The utility, importance and potential of the Human Rights Council to human rights defenders working in restrictive environments


The Human Rights Council play a critical role, not only in promoting and protecting human rights, but also in protecting those that defend them, says Venezuelan human rights defender Feliciano Reyna.

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By Feliciano Reyna, Venezuelan human rights defender

As human rights defenders working in restrictive and unsafe environments, we have found the Human Rights Council (the Council) and its instruments and mechanisms to be of great importance to the promotion and defence of human rights, both in our countries and internationally, as well as to our own protection and to the prevention of reprisals.

We face restrictions of multiple and diverse forms in many countries, including incapacitating laws and regulations, and threats and stigmatisation on the part of government authorities and non-state actors. These often place our personal integrity, and even our lives, at risk. 

However, from 2009, we began working regularly with various special procedures of the Council, engaging with several rapporteurs and working groups. Then, in 2010, we began participating in the preparation of reports for the first cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of our country, Venezuela, through to the adoption of its recommendations in 2012. These processes brought us into much closer cooperation with the Human Rights Council itself, in which we have found a valuable system for the protection of human rights, which is effective not only for our work of ensuring human rights monitoring in our countries and assisting victims seeking justice and reparation, but also for our own protection.

Protection for human rights defenders

By unanimity or a majority of its members, the Council has issued crucial resolutions for the recognition and protection of an environment in which human rights defenders and our organisations are able to fulfil our role in our countries, to do our work in spite of the restrictions and threats that we face, and also to exercise our right to promote and defend human rights.

For example, with regard to the creation of an enabling environment, on 3 October 2014, the Council unanimously adopted Resolution 27/31[1] on civil society space. Among its calls, this resolution states that ‘…domestic legal and administrative provisions and their application should facilitate, promote and protect an independent, diverse and pluralistic civil society… strongly rejecting all threats, attacks, reprisals, and acts of intimidation against civil society actors…’

Regarding the recognition and protection of human rights defenders, on 21 March 2016, the Council adopted Resolution 31/32[2] on the protection of human rights defenders addressing economic, social and cultural rights. This resolution ‘strongly condemns the reprisals and violence against and the targeting, criminalization, intimidation, arbitrary detention, torture, disappearance and killing of any individual, including human rights defenders…’ Regretfully, the adoption of this resolution was rejected by 6 States, including Venezuela, the country of my birth, where I live and serve as a human rights defender.

Effective engagement

We have found that the best results in terms of advocacy before the Council and its mechanisms, as well as for the promotion and protection of human rights and of ourselves as human rights defenders in our countries, can be achieved through interaction between a wide range of diverse local and international organisations. The sum of the combined knowledge and experience of these organisations results in far more effective work.

Furthermore, we have also noted that improved results are a product of the broad and comprehensive design of the Council and its links with other human rights bodies. As such, although the most restrictive and dangerous environments for the defence of human rights generally arise from structural conditions affecting their enforcement – absence of the rule of law, lack of independence of the judiciary, restrictions on freedoms and systematic violations of human rights – the broad diversity of the special procedures allows these issues to be dealt with as a package. Through press releases, urgent actions and periodic reports, the attention of States can be drawn to any non-compliance with their international obligations pertaining to the enforcement of human rights. Urgent actions have a particular impact where they involve regional bodies for the protection of human rights, especially when they refer to reprisals against human rights defenders. The press releases, urgent actions, thematic reports and recommendations of special procedures are all of crucial value to the work of human rights defenders, both nationally and internationally.

The Universal Periodic Review also offers an extraordinary opportunity to work jointly with other national and international organisations. Not only does it allow comprehensive reporting to the international community on the enforcement of human rights in the country under review, or any lack thereof, but also, on the basis of the resulting recommendations, it allows issues to be added to the agenda for the promotion and protection of human rights by human rights defenders and organisations.

In our experience of working with the Council, its special procedures and the UPR, we have seen the need to ‘bring them closer’ to local human rights defenders, as well as to victims. Despite there being many accessible doorways to these bodies, they are still perceived as distant, complex and reserved for ‘experts’. It was by our own local efforts that we were able to gain closer interaction with the Council, its mechanisms and the treaty bodies. In addition, with the Venezuelan State declining to allow the in loco presence of Special Rapporteurs, academic visits have also become useful and highly effective forms of closer cooperation, in particular for local human rights defenders, who find themselves in a particularly severe situation of vulnerability, faced with restrictions and threats.

We would deem it appropriate, and indeed necessary for the legitimacy of the Council, that, in order to be eligible for membership, not only should candidate States have ratified important instruments, such as the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, but they should also allow the official visits requested by Special Rapporteurs. Furthermore, they should demonstrate observance of the recommendations issued by special procedures and treaty bodies, and fulfilment of their obligations relating to regional authorities for the protection of human rights. In this regard, we consider that the Venezuelan State should not be a member of the Human Rights Council.


[1] Civil society space: A/HRC/RES/27/31

[2] Protecting human rights defenders addressing economic, social and cultural rights: A/HRC/31/32


  • Latin America and Caribbean
  • United Nations
  • UN Special Rapporteur on HRDs
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • Universal Periodic Review
  • Venezuela