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Grassroots Through the Years: Human Rights

#Blog#Human Rights Defense
August 2023

“Peoples’ right to self-determination is a fundamental principle of international law. We have the right to make decisions that are not imposed on us by the U.S., France, and other powers.” — Antonal Mortime, former director of Plateforme des Organisations Haïtiennes de Défense des Droits Humains/Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations (POHDH)

While human rights defense encompasses a wide array of strategies and issues, Grassroots International’s niche in this area is to support social movements in their efforts to defend, define, and realize human rights in the face of ongoing attacks against themselves and their communities. This work comes at great risk. That’s why movements are simultaneously taking their demands into the courts, onto the streets, and all the way to the halls of global governance institutions in pursuit of justice – making international solidarity critical.

Looking back over our history, many of our now long-term programs and partnerships arose out of instances of heightened human rights violations — from the 1982 Israeli attack on Lebanon out of which we were born, to the 1991 military coup in Haiti sparking our Haiti program, to the NAFTA and CAFTA free trade agreements catalyzing our Mesoamerica program, to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria motivating our Puerto Rico program. In each of these scenarios and countless others, communities already living a precarious existence have become all the more vulnerable to violations of their basic human rights. Such violations have been further exacerbated in the face of a global wave of authoritarian regimes fueled by extractivism at all costs.

Grassroots International has long prioritized support for human rights defense carried out by our partners and allies. This work includes supporting movements to document human rights violations, strengthen collective security, campaign against impunity, and expand legal service capacity and litigate. Our human rights accompaniment also includes amplifying alerts coming from our partners to generate international solidarity, in some cases serving as the tipping point needed for their demands to be met.


A critical component of this work is defending the defenders. Across the globe, those defending human rights are at heightened risk of harassment, imprisonment, kidnapping, and assassination. An example with far-reaching ripple effects was the 2016 assassination of beloved Lenca human rights and environmental defender Berta Caceres, co-founder and coordinator of our Honduran partner COPINH. Movements across Honduras and beyond have been demanding justice ever since, with several important wins in recent years. The struggle continues.

Tragically, Berta is one of thousands who have met similar fates at the hands of state and corporate forces – a stark reminder of the very real dangers inherent in human rights defense, and why supporting this work on multiple fronts is so essential. To fill current gaps in global coordination on human rights defense, several of our global movement partners and allies have joined together to form a coordinated network for movement-led human rights defense — an effort which Grassroots International is honored to participate in and support.

Our partners are also working on human rights defense through direct engagement in global governance spaces. One example is the tireless work by Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) to bring crimes against the Palestinian people carried out by the Israeli government to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Another is the reform of the United Nations Committee on World Food Security (CFS) following the 2008 food crisis, catalyzed in large part by social movements. Social movements are now engaging directly in CFS proceedings to a an unprecedented degree. In the process, they are shifting global debates around food and agriculture; putting food sovereignty on the policy agenda; achieving the passage of innovative legal instruments; and pioneering new forms of grassroots participation in policymaking — even in the face of pushback by powerful interests.


Additionally, our partners are challenging the limitations of existing human rights frameworks — particularly around collective rights to land, water, seeds, and territory — by developing their own. A powerful example is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP). Adopted in 2018 after years of mobilization by movements of peasants and rural workers from across the globe, UNDROP is a key instrument in global and national policymaking in support of food sovereignty, and a reference point in agrarian struggles worldwide. La Via Campesina and allies are now calling for a UN special procedure on UNDROP to allow for its effective implementation at the international level.

Similar to UNDROP, another multi-year process combining grassroots mobilizing and engagement in intergovernmental processes is a global campaign calling for a United Nations binding treaty to regulate transnational corporations that are currently violating the human rights of communities across the globe with impunity. Grassroots International stands firmly with those driving this process – and with all of our partners in their struggles for basic human rights, with justice and dignity.

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