Header image for news printout

20th anniversary of the declaration on human rights defenders

General Assembly High-level informal plenary meeting 

20th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration on the rights and responsibility of individuals, groups and organs of society to promote and protect universally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms
Statement by Michelle Bachelet
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
New York, 18 December 2018

Distinguished President of the General Assembly
Distinguished panellists,

It is an honour to commemorate in this Assembly the Declaration on human right defenders, which twenty years ago reaffirmed the vital need to respect the dignity and rights of those human rights heroes whose struggles benefit us all.  

The work of human rights defenders benefits states, by shaping policies that are responsive to real needs and contribute to better development outcomes – in line with the Sustainable Development Agenda, and the right to development.

The work of human rights defenders benefits societies. They lend their voices to those groups that otherwise are not heard. They make societies more inclusive and more able to withstand shocks. They help to ensure access to quality education, to uphold the rule of law and to detect and resolve tensions early on. Through their monitoring and advocacy, human rights defenders also improve societies.

The work of human rights defenders benefits business, businesses themselves. Just ten days ago a series of major companies called for respect of the rights of human rights defenders, and for businesses to positively contribute to situations where civic freedoms and human rights defenders are under threat.  

The work of human rights defenders benefits the people of their own societies and communities. They are truly standing up for the rights of our fellow human beings, in all their diversity.

Consider this year's two Nobel prize winners: Dr. Denis Mukwege, who has worked for women survivors of violence and sexual violence for more than 30 years; and Nadia Murad, a brave survivor who has had the strength and compassion to use her freedom to work for the freedom of others.

Consider Nelson Mandela, the human rights giant whose centenary we recently celebrated in South Africa. His work, and the work of many other great men and women to establish equality in South Africa, has been a tremendous inspiration to many States in this Assembly.

Whether they are calling for accountability for the perpetrators of violence; saving migrants from peril; exposing corruption, calling for an end to discrimination; or working for the rights of indigenous peoples, slum dwellers, older people or people with disabilities, the work of human rights defenders is valuable.

Their achievements have been of immense importance to the international community, and to the Member States of this Assembly.

In December 1998, the Declaration recognised that human rights defenders have a right to express their views, associate together, peacefully assemble, and demand that authorities at all levels uphold their solemn commitments to the human rights of the people.

The Declaration constitutes a promise by States to protect human rights defenders against any arbitrary action as a consequence of the legitimate exercise of their rights. It is a promise to ensure that defenders have access to effective remedies if their rights are violated, and to ensure prompt and impartial investigations of those alleged violations.

Two decades after its adoption, there remains much work to be done.

In a growing number of societies across the world, human rights defenders are being slandered as traitors and harassed or attacked. Their work is severely restricted by the authorities. Dissenting – and legitimate – views are termed "terrorist". Acts of compassion and solidarity for people in need are hounded and criminalized.

Some areas of human rights defence are particularly dangerous. The Secretary General has pointed out that in the past 3 years, on average, one defender was killed every day. I pay particular tribute to women human rights defenders, who face all of the challenges generally experienced by men who defend human rights, but often in addition endure gender-specific violence and threats, as well as social stigma, especially due to religious extremism and claims of cultural betrayal.


The churn of change is accelerating across the world. Humanity faces new perils, and unprecedented transformations. Climate change threatens our future. New information technologies are opening up new channels for surveillance and restriction of human rights work. The pace of change makes people across the world fearful, mistrustful of the authorities and anxious about their future.

These issues cannot be resolved by repression and violence. People are crying out for policies which can advance a more equal, stable and sustainable world.

Upholding human rights is in the interest of every State. They express the core purpose of the United Nations: we can only attain peace, security and sustainable development for all societies when we advance the dignity and equality of all human beings.

The work of human rights defenders contributes to good governance and greater justice, dignity and equality, and a better future for our children.

It is time to turn back the trend of contempt for their voices and their rights. It is time to defend the defenders, whose altruism and courage should be an inspiration for us all.  

I commit to bringing defenders’ voices to the table wherever I can. I commit to speaking up when the space they need to do their invaluable work is under threat. I commit to celebrating their achievements and contributions. And I join the Secretary-General in appealing to all actors to step up their efforts to live up to the promises made 20 years ago.

Thank you