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Fighting for Tomorrow: Celebrating the Achievements of Youth Human Rights Defenders in Asia

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by Hye-Joon Lee and Valerio Loi

On International Youth Day, let us not forget to celebrate the role of young human rights defenders in contributing to meaningful social change.

Oftentimes tagged as anti-development, troublemakers, or even terrorists, human rights defenders–commonly referred to as ‘HRDs’–actually have nothing to do with such labels.

In Asia and beyond, HRDs receive daily targetted harassment from governments, the police, and private corporations due to their tireless work of protecting and promoting human rights for all. The proliferation of false narratives–from either governments or media acting as the latter’s mouthpiece–is emblematic of the systemic harassment that HRDs endure.

On the whole, different civil society actors pushing for the advancement of human rights are all HRDs.

International Youth Day–celebrated every 12 August–provides the opportunity to reflect on the key contributions made by youth and students who serve as HRDs in Asia. From Thailand to Afghanistan, Myanmar to Sri Lanka, students and youth defenders are at the forefront of demanding positive social change and preserving democratic institutions and values.

Students and youth defenders are inspiring and leading cross-cutting movements that defy authoritarian governments and repressive norms. They have developed innovative platforms to boost cross-country solidarity among peers advocating for the same cause.

A notable example would be the ‘Milk Tea Alliance,’ an online movement that has been inspiring a rising number of youth across Asia since 2020. From Hong Kong to Taiwan, Thailand, Myanmar and beyond, young people are using social media to create a loose and organic network of youth defenders for democracy. Likewise, these young HRDs have also peacefully taken their fight for justice and equality offline and into the streets.

Youth defenders in Asia relentlessly champion various causes they are passionate about such as environmental justice, gender equality, right to education, freedom of expression, and democracy, just to name a few. Young HRDs are initiating conversations that stir collective action and promote innovative ways of activism. They are taking up more and more space both online and offline.

Harassment faced by youth defenders

Who are human rights defenders? In 1998, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the so-called Declaration on HRDs, which remains as the very basis for the global definition of HRDs. According to the Declaration, whoever acts peacefully for the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms can be an HRD, provided that they recognise the universality of human rights.

In concrete terms, examples of youth defenders include students staging a solidarity demonstration against the discriminations faced by religious minorities in India; young demonstrators calling for the end of gender-based harassment in Kazakhstan; and youth environmentalists opposing detrimental mining operations in the Philippines.

Aside from individuals, HRDs also include groups of people who associate in the form of civil society organisations–whether formally registered or not–to collectively promote democratic values or reforms. In this sense, communities as a whole can also act as HRDs when representing their collective rights and legitimate aspirations. An example would be the case of indigenous groups who are jointly claiming their ancestral lands and bravely resisting the exploitative actions of businesses.

Unfortunately, the more exposure HRDs receive and the more they achieve, the more harassment they experience. In 2021 and 2022 alone, at least 299 cases were recorded by FORUM-ASIA in which the rights of students and youth defenders were violated, with at least 1,161 defenders affected.

By highlighting the harassment faced by HRDs, FORUM-ASIA hopes to jumpstart a conversation on how to better support defenders. ‘As a regional human rights organisation, it is our task not only to assist HRDs in their work, but also to mainstream their role as agents of change in our time,’ said Mary Aileen Diez Bacalso, FORUM-ASIA Executive Director.

Despite experiencing human rights violations in the form of judicial harassment, physical violence, and intimidation, these young HRDs are not giving up on their social movements and activism. In fact, there is a common thread that weaves together the stories of all youth defenders in Asia: their unfaltering courage and determination amid the different types of harassment and discouragement they encounter.

The bravery of youth defenders

On International Youth Day, let us recognise and honour the courage exhibited by students and youth defenders. Even in the face of extreme intimidation, violence, and deprivation of their fundamental rights, these young HRDs are persevering in their pursuit of justice, equality, and accountability.

Take the achievement of 25 Cambodian youth environmental defenders who celebrated the World Environment Day in May 2022 as an example. Together, they led a 600-kilometre cycling campaign from Kampong Thom to Preah Vihear. Throughout the campaign, however, they were questioned and photographed by authorities. While the government asserted that such actions were merely safety measures, the youth defenders felt that they could not speak freely in the authorities’ presence. Despite such interference, the youth defenders led a remarkable campaign, with some authorities even praising the initiative for promoting environmental justice and protection.

Likewise, let us commemorate the selfless efforts of young women HRDs in Afghanistan who have never stopped advocating for their fundamental freedoms even after the Taliban takeover in 2021. Despite the Taliban’s attempts to erase women and girls from all public spaces–including schools–youth defenders are persistently protesting against repressive laws that take away their basic human rights. Until now, protests are ongoing. In the process, women protestors have been beaten and arrested at Badakhshan University for resisting the Taliban’s decision to ban women from entering the campus when not wearing burqas. The Taliban has also barred women from attending universities, resulting in young Afghan women protesting outside Kabul University.

Meanwhile in Sri Lanka, youth defenders were at the centre of the country’s pro-democracy movement as student activists rose up against the Rajapaksa administration’s bid to militarise academic institutions. Youth defenders played an integral role in the resignation of Rajapaksa. At present, their collective work towards democracy and socioeconomic rights continues even in the face of threats and harassment from authorities. Youth defender Wasantha Mudalige–who was previously detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for his activism–commented that the hopes of Sri Lanka’s youth movement is ‘propelling the society towards a genuine systemic change’ beyond a temporary change of politics.

Youth activism goes beyond the personal challenges faced by young people as it is interconnected with larger social movements and all aspects of human rights work. Youth defenders are not only advocating for their rights, but the rights of all.

Let the youth lead

It is time for us to acknowledge that youth defenders are the future of human rights work. And at the same time, they are stepping up as leaders and innovators of today’s social movements.

Students and youth defenders are collaborating with other HRDs–coming from various backgrounds, ages, and advocacies–to demand and create a more just and equal society for us all. ‘There is no clear solution in sight. Hence, our primary role is to stand unconditionally for the rights of all individuals and fight on their behalf,’ said youth defender Wasantha Mudalige.

We must create a safe and enabling environment for these young HRDs, so that they can carry on with bringing positive changes to the world without fear of harassment, both mentally and physically.

In addition, we have to ensure that youth defenders are able to participate in human rights work as equal counterparts. They deserve a seat at the table, their voices need to be amplified, and their stories deserve our full attention.

This is a call not only to governments, civil society, and the international community, but also to the general public. We must help create protection mechanisms for youth defenders. We should give them more opportunity and space to be involved in activism, encouraging them to proactively engage in enhancing their communities as well as society at large.

Simply put, our future also depends on the success of today’s youth defenders.


Valerio Loi and Hye-Joon Lee are staff members at FORUM-ASIA and co-authors of Defending in Numbers: Rising Together Against All Odds.

FORUM-ASIA works to strengthen movements for human rights and sustainable development. It has consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council and a consultative relationship with the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. Its Secretariat is based in Bangkok, with offices in Jakarta, Geneva,