The Hague: The first Shelter City for human rights defenders at risk

The Hague-based human rights organisation, Justice & Peace Netherlands, reflects on the journey of their initiative, Shelter City, which began 10 years ago in The Hague.

Today, Shelter City is a global movement of cities, people, and organisations that provide temporary safe and inspiring spaces to human rights defenders at risk where they can re-energise, receive tailormade support, and engage with local allies in order to reinforce their local actions for change. This year, Justice & Peace celebrates the 10-year anniversary of Shelter City The Hague, the birthplace of this very necessary global movement.

How it all began

The inspiration to start Shelter City began more than 10 years ago in the city of Peace and Justice, The Hague. At a conference in the city in 2010, many local and international NGOs and policymakers convened on the topic of human rights, including the team of Justice & Peace and Dalit-women’s rights activist from India, Manjula. It was during this very conference where Manjula voiced her concerns on the situation of human rights defenders and expressed the necessity for building a safe space for human rights defenders at risk. It was in this moment that the first seed to create Shelter City was sewn.

Two years later in 2012, Shelter City was initiated by Justice & Peace to realise this safe space that Manjula envisioned. According to the Director of Justice & Peace Sebastiaan van der Zwaan, who attended that conference back in 2010, it was Manjula who gave him the idea of building a network of Shelter Cities across the globe. The Hague was the first city to become a Shelter City, started by Justice & Peace in 2012 with the support of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Municipality of The Hague.

“We asked ourselves how we, as a human rights organization in the Netherlands, could contribute. And the answer for us was that we can and should support those who are already making a change at the local level all over the world: human rights defenders.” – Sebastiaan van der Zwaan, co-founder of Shelter City and Director of Justice & Peace

A safe and inspiring space

When starting Shelter City, there was no doubt that The Hague’s multicultural community, diverse network of organizations, and surrounding nature would make it the perfect city to host human rights defenders.

With a diverse range of allies, from international tribunals, a plethora of civil society and international organisations, policy makers, students and justice workers, The Hague offers human rights defenders a unique place to build and strengthen their network of allies and supporters. The green and natural surroundings throughout the city as well as access to recreational activities also provide defenders with the perfect space to rest, re-energise, and focus on their wellbeing, while the array of justice and human rights events provide endless opportunities for defenders to raise awareness about their work.

Since starting, Shelter City The Hague has hosted 39 human rights defenders coming from more than 25 countries around the world. Since 2021, the city, in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also provides two additional safe spaces to journalists at risk so that they can continue reporting on human rights, freedom of press or expression away from dangers.

Next year, Justice & Peace will also start hosting artists at risk via their Artists’ Safe Haven initiative.

As the first Shelter City, and a city of Peace and Justice, The Hague has also played a key role in inspiring other cities around the world to join Shelter City and provide safe spaces to human rights defenders at risk.

A global movement

From what started as one city providing safe spaces to human rights defenders, has now grown into a global movement of cities, people, and organisations that stand side by side with human rights defenders at risk. Today, there are 21 Shelter Cities worldwide which have supported over 450 human rights defenders at risk.

“Cities can play a significant role in supporting and showing solidarity with courageous human rights defenders at risk.”- Dutch Human Rights Ambassador, Bahia Tahzib-Lie

Despite the successes, it is clear that more Shelter Cities are needed. For Shelter City in the Netherlands alone, Justice & Peace receives 600 applications per call for applications twice a year, but only 30 to 35 people can be welcomed to the Netherlands. Around the world, human rights defenders are facing increasing challenges – from increased attacks, surveillance and hacking, leading to high stress and burnouts, and defenders having to stop their work altogether. Safe spaces such as those provided by Shelter City allow defenders to take much needed rest, build their capacities, and gain the support network and skills to continue their work and that of their organisations.

Get involved

Do you want to support Shelter City with your time and skills, or with a donation? Visit or email to find out more.

Do you want to read more stories from Shelter City? Read more here.