On the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, the universal and regional protection mechanisms call on the international community to renew its commitment to support and protect human rights defenders.
There can be no realisation of rights without the space to defend those rights. Women, men and human rights defenders of other genders are the guardians of universally recognized rights, equality, freedoms and justice, for all of us! The adoption by consensus, two decades ago, of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly set a milestone in universally recognising the essential and legitimate role played by human rights defenders around the world.
We have seen an impressive growth of the human rights movement over the last two decades, with activists in every corner of the world defending human rights and fundamental freedoms, countering discrimination and marginalization, and promoting justice, the rule of law, democracy and development. The human rights movement has never before been so global, vibrant, diverse and truly universal as it is now. It has achieved important victories in all regions of the world.
Over the last two decades, we have also seen the creation of international and regional mechanisms, which we represent. They play an important role in promoting the implementation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and protecting human rights defenders across countries and regions.
However, as we celebrate the achievements of human rights activism over the last 20 years, today women, men and human rights defenders of other genders, including children human rights defenders, are ever more at risk.
Each day we witness a serious deterioration in the environment for human rights defenders, at the same time as the consensus on the fundamental recognition that their rights need to be protected is vanishing.
We have seen laws being introduced in all of our regions that shrink the legal and operational space for human rights defenders, breaching the legal obligations and political commitments of States to create and maintain an enabling environment for human rights defenders.
Human rights defenders are increasingly harassed, imprisoned, tortured, and even killed because of their work. According to UN verified data, at least 1,019 human rights defenders were killed in 61 countries across the world from 2015 to 2017. In the past 20 years, at least 3,500 human rights defenders worldwide have paid with their lives for defending the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These figures do not fully reflect the magnitude of the violence faced by human rights defenders globally. The numbers of killings and countries in which they take place have risen, while those responsible are rarely brought to justice. New challenges have also arisen, such as the lack of accountability of State and non-State actors, including private companies, for attacks against defenders; threats to digital security and the privacy of human rights defenders; as well as pressure, intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders online.
Human rights defenders are especially and systematically targeted in contexts of conflict or crisis, as well as when protecting migrants and refugees’ rights, land and environmental rights, in the context of the development of extractive industries, and in the name of national security and the fight against terrorism. Smear campaigns and stigmatization remain commonly used to delegitimize human rights defenders and undermine their work. Restrictive environments are on the increase, where defenders are working within legal frameworks that inhibit the rights to freedom of association (including the right to access funding), expression and peaceful assembly.
Women human rights defenders are particularly restricted in their work as patriarchal and discriminatory norms and practices would like to see women relegated in the house rather than publicly active and outspoken, particularly on equality matters. They are not only targeted for their human rights work but also because of their gender and the social norms, traditions and gender stereotypes they challenge. They may be subject to rape and sexual violence, abuse and violence within their family and community, and their children and family members may also be targeted for their work. This is why they deserve special attention from our various mechanisms.
We call on States to renew their commitment to protect human rights defenders. This must include the safeguard of the space for human rights defenders to participate in the discussions on human rights in regional and international fora. We further call on States to prevent, guarantee independent investigations into and sanction firmly all those responsible for threats and violations of human rights defenders’ rights, with the aim to prevent and fight against impunity, and especially to protect human rights defenders’ lives, personal integrity and to ensure that they are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance or fear of reprisals. Instead of stigmatisation, there needs to be stronger protection for human rights defenders worldwide and enhanced public recognition by the States of their legitimate and critical role for the promotion of human rights and the rule of law.
As a follow-up to our meetings last July with UN counter-terrorism bodies at the invitation of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, we further call upon States to refrain from using security threats as a pretext to delegitimize and silence civil society. We also call for strategies of the UN counter-terrorism strategy to ensure that the principle of no harm applies to all measures promoted by the UN including by its anti-terrorism agencies.
On the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and of the fifth anniversary of the General Assembly resolution on women human rights defenders, States should reiterate their support for human rights defenders ahead of the high-level panel discussion on human rights defenders at the UN General Assembly on December 18, 2018.
- Michel Forst, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders
- Rémy Ngoy Lumbu, Special Rapporteur of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) on Human Rights Defenders
- Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights
- Katarzyna Gardapkhadze, First Deputy Director, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR)
- Francisco José Eguiguren Praeli, Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR)
 Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms adopted by UN General Assembly Resolution 53/144 on December 9, 1998.