Child Human Rights Defenders


Implementation Guide

3.4 Protection From Harm

(Art. 19, 36, 37, 39 CRC and Art. 9, 10, 12 DHRD)

CHRDs who act for their rights and those of others often experience violence and stigmatization just because they are children and will be perceived by some to be breaking social and cultural traditions that expect them to be quiet. Children are also more vulnerable to harm due to their size, lack of power and the fact that they are still developing. The risk of harm increases for certain groups of children, such as girls, children with disabilities, children in street situation, children in armed conflicts and humanitarian situation, ethnic minorities and indigenous children. Children, including CHRDs, may become the explicit target for violence as a way of deterring others, especially their families, from acting as HRDs. These harms may increase as their activity becomes more visible or successful. Children are affected by distinct forms of harm such as the use of physical punishment or denial of food and liberty. A measure that may pose a small risk to adults (e.g. crowd control in a protest) can be more dangerous when used on children. Moreover, children’s context, in particular their school lives, provides a distinct arena for additional types of harm such as bullying by peers and punishment by teachers. Finally, parents have a distinct role to play in protecting children from harm, including violence, at home and elsewhere. 

The challenge of balancing the child’s right to be protected from harm with the child’s civil and political rights is one of the distinctive and most challenging aspects of CHRDs. However, it is important to recognize that those rights are inter-dependent. If children are to be safe, they need to be able to access information, be heard and taken seriously. Civil and political rights do not in themselves put children in danger: if they are realized fully, children should be able to exercise their civil and political rights without adverse impact on their right to protection. Empowering children is key to ensuring their protection when they act as CHRDs. It is important that any measures adopted to ensure that children are protected from harm do not operate at the expense of their enjoyment of their civil and political rights: the strengthening of protection mechanisms cannot be at the expense of providing an enabling environment for CHRD to act.

The CRC offers children enhanced rights to protection in recognition of the fact that ‘the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care.’ 1 The key provision in this respect is Article 19 of the CRC discussed below. However, a number of other Articles are of significance here including Article 3(1) (best interests principle), Article 6 (life, survival and development), Article 12(1) (right to be heard), and Articles 13 and 17 (information). The CRC has a range of special protections for certain children, including but not limited to those with disabilities, children in alternative care, children in detention and those involved in armed conflict. Children also have specific rights to be protected from all forms of exploitation, including sexual and economic exploitation, trafficking, and these rights (particularly Articles 32-36) are considered below. And finally, Article 37 reaffirms children’s longstanding human right to be protected from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment and capital punishment, while Article 39 is a right unique to children and requires States to promote the recovery of children who have been the victims of harm. 

CHRDs report receiving threats and physical and emotional abuse as a result of their human rights activities. In the DGD2018 consultation, 70% of the children reported experiencing violence or abuse when acting as CHRDs.2 This fear is further intensified by the fact that when children report a human rights violation, or turn to an adult for help, they may not be taken seriously. Local authorities, especially the police forces, rarely receive proper training to be able to deal with children with a child rights approach.3 In line with Article 9 of the Declaration, children should have opportunities for redress and effective remedies when their rights as defenders are breached (see section 4).

When you defend human rights, someone may attack you.

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3.4.1 Protection from Violence, Injury, Abuse, Neglect, Negligence, Maltreatment


CRC Article 19

(1) States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.

(2) Such protective measures should, as appropriate, include effective procedures for the establishment of social programmes to provide necessary support for the child and for those who have the care of the child, as well as for other forms of prevention and for identification, reporting, referral, investigation, treatment and follow-up of instances of child maltreatment described heretofore, and, as appropriate, for judicial involvement.


DHRD Article 12(2)

The States shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration.


DHRD Article 9(1)

In the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the promotion and protection of human rights as referred to in the present Declaration, everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to benefit from an effective remedy and to be protected in the event of the violation of those rights.


DHRD Article 9(5)

 The States shall conduct a prompt and impartial investigation or ensure that an inquiry takes place whenever there is reasonable ground to believe that a violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms has occurred in any territory under its jurisdiction.

Article 19 reframes children as rights-holders rather than victims in need of assistance; places significant emphasis on prevention as well as protection; and puts an obligation on States ‘to adopt supportive measures that will prevent the occurrence of violence and abuse by addressing the external factors that contribute to the risk of harm.’4 It is notable that it is a mandatory obligation with the phrase ‘shall take’ leaving ‘no leeway for the discretion of States.’5 Lack of resources cannot justify a State’s failure to take any or enough measures needed to protect children from harm. 6 The significance of the provision for the implementation of the Declaration is that CHRDs enjoy greater protection from a wider range of harms than adult HRDs.

The Committee has adopted a broad definition of ‘violence’ that includes all forms of physical and mental injury and abuse7 and emphasizes most strongly that the term violence ‘must not be interpreted in any way to minimize the impact of, and need to address, non-physical and/or non-intentional forms of harm (such as, inter alia, neglect and psychological maltreatment).’8 The concept of ‘holistic security’,9 used widely for HRDs, enhances understanding of the realization of Article 19 for CHRDs given its emphasis on the HRD’s subjective experience and participation. 

‘HOLISTIC SECURITY’ (Tactical Technology)

The reference to ‘differing needs of our bodies and minds’ encompasses the diverse experiences of children. 10 

‘How we define our well-being in the context of activism is subjective and deeply personal. It is influenced by the differing needs of our bodies and minds, the challenges we face, our beliefs (religious, spiritual or secular), our gender identities, interests and relationships. As activists and human rights defenders, we must define security for ourselves and build solidarity and support for one another into our groups, organizations and movements on this basis.’

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Article 19 encompasses many of the experiences HRDs confront as a result of and during the course of their activity. One of the major concerns identified by CHRDs is that of reprisals for their activity. This can come from family, peers, teachers, religious leaders, the State and members of the public. It includes physical and verbal assaults as well as online trolling, stigmatization and psychological pressure. The harm does not have to be intentional: ‘the critical consideration is whether the impact on the child, assessed objectively or subjectively is such that it falls within the scope of the terms under Article 19.11 Moreover, a child should not have to prove that the harm they are experiencing is a consequence of activity as a CHRD: the protection applies irrespective of the intentions of those causing harm.

The right extends to all children (with the phrase in the care of parents, legal guardians, etc., largely  seen as redundant) and must be implemented without discrimination (Article 2).12 On this basis, there is no argument for having less protection or fewer preventative measures for children who are, for example, older. 

It has been widely recognized that female CHRDs experience additional difficulty when they act as HRDs, as it challenges ‘accepted socio-cultural norms, traditions, perceptions and stereotypes’ about the role and status of women in society and that this can, in certain contexts, lead to hostility or lack of support from the general population, as well as from the authorities.13 These challenges impact disproportionately on girls who experience fear, threats, violence and stigmatization not just because they are children, but because they are both young and female. Secondly, the nature of violence and threats facing girls is often different from that facing other children. Girls are more likely to face sexual harassment and violence, which is often intended to silence girls and deter others from speaking up. Thirdly, many girls are advocating on issues related to gender equality, which is often perceived as controversial and may put them at extra risk. 

Other children can also experience additional or distinct harms when they act to defend their own rights. These include working children; children who identify as gender non-conforming and/or LGBTQI+; indigenous children; children from ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities; children with disabilities; children who are trafficked or exploited sexually or economically; children on the move; children in fragile contexts and situations of armed conflict; children in detention and institutions; children in street situations; children in poverty. CHRDs also report challenges for children who live in rural or remote areas.14 The right to be protected from harm applies to the actions of the States and the actions of non-State actors. Clearly the States should not cause children harm when they are, for example, involved in protests. The OHCHR’s guidance on policing reiterates the additional rights that children have and states: ‘Children shall be treated in a manner which promotes their sense of dignity and worth; which facilitates their reintegration into society; which reflects the best interests of the child; and which takes into account the needs of a person of that age.’15

Moreover, States must do everything they can to protect children from actions, such as threats and abuse by non-State actors, including reprisal by family, teachers, peers, religious leaders or members of the community or the general public, online and offline. In practice, this may require the development of a fundamental shift in attitude towards children who stand up for their rights and the rights of others and include public awareness campaigns. The Committee has said that ‘educational measures should address attitudes, traditions, customs and behavioural practices which condone and promote violence against children.’16 Moreover, providing media guidelines is also important given that some CHRDs will attract significant media attention, some of which is negative, stigmatizing and abusive. The Committee has warned that stereotypes ‘pave the way for State policies based on a punitive approach, which may include violence as a reaction to assumed or factual misdemeanours of children and young persons.’ 17

States should take all reasonable steps to ensure that online providers take measures to ensure that CHRDs are safe online. This aligns with principle 5 of the Children’s Rights and Business Principles, requiring businesses to ‘ensure that products and services are safe.’18 

While States should do all that is reasonable to protect adult HRDs who place themselves in situations that may be harmful, adults are generally free to make an autonomous choice (although the State is, in either case, under an obligation to take steps to protect them). If children wish to undertake actions that may cause them harm, there is an immediate obligation on the States to keep them safe. The default position should not be to prohibit children’s activity but to do all that is reasonable to make it safe for them to act and only to prevent the child from acting where the consequences of the harm is significant, and it is not possible to keep them safe. Attention must be given to the harms that might result from children being denied enjoyment of their civil and political rights. CHRDs should also be informed and enabled to assess risk and make decisions about their own safety: their empowerment is crucial for ensuring their protection from harm.

A further factor that appears to be distinctive about CHRDs is the abuse, in particular bullying and cyberbullying that they may encounter from their peers when they engage in HRD activity. Many children reported receiving abuse and bullying from other children in their schools. There are clear obligations on schools to prevent children from experiencing bullying in any form or for any reason, including this. The fact that children encounter this for defending human rights reinforces the requirement for comprehensive human rights education (discussed at section 3.4). Moreover, the Committee has said that ‘although children are the actors, the role of adults responsible for these children is crucial in all attempts to appropriately react and prevent such violence, ensuring that measures do not exacerbate violence by taking a punitive approach and using violence against violence.’ 19

3.4.2 Protection from Exploitation


CRC Article 36

States Parties shall protect the child against all other forms of exploitation prejudicial to any aspects of the child’s welfare.


DHRD Article 10

No one shall participate, by act or by failure to act where required, in violating human rights and fundamental freedoms and no one shall be subjected to punishment or adverse action of any kind for refusing to do so.

The CRC contains a series of ‘special protection measures’ that are intended to give children additional protections from economic exploitation (Article 32); drugs (Article 33); sexual abuse and exploitation and abuse (Article 34); abduction, sale and trafficking (Article 35) and all other forms of exploitation (Article 36). Reading these alongside Article 10 of the Declaration, reinforces the fact that no one should violate children’s human rights. Nor should anyone be punished for refusing to exploit CHRDs.

Articles 32-36 recognize that children can be more at risk of being victims of these forms of exploitation or may endure more severe consequences as a result of them or both. The human rights entitlements that they provide may be the focus of CHRDs’ activity and they may also be acting as CHRDs because they themselves have experienced a breach of these human rights. Reading these Articles alongside Articles 12, 13 and 15 reinforces the fact that children have a right to act as HRDs on these issues as matters affecting them. Crucially ‘children themselves should be actively engaged in the process of identifying practices which are exploitative and the development of measures to address such exploitation.’ 20

Article 36 may be particularly relevant to CHRDs given the fact that it is a ‘catch-all’ provision and may therefore pick up on forms of exploitation that are directly connected to their activities. Exploitation is defined broadly as follows: ‘one person or persons (usually but not necessarily an adult), takes advantage of a child by encouraging or coercing the child by whatever means to undertake an activity that provides that person and/or other persons with a benefit.’ 21 That benefit will not be commensurate with the benefit to the child (if any). 

This has implications for the work of CHRDs in a number of ways. First, they are entitled to be protected from adults, businesses, organizations and other children who wish to exploit children to promote their own messages. A common accusation levelled at CHRDs is that adults are manipulating them for their purposes. While this is often deployed to undermine CHRDs, the possibility of it happening should not be ruled out and the States should ensure that adults and others make sure that participation in CHRD activity is informed and voluntary and that CHRDs who work with civil society organizations and other children do not experience manipulation that amounts to exploitation or breaches of their rights to freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. However, the voluntariness of participation is a continuum and it has been suggested that this ‘ranges from regime instigated to voluntary activity. It may be that in many large-scale mobilization projects, though the children may not have initiated the project themselves, they may be well informed about it, feel real ownership of the issue, and even have some critical reflection about the cause.’22

  A further way in which CHRDs might be exploited is economically, especially given that some CHRDs have very significant public and/or social media profiles. CHRDs have been able to use this interest to extend their reach and are entitled to protection from economic and other exploitation by the media and businesses when they do so. 

3.4.3. Protection from Torture or other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment


CRC Article 37

States Parties shall ensure that: 

(a) No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

This part of Article 37 repeats the longstanding and absolute prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment. While the text is the same as in other treaties, including the ICCPR and the Convention Against Torture, what constitutes torture or cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment for children is not always the same as it is for adults. This Article needs a ‘child-centred’ interpretation: certain forms of violence such as domestic violence, bullying in school and sexual abuse may fall within the scope of Article 37 when experienced by children.23 Although protection from these forms of violence is covered by other CRC rights, recognizing that they fall within Article 37 increases the pressure on States to take remedial action.24

3.4.4 Recovery and Reintegration


CRC Article 39

States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim of: any form of neglect, exploitation, or abuse; torture or any other form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; or armed conflicts. Such recovery and reintegration shall take place in an environment which fosters the health, self-respect and dignity of the child.

Article 39 is a unique provision that ‘takes on the dual roles of providing immediate relief for children and mitigating the ongoing effects of the harm they suffered.’25 It means that HRDs who have experienced violations of Article 19 or Article 37 should be able to access appropriate support (counselling, rehabilitation, physiotherapy etc.) and that any supports provided should foster ‘the health, self-respect and dignity of the child.’ Children may suffer physical and mental injury and trauma as a result of their CHRD activity and this provision recognizes their entitlement to support, including health care (Article 24 CRC), to aid their recovery from that. It has also been suggested that support for ‘child victims’ should extend into adulthood if the harm was experienced as a child.26

3.4.5 Mechanisms and Programmes for Protection

Given the significant risk to CHRDs and consequences of the risk, alongside the greater level of protection afforded by the CRC, it is crucial that States monitor and promote the implementation of the rights of CHRDs and provide appropriate support to CHRDs. One of the most important ways that States can ensure that CHRDs are protected from harm is to provide children with the information and support that they need to identify and assess potential risks from any planned activity so that they can make an informed choice about whether to undertake that activity, adapt their plans or choose a different option.

CHRDs should be aware of and have access to multiple, safe, child-appropriate mechanisms to report reprisals, violence and abuse, seek redress for violations and receive support and care for physical and psychological abuse. This may require adapting processes and practices within these mechanisms to ensure that all interactions with children are conducted in a child-sensitive manner in a suitable environment that accommodates the particular needs of the child, according to his or her abilities, age, intellectual maturity and evolving capacity. States should ensure that the principles of informed consent, privacy, and confidentiality are fulfilled.  

Protection mechanisms for HRDs take many forms, including: those specific to HRDs, NHRIs, child specific institutions such as Children’s Ombudspersons (see section 4.1), programmes and services, such as child helplines, relocation programmes and other practical responses to HRDs at risk. Whatever the mechanism and whether it is local, national or international, it should have adequate funding and be accessible to children and their families; information about these mechanisms should be made available to children in a language and format they can understand; support services should be provided to help children raise complaints; there should be appropriate and effective safeguarding policies  and procedures in place; and children’s rights should be taken into account, including children’s right to be heard, to have their best interests as a primary consideration and not be separated from their parents/ guardians; etc. The latter is particularly important if CHRDs are at risk and need to be moved to a place of safety or if they are held in detention. Children’s rights should be mainstreamed within all forms of protection mechanism and programmes to support HRDs.

The mechanism responsible for providing protection should also have a preventative role in empowering CHRDs and minimising potential risks. This should include: understanding the root causes of violations in relation to the specific context in which CHRDs act and specific challenges that they face; supporting the design of policies that deal with the causes of violations of the rights of CHRDs in collaboration with children; contributing to the creation of enabling environments for CHRDs, empowering CHRDs as to how to evaluate risks and protect themselves; denouncing and  proactive investigation of the threats and violations of human rights.

Differentiated approach in protection mechanisms

Rulings of the Constitutional Court of Colombia have provided the legal basis for the application of a differentiated approach in the analysis of issues, including risk assessments, involving the rights of children and adolescents. 

Colombia’s protection program includes a ‘differential approach’ for populations particularly affected by internal displacement, as well as for four groups identified as being in a situation of particular risk. This ‘ differential approach’ came through Decree 4912 of 2011, which establishes that ‘for the Risk Assessment and for the recommendation and adoption of measures of protection, specific characteristics and vulnerabilities of age, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and the urban or rural origins of the individuals being protected must be taken into account.’ Further decisions then added the obligation to guarantee a differentiated approach to the rights of children and adolescents.27

3.4.6 Protection Rights For CHRDs: Summary of Implementation Measures


States should ensure that CHRDs have access to multiple, safe, child-appropriate mechanisms to report reprisals, violence and abuse, seek redress for violations and receive support and care for physical and psychological abuse.


States should ensure that CHRDs can access information that enables them to assess risk and that their views are sought and taken seriously in any decisions that are made about protecting them from harm.


States should ensure that if CHRDs are threatened with or have experienced violence, allegations are investigated promptly and thoroughly and the CHRD can access a prompt means of seeking redress for violations and an effective remedy.


States should ensure that police officers and those working in education, child protection, and health care and the justice system should receive training on children’s rights and the needs of CHRDs in particular.


States should ensure that schools and other educational institutions should develop and implement effective strategies, in consultation with children that address the bullying and other forms of abuse that CHRDs may encounter, online and offline, from staff and other children as a result of their activities.


States should ensure that CHRDs are protected from all forms of exploitation, including by their families, civil society and businesses and the media.


States should conduct public awareness campaigns promoting understanding of CHRD’s rights.


Civil society organizations should develop and implement child safeguarding procedures that ensure that CHRDs receive information that enables them to make informed decisions, are acting voluntary and are safe from harm.


1 Convention on the Rights of the Child, preamble (1989).
2 Child Rights Connect (2018) 2018 Day of General Discussion: The Views, Perspectives and Recommendations of Children Across the World. Retrieved 28 May 2020, from https://www. pdf. 
3 United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (2018) 2018 Day of General Discussion Background Paper: Protecting and Empowering Children as Human Rights Defenders, p. 8: ‘Lack or inadequate environment and spaces for children human rights defenders to participate and report.
4 Tobin, J. and Cashmore, J. in Tobin, J. (Ed.) (2019) The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: A Commentary, pp. 688-690.
5 Id. at p. 705.
6 United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (2011) General Comment No. 13 on The right of the child to freedom from all forms of violence, CRC/C/GC/13, para. 37. Retrieved 8 Oct 2020, from: en.pdf.
7 Id..
8 Id. at para. 4.
9 Tactical Technology Collective (2016) Holistic Security: A Strategy Manual for Human Rights Defenders. Retrieved 8 Oct 2020, from: ckeditor_assets/attachments/61/hs_complete_hires.pdf
10 Id.
11 Tobin, J. and Cashmore, J. in Tobin, J. (Ed.) (2019) The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: A Commentary, p. 695.
12 United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (2011) General Comment No. 13 on The right of the child to freedom from all forms of violence, CRC/C/GC/13, para. 33.
13 United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders (2011) Commentary to the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
14 United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (2018) 2018 Day of General Discussion Outcomes Report: Protecting and Empowering Children as Human Rights Defenders.
15 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (2004) Expanded Pocket Book on Human Rights for the Police, p. 38. Retrieved 13 Oct 2020, from: https://www.
16 United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (2011) General Comment No. on 13 The right of the child to freedom from all forms of violence, CRC/C/GC/13, para. 44.
17 Id. at para. 30.
18 UNICEF, The Global Compact and Save the Children (2012) Children’s Rights and Business Principles. Retrieved 13 Oct 2020, from: node/5717/pdf/5717.pdf.
19 United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (2011) General Comment No. 13 on The right of the child to freedom from all forms of violence, CRC/C/GC/13, para. 27.
20 Tobin, J. (Ed.) (2019) The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: A Commentary, p. 1419.
21 Tobin, J. (Ed.) (2019) The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: A Commentary, p. 1403.
22 Hart, R. A. (1992) Children’s participation: From tokenism to citizenship, p. 12. Retrieved 13 Oct 2020, from:
23 Tobin, J. and Hobbs, H. in Tobin, J. (Ed.) (2019) The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: A Commentary, p. 1445
24 Id. at p. 1445
25 Tobin, J. and Marshall, C. in Tobin, J. (Ed.) (2019) The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: A Commentary, p. 1593
26 Id. at p. 1569
27 See, e.g. Corte Constitucional de Colombia. Auto No. 251/08. October 6, 2008.

Table of Contents



Child Human Rights Defender


Convention on the Rights of the Child


Children’s Rights Impact Assessment


Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities


Human Rights Defender


International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights


National Human Rights Institution


Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights


Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on a Communications Procedure


Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe


Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children 


Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

The Committee

Committee on the Rights of the Child 

The Declaration or DHRD

The United Nations Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms

The Special Rapporteur

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders


United Nations