Whistleblowers are human rights defenders. So why don’t we protect them like they are?

On the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it’s time we include whistleblowers in the conversation.

human rights defenders

By Mia Marzotto, TSN Whistleblower Protection Program Manager

Freedom of information is a human right. This has been my mantra since joining The Signals Network’s Whistleblower Protection Program team earlier this year.

Our team comes from all different careers and parts of the globe. Some of us are ex-journalists and ex-political fundraisers. Others, like me, have experience investigating, litigating and advocating on violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, to secure accountability in various contexts.

Now, at TSN, my role is ensuring that people who speak out on human rights abuses and other wrongdoing get the protection and support they deserve. Working with whistleblowers has been similar to some of my past roles in that it involves getting decision-makers to listen to those with knowledge about something abusive or illegal.

It has also been different in that whistleblowers face the fears of potential reprisal and futility — that nothing good will happen from speaking up. This puts them in a particularly vulnerable position and too often makes silence their only safe option, leaving the public in the dark and wrongdoing unaddressed.

As a human rights advocate, my source of inspiration is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a landmark document representing the first time countries agreed on the rights and freedoms that belong to all of us, such as the right to information. This is the core purpose of whistleblowing, and still whistleblowers often face extreme repercussions for exercising this right without having proper protections in our laws or workplaces.

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the UDHR and I am here to put the spotlight on whistleblowers who do remarkable work as human rights defenders by exposing information the public needs to know and promoting democratic accountability, often at great risk. They deserve recognition and protection for the key role they play in making the UDHR a reality.

Why whistleblowers are human rights defenders

A “human rights defender” is someone who, individually or with others, acts to promote and protect human rights in a peaceful way. At The Signals Network, we believe this includes whistleblowers as people with knowledge who are willing and able to shed light on what is hidden.

Whistleblowers and human rights defenders alike act in the public interest, exposing threats or harms to other persons or even society at large. They both risk their livelihoods, or sometimes their lives, for the greater good.

Article 19 of the UDHR guarantees “the right to seek, receive and impart information.” Essential to that right are people who are willing to share information in the public interest – they are, by definition, human rights defenders.

By speaking up to their employers, the authorities or an external party like the media, whistleblowers pass on information that might otherwise remain unjustifiably hidden. This can include warnings of risky practices, accusations of illegalities or wrongdoing, or expressions of concern about a threat or harm to others.

Whistleblowers help to realize the public’s right to receive that information. In turn, the right to receive information advances several other human rights. It allows people to develop their own opinions and make informed decisions. It advances democracies. It also encourages accountability, increasing the costs for those who might be breaching human rights like the right to privacy or the right to equal pay. Whistleblowers’ actions and the resulting public reaction can create a snowball effect that makes it easier for others to speak up as well.

Whistleblowers are not always recognized as human rights defenders, and their efforts may be invisible to the wider human rights community or seen as separate from or peripheral to human rights work. In some cases, whistleblowers who are viewed with suspicion may not consider themselves to be human rights defenders.

However, many human rights experts have emphasized the link between the right to information and whistleblowing. Former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression David Kaye, for example, once stated: “A common thread ties together the right of access to information, the protection of sources of information and the protection of whistleblowers: the public’s right to know.”

How have whistleblowers defended human rights in recent years?

Consider Edward Snowden, who in 2013 risked everything to blow the whistle on human rights abuses by the U.S. National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies. He sparked a global debate on previously unknown mass intelligence-gathering government surveillance programs, changing laws and helping to protect our right to privacy. Yet, if he were to return to the U.S., he would immediately be tried and would face decades in prison.

In Europe, whistleblower Antoine Deltour’s actions led to the 2014 LuxLeaks scandal. Deltour, who was an auditor at PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Luxembourg from 2008 to 2010, shared hundreds of documents with journalists, showing how the company had participated in large-scale tax avoidance practices. Deltour’s revelations have since led to several initiatives for more stringent tax laws. He was eventually convicted of theft and other crimes related to the leaks, although his conviction was overturned on appeal.

Both Snowden and Deltour benefited society by holding powerful actors accountable. They are part of a growing list of people who have come forward, sometimes anonymously, with information critical to public debate and accountability on a wide range of issues. Yet, like other human rights defenders, whistleblowers are increasingly vulnerable to human rights violations and other abuses carried out to silence them.

How can whistleblowers be better protected?

A number of things can be done to improve the situation. If governments are serious about the human rights commitments set out in the UDHR, they should do more to enact meaningful protections for whistleblowers and encourage more people to safely speak up against wrongdoing. This includes adopting measures to end so-called “gag lawsuits” used to silence those who speak up in the public interest.

Adopting stronger whistleblower protection laws is only the first step.

Employers need to set up internal whistleblowing systems that provide safe reporting channels that protect whistleblowers from retaliation and ensure follow-up on their reports. By helping to identify wrongdoing, these systems can be a powerful way to ensure human rights compliance in public and private sectors.

At the same time, employees need to be made aware of these systems and their rights and options so that they can help safeguard the public interest while receiving the necessary support and protection themselves.

Media should continue to report on public disclosures and their impact in order to dispel negative perceptions and promote a culture of support for whistleblowers.

In a world where democracy is under threat and global corporations have unprecedented power, we cannot afford to have potential whistleblowers remain silent due to fear of retaliation or lack of appropriate reporting systems. These are legal and practical gaps that we can fix.

Protecting whistleblowers as human rights defenders would not only make a difference for the individuals involved but also help protect fundamental rights and freedoms when we need them the most. This is what the UDHR calls upon us all to do.

Mia Marzotto is the Whistleblower Protection Program Manager at The Signals Network. She joined TSN in April 2023 as Legal Fellow. Her past roles include working with Translators without Borders on humanitarian policy influencing and with Oxfam on media and advocacy in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel. Mia holds an MA in International Affairs from The New School and an LLM in International Human Rights Law at the University of Essex. She is originally from Italy.

Share this story with your network