Woman with megaphone in hand

Even Heroes Sometimes Need a Break

Human rights are violated worldwide. Human Rights Day on December 10th is a reminder of this. Human rights defenders stand up against these violations and so repeatedly put themselves in danger. The Elisabeth-Selbert-Initiative offers them the opportunity to take a temporary break in safe places in Germany or other countries.

I came here primarily for my safety, but I also want to continue my human rights work.

Icon shows bird with megaphone
Illustration: Lea Dohle

This quotation is from a report by a human rights defender from Latin America who took a temporary break sponsored by the Elisabeth-Selbert-Initiative (ESI). The human rights work of the people ESI supports is very diverse.

Many Issues – One Value

A representative of an indigenous community in Latin America campaigns for cultural rights and against land grabbing. A journalist from North Africa goes public with her research on police violence. With his organization, a human rights lawyer monitors compliance with the rights of prisoners and defends victims of human rights violations in court. In their respective countries, others advocate that the rights of LGBTIQ + be anchored in legislation and that particularly vulnerable groups be informed about their rights.

Sticker with inscription EVERY HUMAN HAS RIGHTS
Sticker EVERY HUMAN HAS RIGHTS, © Markus Spiske via unsplash

But all human rights defenders have one thing in common: through their work, they contribute to compliance with international human rights treaties. Agreements such as the UN Convention against Torture, the UN Convention on Women's Rights and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

The Price Is High

Their commitment puts them at high risk. Death threats, often repeated for several years, are intended to deter them from continuing their human rights work. Some are arrested, kidnapped and tortured. Some come under more pressure before elections because they are seen as belonging to the opposition. Bureaucratic hurdles, for example when registering their organizations, limit their space for civic manoeuvring. The risk of arrest waxes with the criminalization of human rights work.

Rest and Reflection

Regardless of the job content and country of origin, a temporary stay in a safe place is good for the well-being of human rights defenders.

A participant from North Africa said:

My life was hectic. I wasn't afraid until I was arrested. That changed everything, I got scared. Here everything is slower, which gives me time to look inside myself and discover what's important to me.

During a protective stay, human rights defenders have the opportunity to reflect on their experiences and traumas, learn how to deal with stress and find new strength.

Some only realize then that they have been constantly under pressure and how exhausted they are. One LGBTIQ + activist from Eastern Africa: 

When I came here, I still had the feeling that I had to run away, but then I realized: No, I can stop running now.

Two plants in a pot with localisation arrow above them
Illustration: Lea Dohle

Taking a time-off is not always possible without feeling internal conflicts.

In the beginning I felt privileged because others had to keep fighting in my home country. But then a weight was lifted from my mind,

recalls a human rights defender from Latin America who has meanwhile returned to her country and continues her work.

Bird flies away happily
Illustration: Lea Dohle

The daily confrontation with the danger and tireless commitment to human rights means that human rights defenders have in their own countries little space and time to reflect on their own safety. What measures could increase my security? What contacts are helpful? How should I behave in certain situations? When they can stay in a safe place, they can reflect on these questions. Accompanied and supported by host organizations, they have the opportunity to develop a strategy for the time after the temporary stay. Because there is no question but that they will continue their human rights work.


A protective stay can give rise to new contacts and networks, and in addition to the relaxation, human rights defenders mention this as the most important experience. An indigenous community representative presented the human rights situation in his country to the UN High Commissioner for indigenous minorities in Geneva. An LGBTIQ + activist is planning a human rights project in his country in cooperation with a German non-governmental organization. The exchange with the host organization and other non-governmental organizations creates new prospects for continuing human rights work.

People hold hands with their arms crossed
A group of activists protest silently, © jacoblund

The most important thing for me was networking with other organizations. I look forward to keep on working with these networks after my return. 
(Human rights defender, Latin America)

Bird spreads its wings protectively over the world
Illustration: Lea Dohle