Defending those who Defend: An Interview with Mary Lawlor, founder of Irish Human Rights Organisation ‘Front Line Defenders’

The promotion of human rights requires individuals who are willing to advocate change, highlight mistreatment, and challenge governments.  But what happens when it is these individuals whose rights become infringed?

Established in the year 2001, Front Line Defenders is an Irish organisation which seeks to protect human rights workers around the world.  By providing training and grants to human rights workers, as well as emergency services, the organisation is a key advocate for human rights defenders across the globe.

The organisation’s founder is Mary Lawlor, who has been involved in human rights for the past 33 years. Formerly the director of the Irish section of Amnesty International, Mary left the NGO to establish Front line Defenders in 2001.

Mary sat down with us to discuss Front line’s origins,  their activities, and to tell us about the upcoming Dublin platform.

Obviously there are many NGO’s which focus on human rights per se, but your concept is unique in that it focuses on the people who defend human rights. Tell us about Front line’s origins, was it like identifying a niche in the market?

M:  There are a few factors which explain the organisations origins.  Firstly, it is true that at the time there was no such organisation specifically focusing on human rights defenders.  1998 was a crucial year, as this was when the UN passed the declaration on human rights defenders.  1998 was also the year I attended the Human rights defenders summit in Paris, organised by Amnesty International.   The Paris summit was the first time I was in a room with human rights defenders at risk, and it resonated with me greatly.  I felt there was a personal touch to working with human rights defenders, and that there was a certain spirit about them.

Obviously there are some basic requirements when starting anything new, and I was lucky to enlist the support of Denis O’Brien.  He promised to financially support the idea, as long as I came up with a plan.  I came up with a plan, Denis gave me 3 million, and the rest is history.

Your organisation trains hundreds of human rights workers – What does the training involve?

M:  The training is in personal security and risk assessment.  We help human rights defenders analyse the the risks they take and the context in which they take them.  We then produce a security plan which they follow, so that they can manage their risks better.   Digital and information security training is an example. It is common for governments to target human rights defenders by hacking into and taking their computers.  We therefore provide training on how to protect information,  prevent computers from getting viruses, and to prevent being spied on.

We also provide training for people in various regions, and in areas such as language.

You have participated in many missions, from as far as Colombia to Kyrgyzstan.  Is there any mission which stands out to you personally?

M: There are two missions which stand out to me:  The Gaza mission and the Eastern Congo mission.  Gaza because it felt like a big open prison – there is no freedom of association or movement in that tiny strip of land.  The Eastern Congo mission stood out to me for a few reasons.  The lives of people have been really ruptured in this area, particularly women who have been systematically mistreated.  I also remember seeing a coffin of a child being moved through an area, with only children following the coffin; this was particularly moving.  I also came across a site of a massacre and burnt out village, which was full of kids with rashes on their bodies.

What are the main challenges in ensuring the protection of human rights defenders?

M: The main challenges are the oppressive governments who see human rights defenders as threats to power.  The lack of fair trials for human rights defenders is a worry, as governments continue to stigmatise these people as ‘terrorists’ and ‘criminals’.  This mindset can also trickle down to corrupt business people, for example in issues such as the right to land for indigenous people.

Let’s not forget the double standards among governments in their condemnation.  Some governments simply ‘dump on their enemies and go easy on their friends’.  Because of this, countries such as China and Saudi Arabia often escape with impunity.

So generally speaking, governments should be doing a lot more to protect human rights defenders?

M:  Yes of course governments should be doing a lot more.  Governments tend to be very big on rhetoric and very little on action.  It’s as if they don’t take their international obligations seriously, despite the UN passing the declaration on human rights defenders.  The narrative has to change because certain governments simply won’t accept any organisation which works for freedoms.  If somebody comes along and exposes corruption, they will be attacked.  Journalists who are critical of governments will also be attacked.  Governments have often done deals with rich landowners and community members who are critical of this are attacked.

In certain places anyone who stands in the way of a government will be harassed.  It is like an endless cycle.

Over 109 human rights defenders will attend the Front line Defenders Dublin Platform next week.  Tell us what will be happening at this event.

M: The Dublin platform brings human rights defenders from all over the world to network and acquire new skills.  The platform has an explicit focus on human rights defenders, but also brings together many international mechanisms.  Of particular interest are the ‘sessions’ that take place each year.  These sessions are proposed in advance, and this years sessions include the particular challenges which women face and the killings of human rights defenders.   The event will also focus on how human rights defenders deal with NGO restrictions, as many governments have introduced these recently.

Overall, it is a very special and unique event.

For more information on the upcoming Dublin Platform, visit or check the facebook event page.

If you would like to read more about the work of Front line defenders, visit their website at

Brian Cunningham
Brian Cunningham

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *