Skip to main content

Countdown to Human Rights Day

Women played a large part in drafting the UDHR

Learn more

Press releases Special Procedures

States must find political will to prevent murders of human rights defenders: UN expert

05 March 2021

GENEVA (5 March 2021) – UN expert Mary Lawlor* today said hundreds of human rights defenders are killed for their peaceful work every year, and States must find the political will to protect them and prevent the killings.

“It is shocking that between 2015 and 2019, at least 1,323 defenders were killed in 64 countries,” said Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. “The pattern of killings is widespread, with human rights defenders having been killed in almost one third of UN member states since 2015.”

Lawlor was presenting her latest report, Final warning: death threats and killings of human rights defenders, to the 46th session of the Human Rights Council. The report details information gathered by OHCHR, and supported by credible sources, outlining that in 2019 at least 281 human rights defenders were killed in 35 countries, including 38 women human rights defenders.

Lawlor said unless radical action is taken, the killings will continue.

The report also details how many of the murders are signalled in advance by threats made against defenders.

“Since I took up this mandate in May last year I have spoken to hundreds and hundreds of human rights defenders,” Lawlor said. “Many have shown me death threats made against them, often in public. Many are attacked with gendered threats and targeted because of who they are as well as what they do.”
The report identifies impunity as a key driver for more murders. “UN member states repeatedly fail to properly prosecute perpetrators,” said Lawlor. “Impunity persists, and the murders continue.”

The report recommends that States should not only end impunity but also publicly applaud the vital contribution that human rights defenders make to help build just societies based on the rule of law.

It notes that some states have established dedicated protection mechanisms to prevent and respond to risks and attacks against human rights defenders, although defenders often complain that the mechanisms are under-resourced. 

Lawlor said Member States are failing in their obligations to prevent the killings of human rights defenders.


*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]).

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts.

Concerned about the world we live in?
Then STAND UP for someone’s rights today.
and visit the web page at