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Speech by the High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders

5 November 2015

Mr Minister,
Excellencies,
Colleagues and Friends,

It is an honour and a privilege to address this eighth Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders.

One year into my mandate as High Commissioner for Human Rights, I am profoundly grateful for your work to undo the misery, desperation, hatred and cruelty that humankind inflicts upon itself. I am inspired by the courage and the dedication to principle of countless, selfless women and men – people like you, sitting here in Dublin Castle.

Stories of human struggle touch on the lives of every person on the planet. They fill the front pages of our newspapers, rage across Facebook and Twitter – and yet, in the daily struggle to push against what seem like tightly closed doors, the world can sometimes feel very lonely and bleak.

I thank Front Line for all the work involved in organizing such an impressive gathering – a vital platform to share, learn and find solidarity and support in our work to further human rights.

Everyone in this room is in some way trying to improve the world for others. To promote peace among conflicted communities; fight inequalities; realize inclusive development; broaden participation in decision-making; uphold accountability; promote the dignity of our fellow human beings.

And all this work is rooted in the exercise of public freedoms – the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and the right to participate in public life. They enable people to share their ideas and join with others to make informed decisions, in order to build societies that are safe, resilient and thriving.

But increasingly, we are seeing governments cracking down on precisely those vital freedoms. Many of them face real, and often severe, security concerns. It is vital that States recognise that they must address these issues in ways that further the dignity of their people. Security challenges can be overcome, but only through greater inclusion – including the participation of civil society, women, minorities, youth and an independent press.

And yet across the globe, laws forbid access to foreign funds; there are bans on travel, and other attempts to restrict the work of civil society organisations. We are seeing spurious prosecutions, smear campaigns, destruction of property, disappearances and even killings of civil society actors. Measures to block or limit the democratic space online, and mass surveillance. Attempts to crush the free press – particularly if it investigates human rights violations, corruption and malfeasance by officials.

These are massive, and deadly, steps backward. They undermine the strongest antidote against violent extremism, which is a healthy civil society space. Such policies have a terrible cost – in human life, in human pain, and in social, political and economic failure. And they hinder the development of a resilient, and confident nation.

But they will not vanquish the human spirit. People will continue to demand that their governments be held accountable, in the clear knowledge that international law requires States to serve their people – not the other way round.

My Office will continue to support your work to keep the civil society space open, including through engagement and assistance by our field presences. We will seek to improve the understanding and importance of law enforcement personnel and other officials, at all levels. We will help build the capacity and the confidence of civil society groups. We will seek to strengthen the rule of law and call to account all those who attack civil society. And we will advocate, as powerfully as we can, for greater public freedoms.

At the global level, this will mean continuing to work towards a broader and more diverse coalition of States and organizations to protect and hold the line against shrinking arenas for public participation. We need to better align our voices and actions to bear down locally, to ensure that limitations, intimidation and retaliation against civil society actors will incur reputational, political and economic impact.

It is my conviction that although Governments have great power to undermine or dismantle public freedoms, individuals and groups today have more constructive capacity to change the world. The democratic space is not shrinking everywhere. Every day, in every corner of the world, people are coming together and organising in creative ways to induce change. We must seek them out, champion their work, and share these experiences too.

The ability of civil society actors to operate freely and safely underpins every activity of the United Nations. Our work to protect fundamental freedoms and deepen civic space is one of the most meaningful tasks we can take on.Our cause is your cause. You are the bravest among us, and your struggles propel us forward. I will continue to draw inspiration from your work, and be guided by your example.

Thank you.