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Opening Statement by Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the 5th International workshop

Enhancing cooperation between regional and international mechanisms for the promotion and protection of human rights

Geneva, 4 October 2016

Distinguished President of the Human Rights Council,
Distinguished Presidents and Chairpersons of regional and sub-regional human rights mechanisms,
Distinguished experts,
Excellencies, Colleagues and Friends,

It is a pleasure to welcome you to this workshop on enhancing cooperation between our mechanisms to for the promotion and protection of human rights. Our topic is an important one, and I am delighted to see so many participants from all over the world, including several principals of institutions.

I am particularly pleased that this workshop will be focusing on ways to ensure that civil society and human rights defenders can operate freely. This is essential to every principle of good governance, and absolutely fundamental to the promotion of human rights. Governments exist to serve their people – not the other way round.

We are here to defend the defenders. Currently, in every region across the globe, the voices of civil society are being restricted, silenced or eliminated. We see mass surveillance, and obstructive regulation of the democratic space online, including by blocking websites. Overly restrictive legislation to regulate associations and limit the exercise of fundamental public freedoms – with frequent reference to the threat of terrorism, as if its invocation alone can justify every kind of limitation on universal, inalienable rights. We observe harassment and violence against human rights defenders and people who exercise their right to express opinions in peaceful protests.

As the Human Rights Council has frequently pointed out in its resolutions on human rights defenders, people working for the rights of minorities and women human rights defenders are particularly at risk. The most recent resolution by the Council expresses grave concern at the situation of defenders working for environmental rights and land rights. Among those most at risk of violence are defenders who expose discrimination, corruption and violence by States and corporations.

Distinguished Colleagues,

When States limit public freedoms and oppress the independent voices of civic activity, they deny themselves the benefits of public engagement; aggravate legitimate grievances; and undermine national security, national prosperity and our collective progress. If ordinary people can share ideas to overcome common problems – as is their right – the result will be better governance, including economic governance, and more healthy, more secure, more sustainable States.

Civil society actors are also essential partners for all of us. Regional and international human rights systems count on human right defenders and representatives of civil society –including national human rights institutions – to help monitor the application of international human rights standards and follow up on implementation of recommendations. On issues ranging from the rights of migrants; the rights of women; land rights; the fight against discrimination; children's rights; the rights of people with disabilities and those with albinism, to name only a few – the work of many defenders has been essential to our conceptual, legal and practical progress.  

At this workshop, you will be taking stock of progress that has been made in our deepening cooperation in the past two years. I would like to mention just a few of the highlights. In Africa, my Office has been supporting the African Union's implementation of its Human Rights Strategy for Africa, including a series of activities to commemorate the African Year of Human Rights. The Addis Ababa Roadmap also provides a very positive framework for the active links between the Special Procedures and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. In Europe, a number of important activities involving regional and national courts have been jointly organised by my Office and the European Court for Human Rights. My Office has also been filing amicus briefs or intervening to provide expert opinions before the European Court for Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights – in fact, we filed another amicus brief with the European Court just last week. This too is a very promising area for future progress.

More broadly, I welcome the increasing cooperation planned in the Americas between Inter-American and UN treaty bodies. In Asia, I am gratified to note recent commitments to promote engagement between ASEAN and UN human rights mechanisms, and I look forward to further discussion of those processes. In the MENA region, my Office will be cooperating more broadly with the Independent Permanent Human Rights Committee of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, including on the rights of women and children, religious discrimination, the right to development and support for the Committee to grow closer to the UN human rights mechanisms.

These and other instances of increasing cooperation between all our bodies are essential to enable us to better honour and defend the enjoyment of human rights by the world's people. I firmly believe that UN and regional human rights mechanisms must complement each other, support each other and work closely together for a common end. With your profound understanding of local, national and regional situations and trends, and your rich practical experience, we count on you to offer your very valuable experience, lessons and advice.

Mr President,

Last month, at the opening of the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council, I raised my concern about situations in which OHCHR's work is blocked by States.  I urged Governments to give access to my Office to monitor human rights situations, in order that we can offer them the benefit of independent analysis and specific expertise in addressing protection gaps.

I am eager to benefit from your views on this. You are certainly aware of multiple situations in which officials have sought to deflect or obstruct human rights scrutiny. We are also seeing reprisals against civil society groups and lawyers who have cooperated with human rights mechanisms – including regional mechanisms. Our discussions on these issues are of crucial importance. How can we reinforce our efforts to address such predicaments? How can we more effectively help to broaden the space for civil society to act and express views? While maintaining all necessary respect for confidentiality – both for our respective mandates and for UN immunities – how can we improve our information sharing, and relevant protection systems?

On these and many other questions, I look forward to benefiting from your thoughts.

Mr President,

This workshop is an opportunity for regional human rights mechanisms to take a strong stand regarding the need for civil society and human rights defenders to participate with all human rights mechanisms. All of us – regional and UN human rights mechanisms – can commit, together, to improving the ways civil society can participate in our policy development and decision-making processes, including timely and extensive access to information.

The complementarity of the systems to protect and promote human rights on all levels –  international, regional, and national – constitutes a great asset. With deep and systematic cooperation, I firmly believe that we will be better equipped to confront together the many human rights challenges we face around the world.

I wish you productive and fruitful deliberations.

Thank you.