General Assembly: Take action to support ‘extraordinarily dangerous’ work to defend human rights

21.09.2015

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders has published a major new report on the global situation of defenders based on consultations with over 500 activists in 111 countries. The report's 35 recommendations provide a roadmap to ensure that defenders can work at the national and international levels free from attack and insecurity. 

(New York) – Defending rights is an ‘extraordinarily dangerous activity’ in many countries, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst, has concluded following seven regional consultations with over 500 human rights defenders from 111 States.

In his new report (UN Doc A/70/217), to be presented to the UN General Assembly in October, Mr Forst has drawn from these consultations to produce a raft of recommendations for Member States and other stakeholders to better enable and protect the work of defenders.

Key points
  • Based on consultations with over 500 defenders from 111 States, the report concludes that in the vast majority of States the situation for defenders is deteriorating in law and in practice, with key drivers including the perceived imperative of economic development, religious fundamentalism, and the need to combat extremism.
  • Women human rights defenders, defenders of LGBTI rights, defenders working on land and environment rights and corporate accountability, defenders working to combat impunity and those working in conflict or post-conflict zones, defenders working on minority and refugee rights, human rights lawyers, and journalists and bloggers, are among those who are most exposed and at risk.
  • The law is increasingly being used and instrumentalised to restrict the work of defenders, while information and communication technologies are increasingly being used to harass and surveille them.
  • A lack of awareness regarding the vital and legitimate work of defenders, combined with a lack of political commitment and weak institutional arrangements for their protection, is placing defenders, their organisations and families at elevated risk.
  • Report sets out a roadmap of more than 30 recommendations – directed to States, national human rights institutions, the UN, donors, business enterprises, and civil society itself – to ensure that defenders can work in a safe and enabling environment. Recommendations are made in the areas of legislative reform (such as the enactment of enabling defender laws and the repeal of restrictive laws on blasphemy or apostasy), institutional reform (such as the establishment of national human rights institutions with human rights defender focal points), and educational measures (such as training in and widespread dissemination of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders). The report also makes recommendations in relation to the need for States and business enterprises to properly consult and engage with human rights defenders in the design of major development projects, and the imperative for both States and the UN to ensure that violations and reprisals against defenders are investigated promptly and impartially with perpetrators brought to justice.
  • Report will be presented to General Assembly in October, with ISHR urging that its key findings and recommendations be reflected in a resolution on human rights defenders to be negotiated and adopted by the GA.
Operating environment for human rights defenders is deteriorating in law and practice

The report concludes that in the vast majority of States the situation for defenders is deteriorating both in law and in practice. Defenders continue to be intimidated, attacked and restricted in their work in multiple and diverse ways: from media defamation campaigns to restrictions on access to financing, from online surveillance to malicious prosecution, and from arbitrary arrest to repression of peaceful protest.

In addition, the unwillingness of many States to protect or speak out publicly in support of defenders, combined with the very high level of impunity for attacks against them, combine to create an environment of multiple risks for defenders in many contexts. The report notes, for example, that defenders are frequently portrayed as ‘foreign agents’ rather than ‘agents of change’ – a labelling which can both stigmatise defenders and legitimise attacks against them.

‘The present report testifies to the difficulties faced by defenders all over the world and calls upon the international community to step up its efforts to protect defenders from the attacks and threats they face on a daily basis.’ – Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst

Certain groups of defenders face particular and elevated risks

The Special Rapporteur emphasises that defenders face increased threats from both the State and a wide range of non-State actors – including fundamentalist religious groups and corporations – and that particular groups of defenders face elevated risks.

In a non-exhaustive list, Mr Forst highlights defenders of the rights of LGBTI persons, those combating corruption and impunity, defenders seeking to protect the rights of minorities and refugees, journalists and bloggers, human rights lawyers, defenders working on land and environment rights and issues of corporate accountability, and defenders working in countries at war or in areas exposed to internal conflict.

States and businesses must consult with and protect corporate accountability activists

‘It is clear from this report that, in many contexts, the privileging of large-scale development projects over respect for human rights means that defenders working on issues of corporate accountability and related land, environment and indigenous rights, are facing worsening threats from both the State and corporations,’ said ISHR’s Eleanor Openshaw.

To arrest these violations, the Special Rapporteur underlines the importance of States actively consulting and engaging with defenders in conducting due diligence on development projects and in the elaboration of National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights. In direct recommendations to corporations he calls on them to refrain from interfering with defenders’ rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and also to promote the work of defenders in their field of industry.

Call for national implementation of international commitments to protect women human rights defenders

In regard to the situation for women defenders, Mr Forst highlights the gendered aspect of many of the attacks against them, including ‘particularly virulent harassment, defamation and stigmatisation campaigns on the Internet, in which their respectability and credibility’ as defenders, women, mothers or citizens was attacked. In an important reminder to States to honour their commitments and take action, Mr Forst calls on States to ‘develop, with the support of UN country teams, national programmes for implementing GA resolution 68/181 on protecting women human rights defenders.’

The Special Rapporteur also indicates that he believes efforts to increase protection for defenders has been undermined by a lack of understanding of how ‘different types and sources of discrimination intersect with and reinforce, on another.’ He notes that the international human rights system has yet to ‘systematically incorporate an intersectional approach’ in its work, undermining its effectiveness, and promises to focus on this issue more deeply in a later report.

States and the UN must address ‘disturbing increase in reprisals’

Through the report, Mr Forst expresses grave concern at evidence from defenders as to a ‘disturbing increase in the number of reprisals and acts of intimidation’ in connection with them providing information, reports or testimony to UN human rights bodies.

‘Acts of intimidation and reprisals amount to a violation of an individual’s rights and an attack on the institutional integrity of the UN human rights system itself,’ said ISHR Legal Counsel Madeleine Sinclair.

‘In this regard we welcome the Special Rapporteur’s recommendation to States that they desist from, investigate and ensure accountability for reprisals and to the UN itself that it document reprisals and bring them to the attention of the international community for action.’

Future areas of focus and work

Through the report Special Rapporteur identifies a number of issues that may be the focus of future thematic reports, including in relation to indigenous rights defenders, the effect of compound or intersectional discrimination on certain defenders, and good practices for the protection of defenders (such as human rights defender protection laws and Shelter City initiatives). Responding to concerns expressed during the regional consultations that the system of individual complaints or communications with Special Procedures is opaque and ineffective, the Special Rapporteur also foreshadows examining ways to make the communications procedure most accessible, transparent and impactful.

Recommendations to enable, protect and support the work of human rights defenders

Informed by consultations with over 500 human rights defenders and experts, the report sets out a clear roadmap of more than 30 recommendations – directed to States, national human rights institutions, the UN, donors, business enterprises, and civil society itself – to ensure that defenders can work in a safe and enabling environment free from restriction or attack.

The recommendations urge a range of steps and measures, including as to:

  • Legislative reform – States are urged, for example, to strengthen protection of the right to freedom of assembly and association and ‘abolish laws…relating to blasphemy or apostasy, so as to guarantee the right to freedom of expression, including in it the right to criticise the State, its representatives and religious authorities’.
  • Institutional reform – States are urged, for example to establish and adequately resource a national human rights institution in accordance with the Paris Principles, while for their part NHRIs are encouraged to establish a human rights defender focal point or protection unit.
  • Education – States, NHRIs and UN bodies are all urged to ensure adequate training in, and widespread dissemination of, the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and to publicly recognise and promote the vital and legitimate work of defenders.
  • Engagement – The Special Rapporteur recommends that both States and business enterprises properly consult and engage with human rights defenders, including in the design of major development projects and through the elaboration of National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights.
  • Accountability – Both States and the UN should ensure that violations and reprisals against defenders are investigated promptly and impartially and that ‘the perpetrators of violations against the rights of defenders are brought to justice’.
  • Diplomatic measures – Third States and UN regional and country teams are urged to provide consistent and effective measures of support, protection and assistance to defenders.
UN General Assembly resolution must reflect gravity and urgency of situation for defenders

‘Through this report the Special Rapporteur has provided a diagnosis of a global threat to the right to defend rights. He makes a strong call to States to implement their commitments nationally and step up their measures to protect human rights defenders in third States,’ said ISHR’s Eleanor Openshaw.

‘The General Assembly will negotiate a new resolution on the protection of human rights defenders over the coming weeks. It is imperative that the key findings and recommendations contained in this report are reflected in that resolution and that States and other actors take urgent action to ensure their implementation,’ Ms Openshaw said.

Contacts:

  • Eleanor Openshaw, Programme Manager, International Service for Human Rights, on e.openshaw@ishr.ch
  • Madeleine Sinclair, Legal Counsel, International Service for Human Rights, on m.sinclair@ishr.ch

Category:

Topic
  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • Human rights defenders
Mechanism
  • Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council
  • UN Special Rapporteur on HRDs
  • UN General Assembly
  • Third Committee of the UN General Assembly