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Statement by Ilze Brands Kehris, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights
Roundtable on reprisals against human rights defenders, including those who cooperate with the United Nations


10 February 2020, 16:00 – 17:00
Conference Room 9, UNHQ

Thank you for the opportunity to speak at this roundtable.  I wish to thank the Delegation of the European Union and especially Mr. Eamon Gilmore, European Union Special Representative for Human Rights, for convening the meeting and prioritizing this topic.

Addressing the targeting of human rights defenders, including for their cooperation with the UN, was a priority of my predecessor Andrew Gilmour, who addressed this in New York, Geneva and during field visits. I am fully committed to continue this work in close cooperation with you all.

At the outset, it is important to distinguish between the targeting of human rights defenders broadly speaking, and those who have been targeted because of their cooperation with the UN.  Both contexts are extremely serious. They are part and parcel of the same challenge – shrinking space for civil society and increasing restrictions for defenders and others to operate.

Therefore, our efforts for addressing the two are closely aligned and complementary. Our Office and the larger UN human rights system – including the treaty bodies and special procedures –have mechanisms to deal with the protection issues facing defenders. 

But, as you are aware, we have dedicated particular focus to address the targeting of individuals for cooperating with the UN on human rights. In 2016, in light of gravity of the issue, the Secretary-General recognized that we have a responsibility to protect these individuals, and designated my predecessor as senior level official to lead UN efforts to prevent and respond to reprisals.

The trends have been well documented by the UN system. The challenges are well known.  They are particularly felt by environmental defenders, women rights defenders, indigenous and minorities’ activists, and those working for the human rights of migrants. I welcome that the EU’s annual global NGO forum late last year focused on environmental defenders. 

I will focus on solutions and good practices.  There have been significant developments which signal an increasing awareness around the need to do more and better to protect defenders. We welcome these steps: strong statements by Member States and civil society, the development of monitoring tools and benchmarks to assess the quality of civic space and the level of support and protection for defenders, and the adoption of significant resolutions at international and regional levels.

The Human Rights Council has traditionally led intergovernmental efforts to raise defender-related issues, especially intimidation and reprisals for cooperation with the UN. Positively, we now also see important efforts at the General Assembly and the Security Council. 

At the General Assembly, the adoption of its bi-annual human rights defender resolution and the declaration of concern on reprisals by 71 Member States in October last year are encouraging. The meeting last week convened by the Chair of the Third Committee with civil society is also a significant step in providing more space for defenders and others to engage with the UN.  I note that the issue of reprisals for cooperation with the UN was raised at this meeting.

Next week, some Security Council members are convening an Arria formula meeting on intimidation and reprisals against women human rights defenders in their cooperation with the Council and its mechanisms.

The UN System is also improving its response in certain areas. The Secretariat is incorporating protection of human rights defenders into UN policies, for instance in relation to peacekeeping missions and peace building.  We are also developing guidance for UN staff to improve our risk assessments and precautionary measures to better prevent reprisals and be more attuned to defenders’ security.  Collecting information and reporting as a UN system is a continuous challenge, especially with reported allegations on the rise, but we are making efforts to doing so in a more comprehensive and coordinated manner. My predecessor has written to heads of UN entities, Resident Coordinators, and Special Representatives of the Secretary-General in the field to solicit their engagement.

I wish to commend the UN human rights mechanisms that have taken measures to formalize their response to reprisals, such as the San José Guidelines adopted by the Chairs of the treaty bodies as well as supplementary guidelines published recently by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The focal point system put in place by both the treaty bodies and special procedures has also improved a coordinated response.

Last year, in the interest of documenting good practices for preventing and addressing reprisals for cooperation with the UN, OHCHR solicited input from States, civil society and the broader UN system for the Secretary-General’s report on reprisals. Regarding the safety and security of individuals, States referred to financial support to NGO funds, guidelines for the protection of defenders, and diplomatic interventions.

One example highlighted were the European Union Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders and the Emergency Fund for those at risk. The EU Guidelines have played an important role to ensure greater visibility and support to defenders when they need it most, including through trial observations, diplomatic outreach and interventions, and visits to those in remote areas. 

In the Americas, we supported and welcomed the adoption of the Escazu Agreement in 2018 as a landmark text – it is the world’s first binding agreement to include provisions on the recognition, protection and promotion of environmental rights defenders. We are also receiving cases of individuals targeted for cooperation with the UN in Latin America, who have been granted interim protective or precautionary measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

In the interest of cross-regional sharing of good practices, we have begun discussions with the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and Focal Point on Reprisals in Africa of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.  We welcome in particular the recent launch of its new Policy on Reprisals (Oct 2019) and the Special Rapporteur’s upcoming thematic report on reprisals for cooperation with the African Commission system. 

I look forward to exploring further with all partners – Member States, regional organizations, civil society, UN colleagues – on concrete measures to enhance the protection of human rights defenders in response to the serious challenges worldwide, including those targeted for UN engagement.

Thank you.