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20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

Joint statement by a group of Chairs, Vice-Chairs and members of the United Nations human rights Treaty Bodies and the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders

Civil society constitutes a fundamental pillar of the international human rights system. It contributes to promoting and respecting human rights, sustainable development, maintaining peace and security, and acts in line with UN Charter goals.

Civil society assesses and reports on whether State parties are fulfilling their treaty obligations by translating the provisions of the relevant United Nations human rights treaties (the Treaties) into action at the grassroots level. Accordingly, civil society significantly assists Treaty Bodies in monitoring and evaluating State parties’ compliance with the Treaties. In view of this vital role, the human rights Treaty Bodies request civil society organizations to cooperate with them by submitting information on issues related to the enjoyment of rights in a given country.

The active involvement and participation of civil society in the work of the Treaty Bodies is crucial for the wide dissemination, at the international, national and local levels, of information about the Treaties and the Treaty Bodies’ work. In many cases, the concluding observations or views on individual communications adopted by Treaty Bodies receive greater attention and enforcement owing to the intervention and activities of civil society.

Treaty Bodies have consistently encouraged State parties to publicly and specifically recognize the role played by civil society, including human rights defenders, and to engage with them in all relevant processes, including reporting.

The Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders has underscored how the Treaty Bodies benefit from the information provided to them by human rights defenders. This information is essential to monitoring implementation of the treaties and is a valuable early warning system to alert the international community to real, potential or imminent threats to peace, freedom, and security.

It is both because human rights defenders are themselves rights holders and because they assist State parties in the realization of the rights in the Treaties, that the Treaty Bodies raise the situation of human rights defenders in their dialogues with State parties and expressly refer to them in a number of their concluding observations, general comments or public statements.

A human rights defender means any person who, individually or in association with others, acts or seeks to act to promote, protect or strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms, at the local, national, regional and international levels. They advocate, vindicate, enforce, protect and promote human rights. Human rights defenders not only identify human rights violations while drawing authorities’ attention to the consequences of their actions and omissions, including rights set out in the Treaties, but also assist State parties in developing public policies compliant with treaty obligations.

In exercising their rights, human rights defenders shall be subject only to limitations that are prescribed by law, in accordance with international human rights obligations and standards, are reasonable, necessary and proportionate, and are solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of others and meeting the requirements of public order and general welfare in a democratic society.

The Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders) reaffirms, is underpinned by, and elaborates binding human rights obligations, including rights set out in the Treaties, and is relevant to the interpretation and implementation of the Treaties.

The Treaty Bodies reiterate the importance of human rights defenders being able to act freely and without any interference, intimidation, abuse, threat, violence, reprisal or undue restriction. Creating a safe and enabling environment, including by promoting respect and support for the activities of human rights defenders, is essential for the promotion, protection and defence of human rights. The Treaty Bodies consider any interference, intimidation, abuse, threat, violence, reprisal or undue restrictions against human rights defenders as constituting violations of States parties’ obligations towards the realization of rights set out in the Treaties.

In view of State parties’ obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the rights enshrined in the Treaties, the Treaty Bodies remind State parties of their responsibility to ensure that human rights defenders are effectively protected against any and all interference, intimidation, abuse, threat, violence, reprisal, or undue restriction, and any other negative consequence that they might experience in association with their actions to promote the realization of rights, including by cooperating and engaging with the human rights Treaty Bodies. As noted in the Guidelines against Intimidation or Reprisals (“San José Guidelines”1), the Treaty Bodies strongly condemn acts of intimidation or reprisal, including against those who seek to cooperate, cooperate or who have cooperated with the Treaty Bodies.

By becoming party to an international human rights treaty, a State undertakes to cooperate with the Treaty Body in good faith. As noted in the San José Guidelines, States have a duty to protect individuals and groups and to exercise due diligence in doing so. Intimidation or reprisals may be the result of acts or omissions by both State and non-State actors. Acts or omissions are attributable to the State when they are carried out with the consent or acquiescence of an official or other person acting in an official capacity against any individuals or groups who are seeking to cooperate, who are cooperating or who have cooperated with a Treaty Body.

The Treaty Bodies consider that references to “political or other opinion” and “other status” in the context of discrimination prohibited by the Treaties include a person’s status as a human rights defender. Moreover, the right to equality before the law and equal protection of the law prohibit discrimination in the exercise of rights, including those elaborated under the Treaties and the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

States should adopt specific measures to safeguard and support human rights defenders, in line with the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur. In particular, States should:

  1. publicly recognize the importance and legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders, and reaffirm that no interference, intimidation, abuse, threat, violence or reprisal against them will be tolerated;
  2. adopt laws and policies that specifically guarantee the protection of human rights defenders, with particular reference to the situation and protection needs of groups of human rights defenders in vulnerable situations, such as women human rights defenders and children human rights defenders;
  3. adopt timely measures to prevent interference, intimidation, abuse, threats, violence, attacks or reprisals against human rights defenders, including by establishing a special mechanism for the protection of human rights defenders;
  4. conduct prompt, thorough and impartial investigations into any interference, intimidation, abuse, threat, violence or reprisal against human rights defenders and ensure accountability for perpetrators;
  5. amend or repeal any legislation that criminalizes or obstructs the work of human rights defenders, including vague and overbroad restrictions on fundamental freedoms (including freedom of expression, freedom of association, and right of peaceful assembly), as well as regulations that prohibit, limit or hinder them from soliciting, receiving and utilizing resources, including from domestic and international sources;
  6. strengthen State institutions responsible for safeguarding and supporting the work of human rights defenders.

Note: 1. Guidelines against Intimidation or Reprisals (“San José Guidelines”), 2015, HRI/MC/2015/6.

* The statement was endorsed by the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Committee on Migrant Workers, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, and the following Treaty Body members in their individual capacity: Virginia Brás-Gomes, CESCR Chair; Dalia Leinarte, CEDAW Chair; Noureddine Amir, CERD; Felice Gaer, CAT Vice-Chair; Marcia Kran, HRCtte member; Olga Khazova, CRC Vice-Chair and Satyabhooshun Gut Domah, SPT member.