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UN expert calls for greater protection for human rights defenders

19 October 2020

NEW YORK (19 October 2020) – Governments and businesses must do more to protect people who risk their lives by standing up for human rights, the UN’s expert on human rights defenders told the General Assembly today.

“Hundreds of human rights defenders are killed every year because of their work, but these murders are not inevitable or normal,” said Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

“The killing of a human rights defender is a red line no one should cross. States and businesses must do more to protect them,” she said in her first presentation to the General Assembly.

Lawlor, who took up her duties on 1 May this year, outlined her priorities, including a 
a focus on defenders serving long prison sentences.

“It is a grave injustice that so many human rights defenders are sentenced to long terms in prison for their peaceful human rights work, and I will focus on this issue in the coming years,” she said.

She also told the General Assembly that she intends to focus on the most marginalized and vulnerable defenders, and those targeted for reprisals after cooperating with the United Nations.

“Isolated defenders in rural and remote areas, environmental defenders, women rights defenders, children who are defenders, defenders with disabilities and those defending the human rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender persons will be a priority during my tenure.”

Lawlor expressed concern at the number of defenders who are attacked and killed every year for speaking out against business projects that threaten environmental, land, or indigenous rights.

“My approach will be to engage with businesses and international financial institutions to discuss how they can meet their responsibilities,” she said.

“Human Rights Defenders should be central to building back better societies during and after the pandemic. It’s in all our interests to support them and protect them.”


Ms Mary Lawlor, (Ireland) is the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. She is currently an Adjunct Professor of Business and Human Rights in Trinity College Dublin. She was the founder of Front Line Defenders - the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. As Executive Director from 2001-2016, she represented Front Line Defenders and had a key role in its development. Ms. Lawlor was the Director of the Irish Section of Amnesty International from 1988 to 2000, became a Board member in 1975 and was elected Chair from 1983 to 1987.

Special Rapporteurs 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 22 917 9965 /[email protected]) or write to [email protected]

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / [email protected]), Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 22 917 7578 / [email protected]) and Kitty McKinsey ([email protected])

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