HRC37 | High-level officials kick off Council session, emphasise critical role of defenders


Human rights defenders make a vital contribution to advancing rights for everyone and to promoting a sustainable development. Dignitaries emphasised the key role that a vibrant civil society plays in promoting and protecting human rights during the high-level segment of the Human Rights Council’s 37th session

UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

Numerous State dignitaries commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), joining their voices to support the activities of human right defenders and stressing the important role they play in the protection and promotion of human rights.

ISHR welcomes the statement made by the Secretary-General, António Guterres, in which he expressed his admiration for the courage and sacrifice of human rights defenders, along with his concern over the gradually shrinking space of civil society, which is becoming 'increasingly dangerous'.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein also acknowledged the 'moral courage and self-sacrifice' of human rights defenders and called on the international community to defend the UDHR:

'We will defend it, in this anniversary year, more vigorously than ever before and along with our moral leaders – the human rights defenders in every corner of the globe – we will call for everyone to stand up for the rights of others.'

ISHR highlighted the pivotal link between the realisation of the UDHR and the work of defenders, as the rights enshrined in the UDHR cannot be guaranteed without a safe and enabling environment for the people exercising and fighting to defend those rights.

Several high-level speakers also commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and expressed their concerns over the increasing attacks against defenders:

  • State representatives from Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Italy, among many others, supported the need for protection of human rights defenders and guaranteeing the space for them to carry out their human rights activities.

  • State representatives from Finland and the Czech Republic expressed their concerns over the specific challenges faced by women human rights defenders. The Under-secretary of State for Foreign and Security Policy of Finland told the Council: 'Women human rights defenders may face more challenges when taking an active role in society, this is particularly so when working on issues that aim to change gender roles, such as the right to property and access to land, violence against women or sexual and reproductive health rights. Women human rights defenders also face multiple discrimination, for example, indigenous women or women with disabilities can be discriminated against both on the basis of their indigenous origin or disability and gender.'

  • Australia, Liechtenstein, Germany, Ireland and many other State dignitaries drew attention to reprisals against human rights defenders. The Minister of State for the Diaspora and International Development of Ireland told the Council: 'Ireland strongly supports the promotion and protection of those who defend the rights of others.  We are alarmed by reports of reprisals against human rights defenders and their families, especially as a result of cooperation with the UN.'

ISHR recalls the legal obligation of the Council to prevent and promote accountability for threats and attacks against those who submit information or seek to engage with the Council. Furthermore, the crucial role defenders also play in the promotion of sustainable development was highlighted by the statement of the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Patricia Scotland: 'Ensuring human rights defenders have freedom and space within which to voice dissent and hold governments to account is exceedingly important not only for the realisation of all human rights, but also for the fulfillment of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.'

At a time where human rights defenders are under increasing attacks, public recognition of their work is the key to their protection.

ISHR commends all the State representatives’ statements defending human rights defenders and acknowledging the crucial role that civil society plays in the promotion and protection of human rights.

To wrap up the 1st week of #HRC37, here are our 10 favourite remarks from the High-Level Segment:

Photo: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré