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Access to Justice

Four ways Trócaire supports human rights defenders around the world

November 25 marks the start of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence

The Maya Q'eqchi women of Sepur Zarco, who experienced sexual violence and sexual slavery at the hands of the military. Photo: Mark Stedman The Maya Q'eqchi women of Sepur Zarco, who experienced sexual violence and sexual slavery at the hands of the military. Photo: Mark Stedman

Since its foundation in 1973, Trócaire has supported communities to demand respect and accountability for human rights and to seek justice, redress and guarantees of non-repetition.

Globally, Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) suffer reprisal and retaliation, such as physical attacks, murder, forced disappearance, arbitrary arrests and criminalisation. Women HRDs face differentiated risks and threats, such as sexual and gender-based violence.

In 2021, 358 HRDs were killed in 35 countries, 59 percent of them worked on defending land, environmental and indigenous peoples’ rights, 26 percent of them were indigenous people and 18 percent identified as women (including trans-women).

Trócaire has committed to scaling up the support provided to HRDs, especially women HRDs in remote areas, by using a “holistic support approach”. Trócaire believes that supporting HRDs at risk is more effective when a combination of complementary support measures (logistical, economic, legal, psychosocial, medical and political) is available. The holistic approach implies that the strategies adopted put the HRD’s needs at the center, looking at his/her physical and emotional wellbeing, as well as considering gender and cultural elements to ensure the support provided is appropriate.

Read below how Trócaire uses a holistic approach to help Human Rights Defenders in four countries:



In Zimbabwe, Trócaire supports HRDs with legal support to help them to hold perpetrators of human rights violations (HRVs) accountable, including state bodies and the police. Trócaire also provides psychosocial support (PSS) to help HRDs with their recovery and a rapid response fund to allow HRDs to access urgent needs such as healthcare or a temporary place to stay for safety reasons.

Occupied Territories of Palestine and Israel

In the Occupied Territories of Palestine and Israel, Trócaire works with partners who provide legal support to Palestinian communities who are trying to protect their land rights. Partners work with communities to document HRVs and to advocate internationally to hold Israel accountable.

Trócaire also documents how Israel takes away land from Palestinians and uses this evidence in Israeli courts to defend Palestinians’ rights. Trócaire also works to document evidence of companies operating on illegal Israeli settlements, feeding this information into the UN database on illegal settlements. This evidence has also been submitted to the International Criminal Court, and is used to advocate in Ireland, EU and UN.


In Guatemala, Trócaire works with partners providing PSS to HRDs, especially indigenous women in transitional justice cases and resource rights defenders. The services available include a healing component that is respectful of indigenous communities. Natural medicine, traditional ceremonies and massages are powerful inheritance of the ancestral knowledge on how to deal and recover from trauma. These traditional techniques, delivered in their own indigenous language and in women only spaces, are combined with PSS individual sessions. Acknowledging that the physical and emotional impacts of the violence/trauma suffered have a collective dimension that also need to be addressed, the PSS/healing approach works both on the individual and the community level.

The PSS/healing approach puts women HRDs at the center of an empowerment journey that provides direct support to address and overcome trauma while empowering them as rights holders with a political role. Thanks to the PSS/healing processes implemented with women survivors of violence during the internal armed conflict, they were able to be on the witness stand to hold perpetrators to account in several strategic litigation cases, such as the Genocide Case and the Sepur Zarco Case, where during the 36-year-long Guatemalan civil war (1960 – 1996), indigenous women were systematically raped and enslaved by the military in a small community near the Sepur Zarco outpost in Polochic Valley.


In Honduras, Trócaire is providing support to a group of eight resource rights defenders, criminalised for defending their rivers from an extractive company in Honduras. The case, known as the Guapinol 8 case, highlighted the trend of persecuting community members legitimately defending their land and water, as well as highlighting corruption and linkages between the private sector and State agents.

In the Guapinol 8 case, Trócaire contributed to legal, political and PSS. Local partner NGOs, Trócaire and other allied INGOs promoted alerts and communication campaigns, as well as national and international advocacy.

Trócaire and local partners also contributed via their pre-existing alliance with the UN system, especially the UNHCHR. The strengthening of community-based organisations and their mobilisation in support of the eight criminalised defenders, along with the PSS/selfcare and security training provided to the families of the eight imprisoned defenders were key to sustain efforts for over the two years of the case.

Globally, the number of HRDs under attack has increased in recent years. Trócaire’s efforts in the past have focused especially on legal strategies aiming to counter criminalisation, particularly for HRDs being held in pre-trial detention. With time, Trócaire has learned that support needs to be holistic to be effective, and combining complementary strategies such as logistical, economic, legal, psychosocial, medical and political support would have a broader impact on the life and wellbeing of the supported HRDs as well as on his/her wider environment (their families and communities).

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