Guatemalan indigenous authority Domingo Vasquez describes his community’s struggle to defend their lands and water sources from the incursion of hydroelectric companies. Nepali human rights lawyer Badri Bhusal explains the legal processes by which civil society activism succeeded in getting the crime of torture recognised in Nepal’s penal code. From Mexico, the story of Valentina Rosendo Cantú, recounted by PBI UK Director Susi Bascon, provides a moving example of how one indigenous woman’s struggle to achieve justice for her rape and torture at the hands of soldiers eventually resulted in the sentencing of her abusers 16 years later, as well as key reforms to Mexican law.

The launch event of PBI UK’s Shoulder to Shoulder campaign showcased these stories as demonstrations of a crucial truth: that human rights are not only granted by law, but upheld by those who struggle for their protection. Human rights defenders are not criminals or troublemakers, but the architects of peaceful and democratic societies. The rule of law would be impossible without their efforts.

The event took place in Portcullis House at Westminster and featured a panel of speakers that also included Dominic Grieve MP, PBI UK patron and former British Ambassador John Dew, and Paul Edwards, spokesman for Minister of Human Rights Lord Ahmad. The panel was followed by questions from the audience on issues such as the need for a fully-funded UK government strategy for defender protection, and to harmonise trade policy with human rights concerns.

Two weeks previously, Domingo Vasquez and Badri Bhusal participated with 12 other defenders from around the world in a series of PBI workshops in Brussels reflecting on the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. While the Declaration recognised the crucial role of defenders in upholding human rights, its framework has not prevented the killing of over 3500 defenders in the 20 years since. Many more continue to suffer escalating threats, attacks and criminalisation. If we are to build protections that are fit for purpose for the next 20 years, we must listen to the voices of at-risk defenders as they reflect on the successes and failures of the current system. This is why we are launching our new Shoulder to Shoulder campaign.

Over the coming months, the campaign will share the stories of Domingo, Badri and other PBI-supported human rights defenders from around the world. Their experiences show viscerally the dangers involved in their work, in a context where human rights are suffering pushback across the globe and those who suffer most are those already marginalised. But their stories also provide inspiring examples of what non-violent civil society activism can achieve: challenging injustice and impunity, defending the marginalised, building functional legal systems. Their perspectives also provide crucial guides for the future of defender protection.

Throughout October, we focus on grassroots voices: marginalised communities who have fought back against state and corporate assaults on their lands, resources and rights.

In November, we show how civil society activism can succeed in reforming repressive and corrupt systems, building peace founded on democratic participation and the rule of law.

In December we look to the future, sharing the perspectives of at-risk defenders on the action needed from states, corporations and the international community to make the promises of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders a reality.

Every one of us can and should be a human rights defender. Together, shoulder to shoulder, we can create fairer and more peaceful societies – and defend those who pay terrible prices for doing so.

If you share PBI's vision of a world where individuals and communities are free to protect their rights and lands without fear of reprisals and violence, you can help by donating to our Shoulder to Shoulder campaign.

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