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Statement at 2020 Martin Annals Ceremony by High Commissioner for Human Rights

Geneva, 19 February 2020


Distinguished finalists of the 2020 Martin Annals Award,

It is my great pleasure to join you in this ceremony, as we reaffirm our commitment to standing up for all human rights.

For everyone. Every day, everywhere.

Tonight, we gather to honour three exceptional women and their stories of courage and principle.

Three women who made a difference in their communities and in the world: by standing up for justice and equality and by speaking out against powers and pressures that were often overwhelming.

Women human rights defenders have been at the forefront of advances on all human rights, as well as of social movements that have benefitted all of us.

I must say, that as a woman and a lifelong feminist, I am very happy to be here tonight, the first time that all finalists of the Martin Annals Award are women.

Congratulations to you and thank you for your work and commitment!

Dear friends,

Attacks and harassment against all human rights defenders are on the rise in many parts of the world.

Women, however, tend to face additional obstacles.

They are frequently targeted and attacked for being feminists or simply just because they are women who are speaking up – exercising a universal right, one unfortunately still often believed as not belonging to all.

Women human rights defenders are repeatedly seen as threatening the status quo, religion, and traditional notions of family, honour, so-called “morality” or culture.

As a result, they can be subjected to stigmatization, ostracism and even threats and assault.  

All of us know that the journey towards gender equality is still long and challenging.

And we must vow to never be complacent. 

Although we have seen tremendous improvement in the past decades, we are still not where were we should be… where we must be.

We are seeing a pushback against many women’s rights and the resurgence of narratives against gender equality based on centuries-long discrimination.

We must push back on the pushbacks. And continue to push forward.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted by all Member States of the United Nations, recognizes gender equality and the human rights of women and girls’ as indispensable for building a better future for all.

This is a matter for all of us.

Civil society has a crucial voice and plays a huge role.

Still, for decades, the efforts, the courage and contributions of women human rights defenders did not receive equal attention.

Today’s award shows that that is no longer true.

We owe this change to women like the three of you, who are shaping the future  – each in her own way:

For more than four decades, Sizani Ngubane has been fighting for human rights in her native South Africa, and has been pushing for gender equality, particularly for rural women, by working on laws, but also through campaigning and advocacy.  

Norma Librada Ledezma became a human rights defender when her daughter, Paloma, disappeared on her way home from school in Chihuahua, Mexico. Since her horrific personal experience, she has been fighting for justice for the families and victims of feminicide, disappearance and human trafficking in her country – and supporting others to do the same. Norma is responsible for the creation of a Special Prosecutor office for Women Victims of Violence in her native state of Chihuahua.

Huda Al-Sarari, a Yemeni human rights lawyer, has been working with local human rights organisations and helped expose arbitrary detention and torture of thousands of men and boys in a network of secret prisons run by foreign governments. Despite numerous threats and defamation campaigns, she keeps pursuing justice.
Distinguished finalists,

I am impressed and moved by you great courage, your determination and your commitment to our common humanity.

Voicing criticism, looking for inclusive solutions to challenges, and pushing for the space needed by all to fully participate in decision-making are essential to the progress of societies.

Thank you for your remarkable efforts for human dignity.

Dear friends,

Tonight we celebrate the respect for our shared values and universal human rights.

We celebrate standing up for them in often hostile environments.

We celebrate the efforts to advance them.

It is now my great honour to announce this year’s laureate of the Martin Annals Award, Ms. Huda al-Sarari.

Dear Ms. Huda al-Sarari, 

Your extraordinary work takes us to a path to a better future for all.

You are an inspiration to new generations of human rights defenders in your community and beyond.  

This Prize is the recognition of your struggle and is a public sign of support – to you and all human rights defenders all over the world.

I extend you my heartfelt congratulations and thank you for standing up for human rights.