Standing up for human rights can often mean living dangerously. Human rights defenders can include trade union members calling for better working conditions; members of ethnic minorities fighting for land rights; women standing up against discrimination and violence; LGBTIQ activists campaigning for their right to sexual identity; or journalists exposing cases of corruption.
The space for civil society engagement is being continuously eroded in many countries (shrinking spaces) – and this affects the work of many organisations in a wide range of different fields. Human rights defenders often bear the brunt of this trend. They are intimidated, defamed and criminalised; they can be arbitrarily detained and, in far too many cases, even tortured and murdered.
The Elisabeth Selbert Initiative: one more component of a foreign policy with human rights at the centre
Human rights advocacy is a cornerstone of German foreign policy. This includes working to promote a free civil society and protecting human rights defenders, which is one aspect of the Action Plan for Human Rights. To implement the action plan, the Federal Foreign Office finances more than 100 human rights projects each year, most of which are launched by local NGOs. Furthermore, 15 human rights defenders have been honoured with the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law for their commitment each year since 2016. Our missions around the world also work to protect human rights defenders, for example by monitoring trials, visiting detainees and organising regular meetings, events and projects.
We are often able to provide specific assistance or protection for human rights defenders threatened in this way. In some cases, however, if someone is in acute danger, they may need to leave their country at least temporarily. The Philipp Schwartz Initiative, founded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 2015, provides an opportunity for at-risk researchers to spend time in Germany for their own protection. This was followed in 2018 by the Martin Roth Initiative for threatened artists and culture professionals, which is co-managed by ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) and the Goethe-Institut.
On 18 June 2020, Foreign Minister Maas launched the Elisabeth Selbert Initiative, which creates temporary safe residence opportunities for endangered human rights defenders in their own region or in Germany and which is likewise implemented by ifa. Beneficiaries thus have the chance to continue working effectively within their field of activity. The aim is to keep their prospects for continuing individual engagement in their home country open and improve them in the longer term, thereby strengthening the scope for civil society activity on the ground.
“Men and women shall have equal
The new initiative is named after the politician and lawyer Dr Elisabeth Selbert (1896‑1986). As one of the four “mothers of the constitution”, she campaigned in particular for the principle of equal opportunities to be enshrined in the constitution, thus making a valuable contribution to the protection of human rights in Germany. Speaking later about her activism, she declared: “I never thought that in 1948/1949 equal opportunities would still need to be discussed and considerable resistance be overcome!”
Naming the initiative in her honour is also a reminder that women and women’s rights organisations are among the most at-risk groups and face significant danger when they campaign for human rights. In many countries, sexualised and gender-based violence or even systematic femicides threaten women who want to exercise their right to freedom of expression and political participation.