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Statement by the Deputy High Commissioner at the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders

6 October 2015

Excellencies,
Colleagues and friends,

I feel very humble tonight, as I stand here before you. This is an award that honours individuals who have shown exceptional courage in defending and promoting fundamental freedoms. Asmaou Diallo, from Guinea, who works with victims of torture and other human rights violations. Ahmed Mansoor, of the United Arab Emirates, a brave and independent voice. Robert Sann Aung, a human rights lawyer from Myanmar. Tonight’s final nominees are exceptional and luminous examples of such commitment to their fellow human beings.

These three men and women have braved great risk, and endured many trials, to pursue, for their communities, what should be theirs by right. And I believe that I speak for many in the human rights community when I say how inspired I have been by their struggle.

I note that Ahmed Mansoor could not travel to our ceremony tonight due to a travel ban following his arrest and detention in 2011. His is one of the few genuinely independent voices in the United Arab Emirates. I urge the UAE authorities to return Mr. Mansoor his passport and to respect, unconditionally, his right to free movement, so that he may continue his human rights work unrestricted.

To all three nominees, I say, Your fight for human rights is our common fight. For we all carry a responsibility to protect the rights of our fellow human beings. Hunger, misery, exclusion and violence directly afflict millions of individuals, but they also touch humanity in its globality.

Human rights defenders encourage us to go beyond merely noticing that there is suffering and injustice. Their example tells us that we must – and can – do something to remedy that suffering. We can raise our voices in support of activists. We can take a stand, directly, to confront abuse. This is what it means to be human: to care, and to struggle, for others as well as ourselves.

In countless countries, across every region of the world, human rights defenders are being targeted and threatened. They are judicially harassed or jailed on trumped-up charges. They are physically attacked, tortured, and even killed. They are silenced by repressive laws and defamation campaigns. They are denounced as unpatriotic spies or terrorists. They are hindered by Kafkaesque regulations and exorbitant fines.

A constantly renewed arsenal of laws and policies is deployed to impede their work. Examples include anti-terrorism and national security legislation; legislation relating to public morals, defamation or blasphemy; cumbersome laws on the registration, functioning and funding of associations; regulations regarding official secrets; and rules curtailing Internet access.

If only such creativity could be deployed by governments to protect rights and freedoms.

This massive effort to stifle the legitimate demands of human rights activists is deeply damaging. It feeds antagonism and resentment. It silences the only known antidote to extremism, which is confidence, public trust, openness and respect. When ordinary people can share ideas to overcome common problems, the result is societies that are more resilient, peaceful and prosperous. And yet increasingly, we are seeing States that crush the voices of constructive criticism under the guise of security concerns.

In the midst of all this, human rights defenders continue to stir our consciousness and rally society into action. They are the bravest amongst us. It is our job, here, today, and every other day, to stand in solidarity, and to ensure that they have all the protection that international recognition and legitimacy can provide.

This is the purpose of our gathering today. Not just to honour these defenders, but also to protect them. Today’s award sends a loud and clear message that the international community is proud of the activists, and that we will be constantly mindful of their wellbeing.

Thank you.