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Looking Back: The impact of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN HRD Declaration on the work of human rights defenders in Africa

2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). While the principles of the UDHR and the HRD Declaration remain relevant, it is important to reflect on their impact and potential gaps between their promises and the reality on the ground.

While the two declarations have inspired the establishment of a number of regional and international human rights instruments and mechanisms, issues persist globally that limit the full enjoyment of universal rights. In its annual report for 2022, Freedom House reported that eight in every ten people around the world live in either “partly free” or “not free” societies, where human rights violations are rampant. 

The present study seeks to situate the UDHR and the HRD Declaration within the historical quest for human rights in Africa, while evaluating the journey travelled on this course since their proclamation. It also seeks to highlight the impact of the two instruments on the work of DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project) (DefendDefenders) and AfricanDefenders (Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network) as protection-centred organisations for HRDs, and on the emergence of other national and regional coalitions of HRDs plus networks, as complimentary systems that seek to give the instruments life in Africa.

This report introduces the legal background and the historical evolution of human rights. It discusses the evolution of East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (EHAHRD-Net) and subsequently DefendDefenders as the Network’s secretariat, detailing its milestones. Further, it highlights the growth and critical role of AfricanDefenders, national coalitions of HRDs and sub regional networks in advancing the cause of human rights in Africa. Additionally, it showcases defenders’ stories illustrating the impact of these instruments on their work. Lastly, it addresses the challenges and opportunities HRDs may encounter in the evolving landscape of human rights advocacy, concluding with a discussion of the way forward and recommendations to strengthen support and protection of HRDs.