These brave women do essential, risk-laden work to bring communities together and to protect human rights in times of conflict. Having worked for the United Nations as a Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders for over 8 years, I have seen how the UN can empower and protect human rights and their defenders worldwide. But there is much more to be done. I welcome the most recent resolution on human rights defenders that was adopted by the General Assembly. However, I note with regret that it is for the first time that the resolution was put to a vote and not adopted by consensus as in the past. The fact that Pakistan was one of the fourteen countries that opposed the resolution is deeply worrying for the human rights community in the country.

Over the past seventy years, the nature of conflict has shifted to “identity” issues rather than questions of contested territory. This makes the work of human rights defenders, especially women, more important than ever. However when promoting these values in times of conflict, women are seen as betrayers of their communities and traditional values, and are often silenced.

In my home country of Pakistan, where identity-based conflicts centred around religion and extremism are prevalent, this is all too common. The issues raised by human rights defenders are cast aside and not important when there is a ‘larger’ battle to fight. I have heard countless times that women “complicate” peace processes. But this complication comes from a desire to ensure that the dimensions of peace with which women are familiar are not left out of any political settlement.

In the 2004 Pakistani parliamentary elections it became compulsory for political parties to fill up seats on a proportional basis specifically for women. This brought great improvements, for women and for human rights in general. The Human Rights Commission report of 2012 found almost all human rights legislation was tabled by women, regardless of what political parties they belonged to.

….Civil society also has a key role to play in ensuring human rights are respected and grassroots voices are heard. …Like within peace processes, civil society voices must be protected and heard by the Security Council to ensure a lasting peace. The Council needs to understand better what is happening on the ground. But it is also morally important, so that those people most affected by conflict have the chance to be heard. We need to work to improve the United Nations so that it fully protects the human rights of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants, not just pays lip service to the lofty words in its charter. Today, on Human Rights Day, we have much to celebrate; the past 70 years have seen great achievements in achieving comprehensive human rights standards for all. Bolstering and strengthening the United Nations will empower human rights defenders on the ground and their ability to uphold these standards for the next 70 years ahead.