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Keynote speech by the President of the Human Rights Council at the Friederich Ebert Stiftung Conference, 5-6 October 2015

5 October 2015

Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honor to participate in this important panel. At the outset, let me thank the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, the German Institute for Human Rights and the Forum Menschenrechte for their invitation and for organizing this timely conference.

Ladies and gentlemen,

When I was elected as President of the HRC in December of last year in my acceptance speech I stressed that for the efficiency and functionality of the Council “it is absolutely vital that we keep to the spirit of 2006; that we focus on our core competencies and unique features, including working in close cooperation with civil society. Civil society is at the core of human rights, at the core of our work”.

Now, in my 10th month as President of the Human Rights Council, I have witnessed first-hand the key role that you, civil society actors, play in the Council. I can therefore only further underline the importance of strengthening your role and of safeguarding the space for civil society and human rights defenders in order to ensure that all voices are heard. We need dynamic and interconnected civil society organizations and national human rights institutions. We need them to translate State commitments into laws, to raise awareness on human rights issues, which require our attention, to support the implementation of agreed agendas domestically and internationally and we need them to help bring change on the ground for individual rights holders. For all of this to be possible, the effective and active participation of NGOs in the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms is instrumental. We simply cannot fulfil our Council’s mandate without them.

This means that strengthening and supporting civil society’s role in the Council, means strengthening the Council itself, ensuring its continued relevance, effectiveness and impact.

To that effect, we must first ensure that the established avenues for NGO engagement with the Council are open and accessible. The main avenue made available to civil society is via applying for accreditation to the UN to obtain Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) ‘consultative status’, as outlined in resolution 1996/31. This status grants NGOs, among other privileges, the opportunity to deliver oral and written statements at the Council sessions and to organize side events. Yet, what is worrisome is that according to the UN Secretary General in his report to the HRC’s 27th session, NGOs face many accreditation difficulties. Stakeholders have raised serious concerns about the large number of deferrals and lack of transparency in decisions on consultative status of NGOs. Most of these difficulties, as per the Special Rapporteur on peaceful assembly and association, are faced by NGOs working on human rights, with applications to the Committee being pending for as long as 7 years.

In this light, let me underline that, when it comes to determining which members of civil society are given the right to engage with our Council, assessing NGOs in a transparent and fair manner is of critical significance.

Second –but equally important: we must safeguard civil society engagement in the Council and ensure that it is free and safe from fear, retaliation or intimidation. In this context, let me emphasize that my Bureau and I are particularly worried about recurring cases of reprisals and intimidation against members of civil society who cooperate or have cooperated with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights. As President of the Council, I have, on many occasions, and will continue to call upon States to prevent and ensure adequate protection against such acts. I have also often met with human rights defenders who risk a lot by coming to cooperate with the HRC and have consistently followed-up on all cases of reprisals which are brought to my attention and are connected to our work in the Council. These cases I have submitted to the UN Secretary-General for inclusion in his report on cooperation with the UN, which was issued recently this September. It is my strong belief that we have to do our utmost to protect the free and unhindered access and participation of human rights defenders in the Human Rights Council, its mechanisms and procedures –a cause which I, in close cooperation with the OHCHR and my Bureau, am committedly pursuing.

Moreover, in my role as HRC President, I have throughout the year worked to maintain an open and honest interaction with human rights defenders and civil society actors. By regularly holding meetings with all of you who attend our Council sessions I have aimed to keep you abreast of developments in the HRC. Also, by listening to your concerns and often bringing them back to my Bureau for deliberation I have strived to reaffirm the open-door policy, which I and my Office stand behind since the beginning of my Presidency, on all issues. And by encouraging and taking into account your views, for instance on candidates for Special Procedures positions, I have sought to reaffirm your role as active stakeholders within the Human Rights Council.

None of us on our own, Governments included, have all the facts, best ideas, or know all the reasons underlying the problems we are trying to address. We can only benefit from collective wisdom; especially when dealing with complex challenges, such as climate change or armed conflict. Therefore, it is vital for us, States, to hear from all stakeholders, especially marginalized voices, in order to effectively implement our human rights commitments and responsibilities.

On the other side of the coin, you, as NGOs and civil society actors must also be aware of your own responsibilities vis-à-vis your counterparts in the Human Rights Council and must continue to pursue your important work with determination and integrity as responsible actors.

Still today, many people around the world are not guaranteed their basic rights and they look to us and to our Council to defend them their freedoms and their dignity. We cannot afford to let them down. And States cannot do this work alone; which is why civil society participation in the Council is indispensable and must be protected.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I wish you all the best for an engaging and lively discussion.

I thank you all for your attention.