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States must end impunity to break cycle of violence against defenders - UN expert

NEW YORK (15 October 2019) - The overwhelming majority of human rights violations committed against human rights defenders around the world remain unpunished, a UN human rights expert said, calling on States to fulfil their legal obligation to combat impunity.

"Unless impunity against defenders is seriously addressed and ended, the cycle of violence and other human right violations against them will continue, endangering the realisation of human rights for all," said Michel Forst, presenting his 6th report to the UN General Assembly. 

Human rights defenders around the world are subjected to a wide range of violence, including killings, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detentions, forced displacement, threats and attacks, both physical and online, committed by States and non-State actors, including armed and organised crime groups as well as businesses,.

Eradicating impunity for human rights abuses against defenders remains a challenge for all countries in the world, the Special Rapporteur said. Defenders face additional barriers to access to justice arising from the human rights activities they engage in. "These additional barriers range from lack of political will and lack of State recognition as defenders, to negligent practice, limited resources and capacities of investigative bodies as well as failure to investigate the responsibility of intellectual authors and the influence of powerful groups," Forst said.

"While the prevailing impunity negatively affects defenders by preventing them from accessing justice, it also has an adverse impact on the movements they are affiliated with and on society as a whole, as it obstructs access to truth, and fails to prevent the recurrence of similar events. Impunity also aims to deter and silence others from defending rights."

The Special Rapporteur stressed that according to international human rights law, human rights defenders must have access to effective remedies to claim their rights and to obtain adequate reparation in cases of violations. In addition, States are legally obliged to investigate allegations of human rights violations in a prompt, thorough and effective manner.

Forst highlighted a number of principles which should guide States in tackling impunity for human rights violations against defenders. "The defence of human rights must be a key element of the investigative strategy," he said. All perpetrators, including those with intellectual responsibility, must be held accountable. Further, the adoption of a differentiated and intersectional approach, recognising the diversity among defenders, is crucial in ensuring effective investigations.

"States must not only develop a policy of zero tolerance towards attacks on human rights defenders but must also create the conditions for establishing a safe environment that is conducive to human rights defence efforts. Combating impunity is indispensable for the creation of safe environments for the defence of human rights," Forst said.


The presentation of the thematic report at the General Assembly today will be live-streamed in the United Nations Web TV

Mr. Michel Forst (France) was appointed by the Human Rights Council as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders in 2014. Michel Forst has extensive experience on human rights issues and particularly on the situation of human rights defenders. In particular, he was the Director General of Amnesty International (France) and Secretary General of the first World Summit on Human Rights Defenders in 1998. He is a former UN Independent Expert on the human rights situation in Haiti.

The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests please contact:  Adriana Zarraluqui (+ 41 79 851 52 29 /azarraluqui@ohchr.org) or write to defenders@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts please contact: Jeremy Laurence, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+41 22 917 9383 / jlaurence@ohchr.org