The year in review

If you’ve heard of Safeguard Defenders before, you’ve probably seen news of one of our public campaigns—against China’s use of forced TV confessions, for example—or because of one of our publications, such as The People’s Republic of the Disappeared about China's secret detention system.

However, the vast majority of our work is never made public. It takes place on the ground, focused on what’s called direct actions: the immediate transfer of help to grassroots human rights defenders (HRDs) and women human rights defenders (WHRDs) and their families.

As 2019 comes to a close, we have decided, for the first time ever, to share a little information about this side of our work.


Overview: direct actions, trainings and re-grants

The work of Safeguard Defenders spans several countries in East and Southeast Asia, but focuses on China. We conduct on-the-ground direct actions, ranging from training programs, lawsuits and public interest litigation, assistance with criminal defense, direct aid to HRDs and WHRDs in need, investigations and workshops.

Training programs touch upon issues related to law, enforcement, and strategy, and range from longer, in-depth trainings to short one-day trainings on specific issues. The material that is produced from our investigations and workshops – always done in collaboration with and through extensive input from the intended beneficiaries - is collected and edited and often later forms the basis for our training programs held across the country. Because of security reasons, these materials are not published.  

Safeguard Defenders also issues small-scale grants aimed at enabling local civil society organizations (CSOs) secure long-term sustainable sources of funding and technical support, build capacity and break their isolation from the international support system, as well as to local HRDs and WHRDs to pursue small projects related to new developments in human rights defense.


2019 in (some) numbers

  • Safeguard Defenders organized some 50 different training groups for more than 400 rights defenders. Longer training programs spanned topics such as law, enforcement and strategy, while shorter sessions focused on a specific topic, often a new development that severely hinders rights defense or weakens legal protections.  
  • It initiated over 40 public interest litigation cases.
  • As part of the organization’s urgent action support, we supported rights defenders at risk in 35 criminal cases, providing nearly 80,000 USD in direct financial assistance, for legal aid, financial aid to those in detention or prison, and aid for physical- and/or mental health recovery following torture or imprisonment.
  • Safeguard Defenders also provided around 100,000 USD in small grants to local CSOs and rights defenders for carrying out local human rights defense activities. These ranged from investigations and training programs to direct interventions and capacity building.
  • We developed several new manuals and best practice guides for rights defenders on crucial new developments, identified on the ground by rights defenders themselves, presenting tested methods for overcoming new obstacles, or best methods for rights defenders to tackle them. These are not published for security reasons. 


Research and publications

One of our most exciting projects this year has been compiling a guide on how CSOs can use the growing number of Magnitsky Acts around the world to help stop human rights violations. The guide, English and Chinese editions, is set for early and late January release, respectively. Safeguard Defenders is also working with NGOs working on Vietnam, Myanmar, Tibet and Xinjiang to develop localized versions for their communities as well.

This year, we have continued our work researching the vastly understudied rule of law issue in China. These include how detention centres are increasingly preventing defense lawyers access to their clients; how pre-trial detention centres hide inmates by registering them under false names; an expansion in the use of ‘forced holidays’ to disappear critics during sensitive times; and into what professor in Chinese law, Jerome Cohen, has dubbed ‘non-release release’, the practice of keeping people disappeared for months on end after their supposed release from prison.

We are also continuing work on our two major topics: forced TV confessions and Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location, a ‘legalized’ system of disappearing critics into secret locations for up to half a year. A new report on the illegal practice of broadcasting detainees confessing on camera before they have been tried, some before arrest, in Vietnam will be published in early 2020. We continue to collect data on RSDL in China and in November we published the second edition of The People’s Republic of the Disappeared.

In 2019, we published a string of small reports including Hidden in Detention, an initial look at how fake names are used in detention centres; solitary confinement during investigation as a means of torture, and a review, by far the most comprehensive one to date of a new system for disappearances, liuzhi under the new super-body the National Supervision Commission (NSC).

Our work has exposed an entire eco-system for disappearing that is expanding in the People’s Republic of China.



Our innovative campaign against the broadcast of forced TV confessions by China’s party-state media CCTV and CGTN in the west has attracted both widespread attention and support. In 2019, we helped file three official complaints against CGTN for the practice (including one for gross impartiality and inaccuracy over a report on the Xinjiang mass internment camps) in the UK.

At the end of the year, we stepped up the campaign by filing similar complaints about forced confessions against CGTN and CCTV in the U.S. and Canada. We also launched a request for Magnitsky sanctions against a CCTV anchor and boss, implicated in overseeing the rapid growth in forced confessions on the channel.

During the year, we also carried out extensive research on China's expanding reach with extraditions, as well as 'voluntary returns'. Safeguard Defenders has worked to block extraditions to China using human rights arguments based on evidence the country does not guarantee the right to a fair trial, its widespread use of torture, and the role of the newly established NSC.

In the summer of 2019, the organization assisted with a case in Sweden. Safeguard Defenders' founder and director Peter Dahlin, appeared as a witness in the Swedish Supreme Court. We successfuly blocked the extradition from Sweden of China's 'most wanted man', in the first ever denial of extradition to China by a Supreme Court in the EU. The final arguments against extradition were largely based on the European Convention on Human Rights.

Following this landmark case, France, Czech Republic and South Korea blocked similar extraditions. This precedent is expected to influence upcoming cases in 2020 worldwide.


Can you help?

This is a huge amount of work for a small and specialized organization. Even so, Safeguard Defenders has kept administrative costs down to less than 10%. This means that almost all funding we get is put straight to work running programs, granted to local CSOs, or directly benefitting HRDs and WHRDs on the ground. Safeguard Defenders keeps costs down by avoiding holding expensive conferences, paying for frequent international travel, or renting grand offices. Our funds are directly channelled into local, direct action, where they are needed the most.

The space for civil society is shrinking, attacks on rights defenders are intensifying, and rule of law is being undermined. A kind donation from you—however small—can go a long way to sustain and expand our work in 2020 and beyond.


Become a human rights defender today.