WHRDs and the parallel worlds of the UN


A dangerous lack of consistency in the recognition and protection of Women Human Rights Defenders threatens their lives globally.

By Mari Claire Price, Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition 

In recent years the world has witnessed a significant escalation in attacks against Human Rights Defenders (HRDs), by both state and non-state actors, in particular attacks against Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs), who are at increased risk of gender based threats, violence, imprisonment and killings.

On March 3rd 2016, prominent WHRD and General Coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH) Berta Cáceres was murdered. Berta’s murder followed years of death threats and harassment for her work on the rights of the Lenca indigenous peoples and against the construction of a hydroelectric project, Agua Zarca, by the Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA).

A few weeks later, whilst the 60th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was taking place, prominent WHRD Zainab AlKhawaja, a Bahraini human rights activist, was arrested on charges related to tearing up a picture of the King and was detained with her 15-month-old baby.

In Egypt on the 29th March 2016, Mozn Hassan, Founder and Executive Director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, was officially summoned to an interrogation before the investigative judge of the NGO Foreign Funding Case (Case 173), and the interrogation was postponed. Mozn is the first civil society actor to be interrogated and have official charges directed at her in relation to this, and the first feminist in decades to be interrogated about her feminist activism in many decades in Egypt. This takes place in the context of increased targeting of civil society organizations by the Egyptian government, including smear campaigns, travel bans and the freezing of organization’s assets and closure orders.

In recent years, some progress has been made within the UN system regarding the recognition, protection and rights of WHRDs. This includes the attention drawn to the issue by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders since 2000, and  the adoption of the first-ever resolution on WHRDs by the General Assembly in 2013. The CSW acknowledged WHRDs for the first time history at its 57th session in 2013 and urged governments to support and protect them. In 2014, the Agreed Conclusions from CSW 58 urged all governments to publicly acknowledge the important and legitimate role of WHRDs and take appropriate, robust and practical steps to protect them.

However, in 2015 the Political Declaration on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the fourth world conference on women emanating from CSW 59 failed to even mention WHRDs. Furthermore, WHRDs were not recognized in the UN Agenda 2030 and Sustainable Development Goals, despite calls from many civil society actors including the Women’s Major Group to recognize the particular risks and situations faced by WHRDs, and develop effective and gender-sensitive responses to violence against them.

At the recent 60th CSW that took place in New York 14th - 24th March 2016, various member states and civil society organizations called for the recognition of WHRDs as agents of change and to highlight the important role they carry out in exposing violations. The also called for a renewed commitment to their protection and participation in decision making, and the creation of safe and enabling environments that allow them to carry out their work free from harassment, violence, legal targeting and systemic persecution from the state. Civil society organizations also called for increased, flexible and timely funding and resources for WHRDs and to recognize and address the shrinking spaces for them and their activism. This included a call from Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, daughter of Berta Cáceres, who delivered an oral intervention during the CSW plenary.

Despite these calls to build on previous commitments, the single, watered-down reference to WHRDs in the 60th CSW agreed conclusions merely welcomes the ‘major contributions’ of WHRDs. Given the Commission’s mandate as the intergovernmental body dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women, as well as the theme of the 60th session of ‘Women’s Empowerment and its link to Sustainable Development’, this grossly disproportionate reference undermines the progress made in recent years through the Commission. Following the outcome, a number of organizations have called for urgent progress to be made on recognizing WHRDs in the Commission on the Status of Women.

While the CSW text was being negotiated, across the Atlantic in Geneva the UN Human Rights Council adopted, not by consensus, but by a vote of 33 Member States for, to 6 against (with 8 abstaining), a landmark resolution on the protection of HRDs working to promote economic, social and cultural rights. The resolution identifies WHRDs as agents of change and mandates their protection. The adoption of the resolution, led by Norway and sponsored by 60 states from all regions, was strongly supported by a number of civil society organizations globally, and a number of attempts to weaken the resolution were thwarted.

In 2016, the lack of consistency throughout the UN system on the recognition and protection of WHRDs, and the unwillingness of some member states to build on these historic achievements and previous agreements adopted through consensus, that we have witnessed most recently is shocking. Worse, it is endangering the lives of thousands of WHRDs around the world.

It is illogical and dangerous to assume that either sustainable development or women’s empowerment can even begin to happen without the recognition, protection and continued work of those at the center of these efforts, such as WHRDs working on environmental justice, economic justice, sexual and reproductive rights, LGBTQI rights, the human rights of women and girls and various economic, cultural and social rights.

The unconscionable threats and mortal risks WHRDs face and the consistent impunity their human rights violators enjoy, must change. WHRDs, civil society organizations, feminist movements, many States and parts of the UN system are committed to WHRDs. We will continue to support, advocate for and speak up, and urge States and others opposed to the recognition and protection of WHRDs, to catch up. 

Mari Claire Price is interim coordinator for the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, a global network that supports and protects women human rights defenders worldwide in their defence of human rights. 


  • Women's rights and WHRD
  • Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)