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Press Statement on the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

5 December 2018

Human rights defenders work to ensure peace, justice, equality, fairness and dignity for everyone. They help governments implement their obligations. They disseminate human rights education and champion the rights of vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals and groups. They expose violations by State and non-State Actors. They help to hold perpetrators to account and to deliver justice to victims. And they contribute to sustainable and inclusive development and a better future for all.

Twenty years on from its unanimous adoption by the UN General Assembly, we recall that the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders is a set of minimum international standards for human rights to protect all those individuals, groups and associations that promote human rights. The 1998 Declaration places human rights defenders at the heart of achieving the Universal Declaration on Human Rights’ mission of ensuring all human rights for all. It reaffirms, is underpinned by, and elaborates binding international law.

Anyone who acts, or seeks to act, to promote and protect the universal realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms by peaceful means is a human rights defender. Human rights defenders were not born of the Declaration; the Declaration was created from the need to give their seemingly ceaseless - and often thankless work - due recognition and protection.

By identifying, assessing, and reporting on State ’ fulfillment of their human rights obligations, human rights defenders provide fundamental support, not just to the Human Rights Defenders mandate, but to all Special Procedures mandates and to the international and national human rights protection systems. There can be no realisation of human rights without them - their courageous voices, contribute to peace, security and sustainable development.

Human rights defenders must be able to act freely and without any interference, intimidation, abuse, threat, violence, reprisal or undue restriction. Creating a safe and enabling environment, including by promoting respect and support for the activities of human rights defenders and by ensuring a gender-sensitive approach, is essential for the promotion, protection and defense of human rights.Acts of intimidation or reprisal against human rights defenders violate human rights and are contrary to the principles enshrined in the UN Charter.

We remember more than 3,500 human rights defenders, who have been killed for their peaceful work since the adoption of the Declaration in 1998, many of whom are women. Their deaths are tragic reminders that international consensus on the need for human rights defenders to be protected has been falling apart over time.

In recent years, human rights defenders have been increasingly harassed, arbitrary detained and even killed for defending principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We recall the appalling fact that between 2015 and 2017, on average, one person was killed every day while standing up for human rights.

We should remember the words of the late Kofi Annan who, some months before the adoption of the Declaration in 1998, noted that “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.”

As we mark the 20th anniversary of this milestone declaration, we celebrate the unwavering efforts and hard-won achievements of all of all of those who stand up for human rights - particularly of those who have done so, and continue to do so, in the face of great adversity.

UN human rights experts urge all States to fully implement the Declaration as a matter of urgency. The implementation of the Declaration is inherent to the United Nation’s raison d’être to maintain peace and security, protect human rights, promote sustainable development, and uphold international law. We would like to reiterate and expand on the important words of former High Commissioner Zeid: human rights defenders provide the best hope to a troubled world.

States should adopt specific measures to safeguard and support human rights defenders, in line with the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and the recommendations of the Special Rapporteurs. In particular, States should:

  1. Publicly recognize the importance and legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders, including women human rights defenders who face additional threats and challenges, and reaffirm that no interference, intimidation, abuse, threat, violence, including sexual violence, or reprisal against them or their families will be tolerated;
  2. Ensure that no one will be victim of intimidation and reprisals for seeking to cooperate, cooperating or having cooperated with the UN in the field of human rights, including with SP;
  3. Adopt laws and policies that specifically guarantee the protection of human rights defenders, with particular reference to the situation and protection needs of human rights defenders facing specific risks, such as women human rights defenders and children human rights defenders;
  4. Adopt timely measures to prevent interference, intimidation, abuse, threats, violence, attacks or reprisals against human rights defenders, including by establishing a mechanism for the protection of human rights defenders at the national level which would also respond to the specific protection needs of women human rights defenders;
  5. Conduct prompt, thorough and impartial investigations into any interference, intimidation, abuse, threat, violence or reprisal against human rights defenders and ensure accountability for perpetrators;
  6. Amend or repeal any legislation that criminalizes or obstructs the work of human rights defenders, including vague and overbroad restrictions on fundamental freedoms (including freedom of expression, freedom of association, and right of peaceful assembly), as well as regulations that prohibit, limit or hinder them from soliciting, receiving and utilizing resources, including from domestic and international sources;
  7. Strengthen State institutions responsible for safeguarding and supporting the work of human rights defenders.

* The experts are on the Coordination Committee which is a body of six independent experts which coordinates and facilitates the work of ‘Special Procedures’ as a whole. “Special Procedures” which is the general name of the independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms of the Human Rights Council that address either specific country situations or thematic human rights issues in all parts of the world. Currently, there are 44 thematic mandates and 12 mandates related to countries and territories, with 80 active mandate holders. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights provides these mechanisms with support for the fulfilment of their mandates.