New UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should be the “human rights defender-in-chief”

August 11, 2014

My reference last week to an interview with the new Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders [] seemed well appreciated judging from the number of views. Therefore I now refer you to a piece by the Director of the ISHR, Phil Lynch, of 16 July, who addresses the incoming UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein as the “human rights defender-in-chief “, saying that he has a particular responsibility to protect human rights defenders, especially so when they face intimidation and reprisals for their efforts to seek accountability at the UN for human rights violations.

Human rights defenders are the heroes of our time,’ said outgoing High Commissioner Navi Pillay in one of her final addresses to the UN Human Rights Council. ‘They inject the life blood into human rights: they are the promoters of change, the people who ring the alarm about abuse, poor legislation and creeping authoritarianism.

Lynch states that these words should be the point of departure for incoming High Commissioner: “Zeid will take office at a time when human rights defenders in many regions face worsening restrictions and attacks. In Uganda and Russia human rights defenders risk imprisonment for speaking out on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, while in Brazil and the Philippines human rights defenders are disappeared and killed in increasing numbers in connection with their work to protect environmental rights and expose corporate human rights violations. In some countries, such as Egypt and Bahrain, human rights defenders are being imprisoned merely for exercising their basic human rights to freedom of expression and peaceful protest, while in others, such as Sri Lanka and China, defenders are harassed and even killed for their efforts to expose and seek accountability at the UN for human rights violations. No person should face such risks for promoting and protecting the rights of others. In addition to facing worsening physical threats and attacks, human rights defenders in many regions are operating in an increasingly hostile legislative environment, with proposed or recently enacted laws in states such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India and Russia severely curtailing the independence, operations and access to funds of non-governmental organizations. In other states, national security and counter-terrorism legislation is used and abused to criminalize the work of defenders.”

Five steps the new High Commissioner should take in this regard are laid out by Phil Lynch:

  1. Zeid should be accessible and proactive in his engagement with civil society, …the High Commissioner’s close engagement with those working at the frontline of human rights will ensure that the work of the Office is targeted, relevant and responsive.
  2. Zeid should push states to develop and implement specific national laws and policies to recognise and protect the work of human rights defenders.
  3. He should promote and pursue investigations and accountability for attacks on human rights defenders. The vast majority of attacks on defenders – up to ninety percent – are perpetrated with impunity.
  4. He must stand up against efforts to weaken the universality of rights by subjecting their interpretation to notions such as ‘traditional values’, and speak out against efforts to silence women human rights defenders and those who work on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Human Rights Council in September is likely to present an unprecedented opportunity to do just that, with some states likely to push the Council to strengthen its response to homophobic violence and discrimination.
  5. Finally, the High Commissioner, has a particular responsibility to protect human rights defenders and others who face intimidation and reprisals, from both state and non-state actors, for their efforts to expose and seek accountability at the UN for human rights violations. There are numerous egregious cases of defenders being persecuted for their cooperation with the UN [see more posts on reprisals:] and, as an immediate step, Zeid should express support for the appointment of a high-level focal.

The full article was published in Open DemocracyThe High Commissioner for Human Rights: a human rights defender-in-chief | openDemocracy.

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