24 Sep
human rights defender

We are privileged to have met a young, passionate human rights defender - and HRDAP 2018 alumni - who works so that everyone can "live in a better world, a just and humane society in harmony with nature and climate."

21 Sep

In a statement at the UN Human Rights Council today, Sophie Luo called for the immediate release of her husband, activist Ding Jiaxi, and a clear commitment by the Council to addressing rights violations in China.

17 Sep

In a devastating report, a group of independent UN experts on Venezuela outline evidence of crimes against humanity carried out in the country at the direction of high-level State authorities, with the active participation of President Maduro and Ministers of the Interior and of Defence.  What will the Human Rights Council now do to ensure accountability for such crimes and justice for victims?

15 Sep

The right to non-discrimination and the right to life are essential to all societies. At the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council, ISHR and ten Swiss-based NGOs* called today on Switzerland to ensure accountability in police violence cases.

24 Sep

As the 66th ordinary session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (‘the Commission’) ended on 7th August, what were the main highlights of this first ever online session organised by the Commission?

Council discusses causes of violence and discrimination against women


The Council has held a series of discussions on women’s rights over the course of the past week.

In the interactive dialogue with the Working Group on discrimination against women in law and practice, States considered challenges to women’s representation in decision-making positions, including during periods of political transition. The Chairperson of the Working Group, Ms Kamala Chandrakirana, pointed to the ‘painfully slow’ progress made towards women’s substantive participation in political and public life since the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action. 

Exclusion of women in political transitions

Tunisia was one of the States visited by the Working Group in the course of the last year. While Tunisia itself stressed that the freedom following the revolution had strengthened the position of women, the experts found that this ‘freedom’ had opened up the space for highly polarised views on women’s position in society. Although Tunisia has historically been one of the more progressive States in the region, this polarised national debate has left women fearful of losing those gains.

Spain, Mexico, and Nigeria agreed that political transitions do provide an opportunity for States to move forwards on equal representation for women, but, along with Finland, shared the concern that often women are excluded from those processes, even though, as Spain noted, they have often been fully involved in the fight to establish democracy. Going through its own transition, Egypt noted the challenge of directing the positive developments in the country to enhance the role of women in the decision-making process.

Violence against women human rights defenders

The stigmatisation of women human rights defenders has added to the fear of women in Tunisia of exclusion from political participation. The Working Group pointed in general to harassment and attacks on women human rights defenders as a key obstacle to the full representation of women in decision-making positions. When women’s civil society organisations flourish, the experts said, they enable collective action by women to overcome the structural barriers they face.

The Working Group noted that national human rights institutions could potentially have a critical role to play in this respect, but that there are currently no international standards to guide NHRIs in how to integrate women’s and gender issues into their work.

The impact of stereotyping on violence and discrimination

The issue of violence against women was also addressed in the report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Ms Rashida Manjoo, as well as in the annual day on women’s rights. While many States emphasised policy and legislative measures they had taken to combat violence, there was a call from panellists to move beyond this towards implementation and a focus on underlying causes, including cultural systems and stereotyping.

The Working Group on discrimination against women also noted that stereotypes of women’s capacities in politics contribute to women’s marginalisation in politics (and are therefore often responsible for the harassment and attacks women often face in political positions).

Ms Fatma Khafagy, Ombudsman for Gender Equality in Egypt, spoke of how dialogue with religious leaders had contributed to stopping the practice of female genital mutilation in Egypt. She emphasised in particular the importance of having men involved in the fight against FGM. Juan Carlos Areán, member of the Secretary-General’s Network of Men Leaders also said that it was important to stop seeing men as the problem and start involving them in the solution.

Ms Manjoo, speaking both during the presentation of her report and during the all-day discussion, stressed the need to focus on establishing standards of due diligence for States with respect to domestic violence that enable responsibility to be assigned for actions omitted, as well as those carried out. A full analysis of what constitutes due diligence on the part of a State would help also in securing accountability for violence against women. She pointed out that stereotyping often influences how cases of violence against women are handled by the judicial system and that due diligence on the part of States requires that remedies should subvert patterns of gender hierarchies, systemic marginalisation and structural inequalities.

The need for a coordinated approach

The existence of many different experts and bodies working on women’s rights, including the Working Group on discrimination against women, the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the Commission on the Status of Women, and UN Women, raised concern amongst some about overlap and lack of coordination. The Chair of the Working Group responded to this point, stressing the active intention of the Working Group not to duplicate, nor to undermine or contradict the work of these bodies, but to develop strong and mutually reinforcing relationships. Strengthening interactions with regional mechanisms, including the newer regional human rights bodies, is one priority in this regard.

Eleanor Openshaw leads ISHR’s work to protect women’s rights and support women human rights defenders, and Ana Kapelet and Jenna Logeais are interns at ISHR

ISHR welcomes record number of draft resolutions on protection of human rights defenders


(Geneva – 11 June 2013) - Building on the momentum created by its landmark resolution on protecting human rights defenders in March 2013, the UN Human Rights Council is set to adopt a record number of resolutions strengthening the recognition and protection of the work of particular groups of human rights defenders at its current session.

'The current session of the Council has heard evidence and received extensive reports of unprecedented attacks and restrictions on human rights defenders,’ said Michael Ineichen, Director of Human Rights Council Advocacy with the International Service for Human Rights.

'In the last two weeks alone, we have borne witness to the conviction of 43 civil society workers in Egypt, the passage of a draft law criminalising gay and lesbian rights organisations in Nigeria, and the prosecution of NGOs in Russia for submitting information to the UN Committee against Torture,’ Mr Ineichen said.

In this context, ISHR welcomes and supports the adoption of the following resolutions, all of which have been the subject of ISHR lobbying and advocacy:

  • A draft resolution on the elimination of discrimination against women, presented by Colombia and Mexico, which recognises that the work of women human rights defenders and women’s civil society organisations is crucial to promoting gender equality and eliminating violence against women and which calls on States to support the sustainability and growth of such organisations.
  • A draft resolution on eliminating violence against women, presented by Canada, which expresses deep concern at the use of rape and other forms of sexual violence to intimidate, harass, deter and commit reprisals against women human rights defenders and which calls on States to protect women and girls from such threats and attacks.
  • A draft resolution on women’s empowerment, presented by the US and other States, which acknowledges ‘the important role of women journalists and women human rights defenders in the exercise, promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and, in this context, expressing concern at the risks faced by these women in the exercise of their work’.
  • A draft resolution on the independence of the judiciary, presented by a coalition of States, which condemns attacks and reprisals against lawyers and judges and calls on States to protect them, to prosecute such acts and to bring perpetrators to justice.
  • A draft resolution on the human rights of migrants, presented by Mexico, which calls on States to ensure that their domestic laws and policies facilitate the work of human rights defenders who defend migrant rights, ‘including by avoiding any criminalization, stigmatization, impediments, obstructions or restrictions thereof contrary to international human rights law’.
  • A draft resolution on the human rights situation in Eritrea, presented by Djibouti, Somalia and Nigeria, which condemns ‘the severe restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of information, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of peaceful assembly and association, including the detention of journalists, human rights defenders, political actors, religious leaders and practitioners in Eritrea’.
  • Finally, a draft resolution on the human rights situation in Belarus, presented by the European Union, which condemns the harassment of civil society organisations, human rights defenders and journalists, and which calls for an immediate end to the arbitrary detention of human rights defenders.

ISHR also welcomed one joint statement led by Norway calling for a resolution to combat discrimination and violence on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity and another joint statement, again led by Norway, which recognised the important work of human rights defenders who work on issues of corporate accountability. Both of these issues are key ISHR priorities.

‘While ISHR is disappointed that this session of the Council has not taken action to address discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, and to protect and support human rights defenders working on those issues, we do welcome the positive attention given to defenders in many other resolutions,’ said Mr Ineichen.

ISHR will continue to push for action by the Human Rights Council – the world’s peak human rights body – to strengthen protections for human rights defenders and also work with national and regional NGOs to promote the concrete implementation of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and relevant Council resolutions on the ground.

All draft resolutions are all available on the OHCHR extranet (username: hrc extranet; password: 1session).

New Guide for Human Rights Defenders on Domestic Implementation of UN Human Rights Recommendations


(Geneva – 11 June 2013)  The International Service for Human Rights, together with the Human Rights Law Centre, has produced a new Guide for Human Rights Defenders on Domestic Implementation of UN Human Rights Recommendations.

The Guide brings together the expertise of ISHR, a leading international NGO focused on supporting human rights defenders and strengthening human rights systems, and that of the HRLC, a leading domestic human rights NGO with experience in advocating successfully for national implementation of UN human rights recommendations.

The Guide considers strategies and tactics that NGOs can use to contribute to the implementation of UN recommendations at the national level. Effective follow-up by civil society is vital to ensuring that UN recommendations lead to an improvement of the human rights situation on the ground.

The Guide is intended for a diverse audience, working in different countries and sectors, and with different areas of focus and expertise. The Guide outlines a range of strategies with a view to NGOs identifying those which are most appropriate to their domestic political, legal, economic, and social contexts and their organisation’s goals, resources, and working methods.

You can download a copy of the guide here.


UN flag thumbnail image by Nicolas Raymond.

ISHR Board member appointed as UN’s expert on human rights in Haiti


(Geneva – 14 June 2013) The International Service for Human Rights is delighted that ISHR Board member and Executive Director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, Gustavo Gallon, has been appointed as the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Haiti.

Mr Gallon has been a Board member of the International Service for Human Rights since 2010. He has previously served as the UN’s Special Representative on Equatorial Guinea (1999 to 2002) and is Chair of the Center for Justice and International Law in Washington, DC. Mr Gallon is also a member of the International Commission of Jurists.

Welcoming the appointment, ISHR Director, Phil Lynch, said, ‘Gustavo Gallon is one of the world’s leading human rights advocates and jurists. His deep commitment to human rights, social justice and the rule of law is well known.’

‘ISHR’s proud association with Mr Gallon traces back twenty years to 1993, when he was one of three Latin American human rights NGO representatives at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna – a conference at which ISHR played a civil society leadership and coordination role,’ Mr Lynch said.

As the UN’s Independent Expert on human rights in Haiti, Mr Gallon will be responsible for working with both government and civil society to assist in promoting human rights, strengthening the rule of law and combating impunity.

The Human Rights Council: recent achievements, challenges, and a look ahead


(Geneva - 27 June 2013) - The two sessions held by the Human Rights Council so far this year have seen the continuation of the improved dynamic observed at recent sessions of the Council. At these sessions the Council adopted, amongst others, resolutions on the situations in Sri Lanka, North Korea, Myanmar, Belarus, Eritrea, and three resolutions on Syria. 

Turnaround on Sri Lanka

The Sri Lanka resolution in some ways epitomises the turnaround in the effectiveness of the Council. Four years ago, in 2009, the Council held a shockingly biased emergency debate on the situation in Sri Lanka that turned into a forum to praise the government’s efforts to protect human rights and resettle internally displaced people. This debate took place immediately after the ending of the country’s 26 year civil war, with the UN estimating between 40 – 70,000 civilian deaths.

It was two years later, in 2011, that Canada made an attempt to bring a resolution on Sri Lanka, withdrawing the text in the face of strong opposition from Sri Lanka. It was not until 2012 that the US’s political clout enabled it to successfully lead a resolution to adoption by the Council. The US followed up this success with a further resolution in March 2013. The resolutions are framed around the recommendations that came from Sri Lanka’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, that is, the text is fairly moderate. The 2013 text calls for the Sri Lankan Government to carry out an independent and credible investigation into allegations of violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law.

Although relatively moderate, the Council’s eventual response to the situation in Sri Lanka boosted its credibility, by finally closing the gap between what human rights defenders around the world had long been calling for, and the action the Council had, or had not, been taking.

Continued attention on Syria

A similar boost to credibility has come generally from the way the Council responded and continues to respond to the events of the so-called Arab Spring. The situation in Syria, for example, has not been off the Council’s agenda since the violence there broke out, and in June the Council adopted two resolutions on this situation – the 9th and 10th to have been adopted since 2011. The Commission of Inquiry established by the Council in 2011 reports to every session of the Council. The Council has also held 5 emergency debates on the subject, three of which were held outside its regular sessions.

Perhaps it speaks to the impotency of the Council that after so much attention the situation is worse rather than better. However it is only because of regular reporting to the Council that the world knows that 93,000 people have been killed in the fighting in Syria. The debates also provide a platform for human rights defenders from Syria to bring their own findings and cases in an international forum. At the latest session of the Council, in June, ISHR brought 5 Syrian defenders to Geneva in the context of a training course – these defenders used this opportunity to put their own findings and perspectives before States.

Acknowledgement of the work of human rights defenders

Another recent success from the Council, and one in which ISHR had a key role, was the adoption in March, by consensus, of a landmark resolution on the protection of human rights defenders that calls for an end to the use and abuse of national law to restrict and criminalise the work of human rights defenders. Again this reflects what is an increasing trend and is another sign that the Council is increasingly on the ball recently.

The final text is a good example of how strong resolutions result when States work closely to ensure that the concerns of human rights defenders are heard and reflected.

We were particularly pleased that the final text includes reference to reference to the threats faced by women human rights defenders – this reflects another of ISHR’s advocacy goals, to ensure that human rights laws and mechanisms protect women human rights defenders, aware of the specific vulnerabilities that women human rights defenders face. ISHR has worked hard to ensure that States pay due attention to this issue. At the June session similar language was included in a resolution on violence against women and another text on discrimination against women.

The resolution on human rights defenders points to the increasing acknowledgement and recognition by the Council of the importance of the work of human rights defenders.

In addition, the increased responsiveness on country situations points to a far better match between the calls from human rights defenders and the action of the Council – this speaks to a generally improved space and potential for defenders to engage with the Council.

Backlash against NGO space

Nevertheless there are challenges, not the least of which is a corresponding backlash from some States against NGO space. Seeing that NGOs are increasing their influence, these States are resorting to often desperate measures to close down that space.

One of the most evident signs that Sri Lanka really had something to hide and was desperate to keep the situation in the country off the Council’s agenda, was the way it reacted to human rights defenders who had travelled to Geneva to participate in the Council’s debates. Defenders reported being stopped in the corridors by members of the Sri Lankan delegation and they and their families threatened. At the same time a Government minister back in Colombo was reported by the BBC as saying that he would ‘break the legs’ of those he labelled ‘traitors’ who were criticising Sri Lanka in Geneva.

Similar threats were faced by human rights defenders who came from Bahrain to draw the Council’s attention to events unfolding there. At least one of these defenders received death threats on his mobile phone after making a statement in the Council, and since returning to Bahrain has faced a campaign of judicial harassment. He was again back in court last week on charges of “participation in illegal protests”. 

ISHR takes the issue of safety of defenders who cooperate with the UN human rights system extremely seriously –we see it as a fundamental threat to the space for HRDs at the UN. Further, if human rights defenders do not have the space to present their cases to the Council and in other human rights fora, the UN is deprived of the information it needs to take the informed decisions that it is starting to make more regularly.

States are now responding to concerns on this issue. Hungary led the adoption by the Council of the first resolution to address reprisals against human rights defenders who cooperate with the UN system – which resulted in the Council holding a debate to discuss the issue and ways forward. Hungary will bring another resolution on this issue in September and ISHR will again work closely with them to ensure the strongest text possible.

Of course this harassment is much wider spread than just in Geneva - in the June session the Special Rapporteur, or UN expert, on freedom of association and assembly, Maina Kiai, reported on restrictions faced by NGOs – he cited examples from Egypt and Russia of attempts to restrict the funding of NGOs, noting that the right to receive funding is an integral part of the right to association and assembly, and that attempts to restrict it are attempts to suppress the voice of civil society.  

The promotion of ‘traditional values’

Another challenge is the push by some States towards fundamentally regressive goals. One of these challenges is organised around the concept of so-called ‘traditional values’. The Council has adopted several resolutions on this subject, led by Russia, the thrust of which has been to attempt to establish traditional values as a legitimate way to interpret human rights. We see this as a serious and insidious attempt to undermine the universal human rights framework, and it has particular repercussions for those who challenge societal ‘norms’ particularly women and LGBT defenders, but also any group whose views or identities lie outside mainstream society.

At the March session earlier this year, the latest iteration of this push showed itself in a draft resolution tabled by Egypt on protection of the family. This text made no reference to diverse family forms, and no reference to potential violations of rights inside the family. It treated the family as a unit to be protected, without regard to the rights of those individuals within it. The protection of the family, without consideration of the rights of the individual members, is not a human rights issue.

This resolution was eventually withdrawn in the face of Latin American, and western States’ opposition, and it did not re-emerge at the June session. However in the September session Russia is again due to bring its resolution on traditional values. And with next year the 20th anniversary of the year of the family it seems certain that Egypt will find some way to capitalise on this to bring its text again at a future session.

Sexual orientation and gender identity

Looking ahead for the Council – what’s on the agenda? The rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons is one of the biggest issues due to be addressed by the Council. States adopted the first Council resolution on this issue in 2011 – a real breakthrough, all the more so because the negotiations were led by South Africa. This broke the typical dynamic on this issue whereby African States in particular criticise the imposition of ‘western values’ on their societies.

The June session marked two years after the 2011 resolution was adopted, and in Council terms it marked the point at which follow-up would naturally be expected. Unfortunately nothing was forthcoming from South Africa which announced its preference for moving extremely cautiously. States will certainly be discussing over the coming months whether South Africa’s lack of strong leadership warrants another State taking the issue over – something that needs to be carefully calculated to avoid feeding the still prevalent dynamic of the west against Africa (in particular). Looking further ahead to the possibility of bringing some moderate African States on board, States should be careful not to damage that possibility and push those States further away by having a western State take this over.

The way in which the Council handles the issue of sexual orientation and gender identity will certainly be one of the big themes to watch for in coming sessions.

Human rights defenders and business

Likewise the business and human rights agenda is gaining traction. The Council had appointed an expert, Mr John Ruggie, to develop guiding principles on business and human rights, and subsequently appointed a group of experts to push forwards on the implementation of those principles once they were developed.

This group of experts presented its second report to the Council in June – and one issue it raised was that of the targeting of human rights defenders as a result of their protesting against the activities of corporations and trying to assist the victims of violations to access remedies. If the Council really wants to promote implementation of the guiding principles, it must ensure that those who are drawing attention to the violations committed by corporations have the space to have their voices heard.

This crucial issue is one that ISHR will work to promote in the future. We have already seen a promising response in that the group of experts held a public discussion on the Rana Plaza tragedy just last week to draw out what lessons can be learnt – thereby ensuring that they take the time and create the space for human rights defenders to be heard. By working closely with Norway, the lead State on the issue of business and human rights, we envisage great potential to move this issue forwards.

Contact: Heather Collister, Program Manager at International Service for Human Rights at or +41 79 92 03 805.

President of Human Rights Council must address alleged reprisals in China


(Geneva - 5 July 2013) - In a joint letter, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) requested the President of the United Nations Human Rights Council to urgently address alleged reprisals against human rights defenders in China.

A press release issued by ‘Chinese Human Rights Defenders’ (CHRD) on 4 July alleges that human rights defenders who were staging a peaceful sit-in aimed at highlighting the importance of the State engaging civil society actors in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process were subjected to restrictions of their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression and were further subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention.

‘The President of the Human Rights Council is responsible for the work of the Council and it’s subsidiary mechanisms, and is the custodian of the integrity and quality of the UPR’ said Phil Lynch, Director of the International Service for Human Rights. ‘It is therefore imperative that he acts decisively to ensure the full and safe participation of civil society in the Council’s work’, Mr Lynch said.

The Universal Periodic Review process is a critical mechanism of the Human Rights Council. The participation of civil society in the UPR process is essential to ensure that the process is based on ‘objective and reliable information’ as required by General Assembly Resolution 60/251. Civil society participation in the drafting of the national report is directly envisaged by the founding texts of the Council, and is essential to ensure that the national report reflects the actual human rights situation on the ground.

In their joint letter, HRW and ISHR also urged the President to give effect to the Human Rights Council’s resolutions condemning intimidation and reprisals against those who cooperate with it, and in which the Council affirms “the duty of all States to end impunity for such actions by bringing the perpetrators, including accomplices, to justice in accordance with international standards and by providing an effective remedy for their victims”.

Read the joint letter and the CHRD press release.

ISHR advocacy helps to protect NGO participation in the UN Human Rights Council


(Geneva - 5 August 2013) - Proposals to restrict the important work of non-governmental organisations in the UN Human Rights Council have won the support of just thirteen states following advocacy efforts by NGOs in Geneva.

On 31 July, the Permanent Mission of Pakistan sent letter on behalf of a group of ‘like-minded States’ to the President of the Human Rights Council regarding the participation of NGOs. The letter makes a number of proposals which would have the purpose or effect of restricting NGOs’ participation in the work of the Council, including by enabling the arbitrary or discriminatory exclusion of NGO representatives, exposing such representatives to increased risk of intimidation or reprisal, and facilitating the censorship of NGO side-events.

However, despite efforts to gather up to 60 signatories to the letter, the final letter was endorsed by just 13 States – Pakistan, China, Russia, Cuba, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Uganda, North Korea, Belarus, India, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Iran. This followed outreach and lobbying by NGOs to many States that were invited to sign on to the letter, including through the distribution of a joint NGO letter circulated to those States.

‘International law recognises the important role played by non-governmental organisations in the promotion and protection of human rights, including through their advocacy at the UN,’ said Phil Lynch, Director of the International Service for Human Rights.

‘As the world’s peak, multilateral human rights body, it is imperative that NGOs are able to participate in the work of the Human Rights Council and that the Council hears directly the voices of human rights defenders.’

‘It is very pleasing that despite the best efforts of some States, only 13 of the UN’s 193 Member States were prepared to endorse proposals that are incompatible with international law and which would undermine civil society contributions to the Council.’

The critical role of NGOs is enshrined in Article 38 of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, General Assembly resolution 60/251 and the Human Rights Council’s Institution Building Package. It is also reflected in Operative Paragraph 15 of Human Rights Council resolution 22/6 on human rights defenders, adopted by consensus by the Council in March 2013.

Contact: Phil Lynch, Director of ISHR, on + 41 76 708 4738 or

Interview: Human Rights Counsellor, Geir Sjøberg, Norwegian Mission to the UN, Geneva


1. The Human Rights Council has adopted a resolution which some have called a landmark in furthering the protection of human rights defenders. Are you satisfied with the results?

Let me first of all thank the ISHR and other human rights organizations for the invaluable advise and support throughout the process we have had here in Geneva.

In 2011, the General Assembly expressed grave concerns about the serious nature of risks faced by human rights defenders due to threats, attacks and acts of intimidation against them. Regrettably, the situation has hardly improved since then. On the contrary, current trends are largely negative, as reported by the Special Rapporteur and others. Against this background, the Council had to respond with a clear message. The resolution ‘Protecting Human Rights Defenders’ should be seen as such, as the collective voice of the international community in 2013. On balance, we see the resolution as an appropriate response by the Human Rights Council at a very difficult time for human rights defenders in all regions of the world.

The unanimous adoption of this resolution sends an important signal of support to all the courageous people who are fighting against human rights violations all over the world. We must now work to ensure that this resolution is translated into concrete results on the ground and leads to an improvement in the situation of human rights defenders. 

2. What do you see as the main advances achieved through the resolution? The resolution places special emphasis on women human rights defenders; why did you choose to highlight their work?

The resolution provides for a collective and clear direction to States, which rallied behind the resolution when adopting it by consensus. A large number of States across all regions have also cosponsored the resolution. This is important.

The strength of the resolution lies in the broad support around a comprehensive and clear message. I believe it addresses the main issues in a principled and fairly straight forward manner. Let me mention a few aspects. A key message of the resolution is that national legislation must be consistent with international human rights law. Measures to combat terrorism and preserve national security must follow transparent and foreseeable criteria and standards. Procedural safeguards must be in place, including in criminal cases against human rights defenders. Legal provisions and their application affecting human rights defenders must be clearly defined, determinable and non-retroactive, and they cannot be used or misused to criminalize, stigmatize, impede, obstruct or otherwise restrict the work of human rights defenders contrary to international human rights law. Rather, human rights defenders must be allowed to play their important and legitimate role in the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The independence of their organizations must be respected.

Moreover, the freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly - which are essential for the promotion and protection of other rights - must be ensured and provided for on a very practical level, including by avoiding discriminatory restrictions on potential sources of funding. Laws regulating civil society organizations must not hinder, but facilitate their work. New forms of communication, online and offline, and the media of one’s choice should be promoted and facilitated at all levels. Clear laws and policies must allow for a general right to request and receive information held by public authorities. Provisions must not prevent public officials from being held accountable. Penalties for defamation must be limited in order to ensure proportionality. Legislation aimed at preserving public morals must be compatible with international human rights law. Legislation must not target the activities of those defending the rights of persons belonging to minorities or espousing minority beliefs. States must ensure that dissenting views are allowed. These are some of the aspects that are laid out in the resolution.

Let me add that the resolution also sends a strong message that States must allow defenders to cooperate effectively with the UN and other international bodies without the fear of reprisals of any kind.

The emphasis on women human rights defenders is significant, both because recent events have shown the vulnerability of women in this context, and because effective, just and sustainable development will only happen with women being allowed to assume their rightful place in society. Gender equality is a fundamental and overriding priority of the Government of Norway.

3. Are there any elements that were particularly difficult to negotiate or that you feel should have been covered but were left out?

As with any UN negotiations concerning topical issues, there will be differences in view, but the extensive and transparent process that we had over the four-week Council session permitted for all views to be heard and considered, and in the end we found common ground, as expressed by the resolution.

Over all, we believe that the resolution reflects and gives justice to the important recommendations issued by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. These recommendations covers the key, pertinent issues, in our view, and they formed a solid basis for the resolution.

4. We've heard one state disassociate itself based on the paragraph on the right to access funding; how do you intend to ensure the resolution in its entirety is applied in policy making in the contexts in which it matters most?

States are under the obligation to protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms of all persons.  The resolution states clearly that no law should criminalize or delegitimize activities in defense of human rights on account of the origin of funding thereto. The resolution also urges states to extend support to local human rights defenders.

We will continue our dialogue with all partners, this is a process, and we will continue to play our part with a view to realizing fully the objectives of the resolution, so that human rights defenders can in fact operate free from hindrance and insecurity, a fundamental principle to which all States have agreed.

5. Why did Norway focus on the particular theme of the use of legislation to restrict the work of human rights defenders? What plans do you have for the future development of the defenders resolution? 

In light of the increased pressure on human rights defenders, in all regions of the world, and based on the report of the Special Rapporteur to the General Assembly last fall, we believed that this was the logical and appropriate theme to address. Consultations with a broad set of actors confirmed this approach.

The work in support of human rights defenders is a top and long-standing priority of the Norwegian government. The creation of a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders should be a fundamental objective of any society. We will continue to follow developments closely here, and we will continue to provide leadership in this very important area. The UN resolutions constitute an important part of this commitment. We will continue to work closely with all partners, including the ISHR and other human rights organizations, in defining the proper steps ahead.

6. Finally, the HRC is sometimes criticised for developing its work in a vacuum, and for delivering limited impact for rights holders on the ground. Have you faced or do you anticipate such criticism in relation to this particular resolution? What does Norway intend to do to ensure the resolution represents a tangible value add for human rights defenders in their day to day work?

The reactions to the resolution adopted on 21 March have – as far as I have seen – been largely welcoming of its message and of its broad support.

We will work with all partners at all levels in order to realize the important objectives of the resolution.

We will listen carefully to civil society and other stakeholders, in accordance with the spirit of paragraph 20 of the resolution, through our ongoing day to day contacts and partnerships with human rights defenders in all regions.

The doors of Norwegian embassies are always open to human rights defenders.

End restrictions on NGO access to funds for human rights advocacy


(Geneva – 29 May 2013) – Non-government organisations, particularly those that advocate on issues of human rights, are facing unprecedented restrictions on access to funding, according to a new report by a UN expert.

In his annual report to the Human Rights Council, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, says ‘In recent years, civil society actors have been facing increased control and undue restrictions in relation to funding they received, or allegedly received.’

According to Mr Kiai, the ‘problem is not isolated and exists in all parts of the world’, with the restrictions aiming, ‘in many cases, to silence the voices of dissent and critics.’

The right of NGOs and civil society organisations to access and to receive funding is a fundamental aspect of the right to freedom of association. It is expressly guaranteed in Article 13 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which provides that ‘Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to solicit, receive and utilise resources for the express purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms through peaceful means’.

According to ISHR Director, Phil Lynch, the Special Rapporteur’s report exposes a disturbing global trend.

‘The Special Rapporteur’s report rightly calls attention to illegitimate and disproportionate restrictions on NGO access to funds in Algeria, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Egypt, Jordan, Russia, Sudan, Uganda and Zimbabwe. However, the problem is not limited to the Global South. Just last week, new guidelines were announced in New South Wales, Australia which effectively prohibit community legal centres from undertaking “political advocacy or political activism”.’

The NSW Legal Assistance Services Funding Principles state that this includes, but is not limited to, ‘lobbying governments and elected officials on law reform and policy issues’ and also includes ‘public campaigning and advocacy… seeking changes to government policies or laws’.

According to Mr Lynch, laws and policies such as those described in the Special Rapporteur’s report or recently adopted in Australia are incompatible with international human rights law and directly contradict a landmark resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2013 and explicitly supported by Egypt and Australia. Human Rights Council resolution 22/6, entitled ‘Protecting human rights defenders’, calls upon States to ensure ‘that no law should criminalize or delegitimize activities in defence of human rights on account of the origin of funding thereto.’

The International Service for Human Rights warmly welcomes the Special Rapporteur’s report and calls upon States to endorse and fully implement its key recommendations, including by:

  • Enshrining the rights to rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly in law and practice,
  • Ensuring that any restriction on the rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly is strictly necessary, reasonable, proportionate and non-discriminatory; and
  • Recognising and protecting the right to NGOs and other civil society organisations to seek and receive funding – whether from domestic, foreign or international sources – and to use those funds to promote and protect human rights, including through advocacy.

An ISHR briefing paper on the right to access funding is available here (May 2009).

An opinion piece written for ISHR by Human Rights Watch Executive Director, Ken Roth, on the right of NGOs to receive foreign funding is available here (April 2013).

Opinion: NGOs Have a Right to Receive Foreign Funding


By Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch

The first lesson taught in the School for Autocrats is to keep people isolated.  When people join together to advance a political perspective, they gain confidence in their views and power in their collective voice.  But when society is atomized, fear is more likely to dominate, and individuals acting alone have a harder time making their voices heard. 

A common way for people to join together is by creating a non-governmental organization (NGO).  So when autocrats want to keep society cowed—to avoid organized pressure for change—a top priority is to handcuff the NGOs.  Because simply banning NGOs would so obviously flout the right to freedom of association, autocrats these days pursue more subtle approaches.  An increasingly common technique involves two steps: first, generating sufficient fear so few residents dare fund an NGO like a human rights group that is genuinely independent or might criticize the government; and second, citing nationalism or the alleged dangers of outside interference to ban or restrict foreign funding of NGOs. 

Ethiopia enacted a law in 2009 that prohibits human rights groups from receiving more than 10 percent of their funding from abroad.  That has decimated the country’s human rights movement.  Russia adopted a law in 2012 requiring NGOs that receive foreign funds to proclaim themselves “foreign agents.”  Russian human rights groups have refused, even under threat of prosecution, because the label is so stigmatizing.  Now Egypt is debating a law that would empower the government to determine which NGOs are allowed to receive foreign funding.  That would invite the government to pick favorites, approving foreign funds for lapdogs while rejecting them for critics.

But why are foreign funds so nefarious when NGOs get them yet apparently uncontroversial when others do?  The Ethiopian government is one of the largest aid recipients in Africa; does that make it subversive?  The Russian government lives off its sale of oil and natural gas to foreign buyers; is that an act of treason?  The Egyptian government receives billions of dollars in US military assistance and is negotiating for billions more in loans from the IMF; is that an act of disloyalty?

Of course not.  So why is it wrong for NGOs to solicit financial support from foreign friends? Bolstered by foreign funds, governments routinely advance their political agendas.  Militaries and businesses do the same.  Why should NGOs be singled out for restriction? It leaves the impression that their real sin is not accepting foreign contributions but criticizing the government. 

Restricting NGOs may be the first rule of the Autocrats School, but it violates the first principles of democratic societies.  That is because elections alone provide insufficient opportunity for the public to influence the decisions of government. The mere act of voting, important as it is, is too blunt an instrument by itself for citizens to express their views.  At best people vote for a political party -- a tendency or orientation -- but that periodic vote does not mean uncritical endorsement of every decision the party might make about the broad range of issues—some foreseeable some not—that arise in day-to-day governance.

That’s where the rights of free speech and association come in.  People need the freedom to speak out on issues whenever they arise, not only on Election Day.  And the way to increase the reach of each person’s voice is through such megaphones as social media, the press, and the ability to join together with like-minded people through groups such as NGOs.  Human rights NGOs play the added role of defending those whose voices a government wants to silence. 

It should be no surprise that NGOs -- like the media -- sometimes criticize government decisions. That is not subversion.  It is the essence of democracy.  Any government effort to bar funding for critics or to steer funding only to groups that parrot official views undermines this essential democratic role.

That is not to say that anything goes for NGOs.  Like everyone else, they should refrain from criminality.  If an NGO worker really is plotting to violently overthrow the state or to commit some other legitimately proscribed act, he or she should be prosecuted under the regular criminal code.  There is no need for additional restrictions specifically for NGOs.

Any regulation of NGOs should focus on their conduct, not their source of funds.  So long as an organization is engaged in peaceful advocacy, even if that is critical dissent, it should be entitled to do so as a matter of right, regardless of who funds it.



If the United Nations (UN) is to effectively monitor State compliance with human rights obligations and protect victims from abuse globally, it is crucial that human rights defenders and victims of human rights violations can access and communicate with the UN freely and safely. Unfortunately, ‘free’ and ‘safe’ are not hallmarks of the experience for many defenders and victims who seek to engage with the UN. 

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