in England. A campaign by activists led Wolfson’s governing body to report it “raised concerns with Mrs. Carrie Lam about her commitment to the protection of human rights and the freedom of expression in Hong Kong following recent events there.”

When the college warned Lam that they were about to reconsider the fellowship, Lam resigned from it, disgraced in academic and social circles that had been important to her image as a reformer. The development was widely cheered by local HRDs.

HRDs from Bahrain, Colombia, Egypt, and elsewhere have publicly exposed government officials to embarrass and socially sanction those targeting them. Undeterred by physical attacks against affiliated HRDs, Ukraine’s Kharkiv Anti-Corruption Centre includes in its vision statement the targeting of corrupt officials with “punishment – reputational, criminal, [and] material.”

It is on a reputational level that perpetrators can be most vulnerable.

President Joe Biden understands the power of ostracism, and had promised to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah” for its 2018 murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi. When Biden instead fist-bumped Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last year, it signaled his social rehabilitation and return to polite international society.

We are working with HRDs to create a more international approach of social accountability. We will share research on the social circles in which their attackers move, or that they want to join. We will be compiling lists of who has received awards from where, engaging with institutions about publicly rescinding awards, and otherwise publicly causing embarrassment to perpetrators.

This is largely new territory for human rights NGOs, and we will work closely with HRDs in assessing any additional risks produced by socially targeting their attackers.

Twenty-five years after the HRD declaration, the usual methods of protection and accountability aren’t working well enough, and we need new responses to ensure the safety of all HRDs.

IMAGE: People with raised fists at a demonstration (via Getty Images)