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The 2018 Annual Trygve Lie Symposium on Fundamental Freedoms Human Rights Defenders: A Global Movement for Peace

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

New York, 27 September 2018

Distinguished President of the International Peace Institute,
My fellow panellists,
Colleagues, Friends, 

I am delighted that this symposium is among the very first engagements of my mandate as High Commissioner for Human Rights.

We are here in memory of Trygve Lie, thefirst UN Secretary General. It was during hismandate that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted and adopted, 70 years ago. 

This great document, with its magnificent language, proclaims that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." 

Furthermore – and this is too often forgotten – the Universal Declaration lays out the very practical and detailed steps, which lay the path away from conflict and deprivation, leading to the effective realisation of human rights.

I am deeply honoured to have received the mandate to protect and promote human rights across the world, on this, the 70th anniversary of this great promise by all States to their peoples. 

The Universal Declaration is a living document – a constant and universal commitment to every human being. As Trygve Lie himself said, "the Declaration is helping greater numbers of people all the time to be more articulate, and effective, in demanding and securing observance of their rights." 


It was during the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration that the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on human rights defenders -- officially known as "Declaration on the right and responsibility of individuals, groups and organs of society to promote and protect universally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms".

This Declaration grants every person the right “individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels". 

It brought new recognition to civil society activists, and made it clear that the effective implementation of human rights principles and law very much depends on the work of activists and civil society groups. 

It was a commitment to protect human rights defenders, and their rights to freedom of assembly and association. It was also a commitment to ensure freedom of information; to acknowledge the rights of groups and individuals to publish, discuss and draw public attention to human rights related matters; their right to develop new human rights ideas, and to advocate their acceptance; and their right to participate in public affairs.

At that time, the late Kofi Annan was the Secretary General. He described the core of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in these terms: “When the rights of human rights defenders are violated, all of our rights are put in jeopardy – and all of us are made less safe.” 

Twenty years after the Declaration on human rights defenders – and 70 years after adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – progress has been achieved. 

Across the globe, the power of civil societyparticipation has underpinned tremendous progress in human dignity; economic and social well-being; and a result of openness and inclusiveness more effective governance.

Many historic breakthroughs have been made, in numerous countries, to advance towards greater equality and freedom for women, members of ethnic, religious and caste minorities, and many other groups – including LGBTI communities and people with disabilities.  

Heroic men and women have stepped forward to claim rights for their fellow human beings – and many have succeeded. In numerous countries, strong traditions have taken root of ordinary people joining together in common causes for the betterment of all. 

In their voices, we hear what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims: "The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government".

Nevertheless, there are some dark clouds.  In recent years, we have seen space for civil society closing. In a wide range of countries, on every continent, Governments have imposed restrictions on the ability of civil society groups to operate or receive funding, or have failed in their obligations to include, recognize and protect defenders whose work and person is attacked. 

Human rights defenders are falsely vilified as traitors and terrorists. They face smear and disinformation campaigns, harassment and intimidation – and this is particularly the case for women and LGBTI human rights defenders,who often suffer attacks of a sexualized nature.

Defenders are threatened by officials, their offices raided and ransacked.  They may also bearbitrarily detained, or left unprotected to face physical assaults, gender-based violence and even murder. We are seeing violent crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations, and harsh prison sentences for the exercise of fundamental rights. 

We are also witnessing widespread efforts to silence, delegitimize and specifically target women’s human rights defenders – simply because they are women, or because of their efforts to promote gender equality.

Digital technologies are being used to further restrict the civic space in many countries, enabling intrusive practices, which attack the right to privacy, in contradiction with international human rights law. Human rights defenders are being tracked, facilitating their arrest, or attacks by private actors. Demands are also made on private communications platforms to transmit confidential information about people reporting on human rights violations.

Online campaigns against women human rights defenders aim to damage their credibility as advocates, diminish the power of their voices, and restrict the already limited public space in which women's activists can mobilise and make a difference.

In a number of countries, even the individuals and groups who assist the human rights work of the United Nations are openly under attack. The Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights recently reported "Acts of serious cruelty... against those who dare to cooperate with us – incommunicado detention, torture and ill-treatment, prolonged solitary confinement, and even killings." We have also received reports of sexual assault, threats of rape, online smear campaigns, intrusive physical searches, humiliating and degrading treatment, and travel bans intended to block people from having access to United Nations bodies. 

The magnitude and scope of these reprisals against people who cooperate with UN human bodies is far-reaching, and their impact is visible in countries where our staff often encounter people too afraid to speak with them.  

The breadth of attacks on human rights defenders, across societies, is overwhelming. By shutting down the active voices of the people, this assault on rights profoundly undermines the State's ability to respond to important concerns – and erodes the pillars of sustainable development and peace. 

People's right to claim their rights is essential, in and of itself. But it is also a driver of numerous other benefits. 

The meaningful participation of civil society in decision-making is more likely to ensure the fair distribution of resources. It is essential to implementing the Agenda for Sustainable Development – and this holds true for every area: health, housing, water, climate change. The best solutions will be found when those affected are meaningfully involved in identifying the best way forward – and if they can provide feedback once implementation has begun. 

Activism is also a strong driver of confidence in important institutions, and of access to fundamental goods. In this sense, itcan act as a powerful antidote to extremism. We need to hammer this message home: criticism and debate do not constitute terrorism – they area preventive tool against the rise of violent extremist groups.

So what can we do at this time when fundamental rights are so sorely under pressure? 

There is a way forward – and it is to fight back.

We need to stand up for human rights. We need to insist on spaces of inclusion and safety for civil society, including all human rights defenders. We need to safeguard the lives and the work of people across the world – not only in our own societies – who are struggling to shape a world of greater equality, greater peace, greater dignity and well-being. 

We need to speak out for fundamental freedoms. We need to counter the false and negative narrative that stigmatises human rights defenders as enemies, and remind officials and public constituencies alike that there is nothing more patriotic than fighting for the public good. 

We need to help defenders and activists join up in networks to defend the space for their activities. We need to build bridges to widen the constituency for human rights. We need to encourage businesses – including technology companies - to play a larger role in protecting the work of defenders – because public freedoms are good for business. And we need to build that business case. 

We need more effective accountability efforts at national, regional and international levels. We need them to take into account the experiences and voices of women defenders and others who face specific forms of discrimination and violence. 

We need to ensure that the civic space for all defenders to advocate for human rights at the UN and other international fora is vigorously protected and expanded.

And we need to remind Governments that they promised for good reason to uphold these rights. Because they build societies that are more harmonious and more resilient; societies that are strong because they are fair. 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts about how we can work together.

Thank you