Statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet
Colleagues and friends,
It is a great privilege to join you at this World Summit of Human Rights Defenders. We are not only celebrating 20 years of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders: we are also marking the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted at the Palais de Chaillot, where this Summit closes.
So this is thus a unique opportunity to take stock of how far we’ve come – and to seek, together, the inspiration and skills so that we can press onwards with the vision of these two great declarations.
But first I’d like to honour all of you who are here today, and your many counterparts around the world, who stand up for human rights. We are deeply grateful for your work.
Nelson Mandela, a giant defender of human rights, described it like this: “To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Like Mandela, you know that “Freedom is indivisible”. When you see someone in chains – someone whose rights are being denied – you don’t turn away. You challenge injustice. You stand up for the rights of others.
Whether you are defending human rights in the full glare of international publicity or in the most remote communities on our planet; whether you can quote every article of the Universal Declaration or are acting on instinct and conscience; whether you’re protecting an individual child from harmful cultural practices, or the entire planet from the threat of climate change – you’re part of the same invaluable, global struggle to break chains and bring equality and dignity.
When the Haitian Senator Emile Saint Lot read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights before the General Assembly in the Palais de Chaillot, in December 1948, he stood, as the descendant of slaves, for the victory of hope and freedom over generations of catastrophe.
Across the world, that Declaration inspired movements of liberation; struggles to end discrimination and oppression, and ensure accountability; vast and powerful campaigns to broaden access to justice, to fundamental resources and services.
Every step towards greater equality, dignity and rights which has been made over the past 70 years, in the name of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has been achieved because of the struggles and the advocacy of human rights defenders.
It was due to that recognition of the vital importance and legitimacy of human rights work that the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was adopted, a half-century after the UDHR.
Because without them, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be lifeless.
It is the courage, the generosity of spirit, the integrity and the selflessness of human rights defenders which have kept the Universal Declaration alive. Time and again, it has been thanks to their work that States have acted in support of rights.
Sometimes these human rights heroes are celebrated, their names widely known. Most recently, I was deeply moved by the award of a Nobel Peace Prize to Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege, in recognition of their valuable and principled work in defence of human rights.
But in many more cases, human rights defenders remain anonymous. They may not even feel they are heroes: they are simply ordinary people, standing up to bullies, challenging injustice, doing what needs to be done.
Many have paid a terrible price because they have seen people in chains and refused to look away.
Human rights defenders may be threatened, stigmatized or ostracized for their work. They may be physically attacked, or subjected to arbitrary arrests and unlawful detention; torture, and other forms of persecution. They may even be killed.
And every case of an attack on a human rights defender constitutes an attack on human rights – the rights of us all.
In recent years, we have seen a very serious increase in these attacks, including the most brutal and flagrant murders of people who stand up for justice and the truth. In some cases, people engaged in working with the United Nations are subjected to reprisals and intimidation by their Governments because of that work.
In more and more countries, the civic space – in which there is access to information, where there can be free and open discussion, and people can join with others to participate fully in political and social life – is being eroded, dismantled, or even completely shut down.
As debate and activism have moved online, so have restrictions. New cyber-security laws enable intrusive practices and violations of privacy which contravene international human rights law. Human rights defenders are increasingly subjected to extensive surveillance, under the pretext of the authorities’ need to combat terrorism or protect national security.
I am deeply concerned that human rights defenders have faced arrest for alleged terrorism, sedition or other extremely serious charges – for doing nothing more than making social media posts or publishing website material highlighting human rights issues.
It is not an act of terrorism to disagree with a Government’s policies.
It is not an act of extremism to stand up for human rights.
Criticism is not the same thing as treason.
Material that is uncomfortable is not the same as material that is unlawful.
Too many governments are losing sight of these distinctions.
Women who work to defend human rights frequently face specific forms of cruelty, including rape and sexual assault – whether they are working on gender equality or any other topic.
The same is true of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or intersex communities who act to defend human rights.
Other human rights defenders facing very high levels of risk are those working on environmental and land rights, and the most recent Global Witness report sets out some of the particular dangers and challenges they face.
The lands and territories of indigenous peoples are also increasingly threatened. Many defenders, including women, have paid with their lives for resisting unlawful development or for demanding the authorities obtain their free, prior, and informed consent before any development projects are launched on lands, territories and resources traditionally used by indigenous peoples.
The independence and freedom of the press is under systematic attack in many places. Media outlets are arbitrarily shut down. Journalists who insist on their rights to serve the public by delivering information that is sound and fair – even though it may not reflect the authorities’ views – are arrested on spurious charges, or even attacked by agents of the State. In other cases, the State fails to protect them from attack by private agents.
The defenders of migrants’ rights are also being increasingly targeted and subjected to abuse. Legal protection and funding are in retreat, and in the worst cases, States have criminalized defenders seeking to save lives or uphold migrants’ rights.
Do we really believe that pulling drowning people from the sea should constitute a criminal or administrative offence?
Do we want to live in societies where work to assist people in misery and distress is attacked and criminalised?
Friends and colleagues,
When a Government obliterates the independent voices who speak up for what is right, it undermines the strength and safety of its country.
States become stronger, and more resilient to shocks, when they can count on the support, and the full contributions, of their people – all their people.
It is the freedom of the press, freedom of expression, the right to peaceful assembly and other fundamental civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights which build strong countries.
It is action in defence of human rights that expresses real patriotism, a real love of one’s country and of our human family.
The insights and work of human rights defenders contribute very powerfully to the protection and promotion of human rights, development and peace and security.
They have strengthened the UN’s work in all regions of the world and across myriad challenges. Human rights defenders monitor and evaluate States’ compliance with human rights law, and draw attention to the consequences of failure to meet those obligations. They are also a key asset in enhancing the United Nations’ preventive work –their reports feeding into early warning of impending crises, helping us to understand the root causes of conflict and contributing to work to solve and prevent its outbreaks.
The rights we hold in common are what bind us together on this planet that we share. They support harmonious, sustainable societies. And wherever they are abandoned, we all are at greater risk.
The work of human rights defenders is profoundly precious, and it must be protected.
There is no time to lose.
The importance of ensuring the broadest possible civic space in every country cannot be overstated.
That space for full, free public participation enables progress on all fronts, including sustainable development, and peaceful, fair societies. It ensures a safe future for our connected world.
We will not make progress towards achieving the new Sustainable Development Goals unless we can hear the voices of those who have been left behind.
We will not advance towards respectful societies that resolve disputes peacefully if the expression of dissenting views is shut down by brutal violence.
The protection of the civic space, and the empowerment of human rights defenders, needs to become a key priority for every principled global, regional and national actor.
We need forceful leadership in support of civil society movements and human rights defenders around the world.
We need to support and commend those media outlets which lead the way in highlighting the work of human rights defenders, as well as the businesses which show strong leadership in their human rights record.
We need to challenge others to follow their example and shoulder their responsibilities.
Yes, it is governments which have the primary responsibility for upholding rights.
And so we need to do everything we can to hold each government to the promises that were made in this city 70 years ago, and again confirmed 20 years ago when the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was adopted.
What human rights defenders teach us is that all of us – no matter where we are, or the circumstances of our lives – can stand up for our rights and the rights of others.
We can stand up to the bullies on our streets, and to the oppressors in our neighbourhoods, in our countries – and around the world.
As the hashtag of this summit meeting proclaims, we can all be human rights defenders.
I wish you an inspiring summit and assure you of the support of my Office.