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Human rights defenders

Voices at risk: Canada’s guidelines on supporting human rights defenders

Canadians expect their government to help build respect for human rights at home and around the world. These guidelines are a how-to guide for supporting human rights defenders, as well as a clear statement of Canada’s commitment to promoting all human rights.

The Government of Canada recognizes the key role played by human rights defenders in protecting and promoting human rights and strengthening the rule of law.

Who are human rights defenders?

A Human rights defender is someone who, individually or with others, acts to promote or protect human rights.

Human rights defenders document and call attention to violations and abuses by any actor, including:

  • governments
  • businesses
  • non-state actors

Human rights defenders help to bring attention to and raise awareness of individuals’ human rights. They also highlight the obligations of others to respect and protect those rights within society, from the local level to the international level.

However, because of their work to promote human rights, the daily lives of human rights defenders are often affected by threats, intimidation, arrests, detention and harassment.

What is Canada doing to protect human rights defenders internationally?

The Government of Canada is committed to supporting the work of human rights defenders to advance human rights internationally.

Canada is concerned that governments and other actors are stifling civil society through:

  • limiting the full enjoyment of fundamental freedoms, both online and offline
  • discriminating openly against individuals from marginalized and vulnerable groups
  • increasingly harsh tactics of intimidation, unlawful and arbitrary surveillance, threats and reprisals

The impact of such violations and abuses on the individuals themselves, on their families and communities, and on respect for human rights overall, is profound.

Canadian support for human rights defenders takes many forms and responds to changing needs: advocating for open civic space and human rights; working in multilateral forums to strengthen international rules; leveraging partnerships with other countries, civil society and the private sector, including Canadian business interests abroad; funding civil society organizations and grant agencies; and giving public recognition to human rights defenders for their achievements.

Multilateral human rights institutions

Through its engagement in multilateral forums Canada firmly advocates for the protection of human rights defenders and the effective participation of civil society.

Through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), Canada makes constructive recommendations to states to:

  • improve human rights promotion and protection
  • seek areas for collaboration, including with human rights defenders
  • fulfill the commitments made previously through the UPR

Bilateral engagement

Through its network of missions abroad, Canada engages with local authorities to underscore the obligation of states to protect all individuals intheir territory and subject to their jurisdiction, including human rights defenders. Canada may also issue public statements, deliver speeches and use social media or diplomatic démarches in support of human rights defenders, alone or in partnership with other countries, when such advocacy is not expected to put the safety of human rights defenders at risk.

Monitoring and reporting

Our missions abroad liaise with human rights defenders and international and local human rights organizations. This helps us to better understand the situation of human rights defenders in countries around the world.


Canada seeks out opportunities to build the capacity of civil society organizations, through expertise and experience sharing as well as technical assistance.

Human rights award

Since 2011, the Minister of Foreign Affairs has presented an award on behalf of the Government of Canada. The Human rights award recognizes individuals or groups outside of Canada that show exceptional courage and leadership in defending human rights and freedom.

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