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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

High Commissioner addresses Gwangju Democracy Forum

17 May 2023

Delivered by

Volker Türk, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights


Gwangju Democracy Forum 2023

Chairperson of the May 18 Foundation Won Sunseok,
Human rights defenders from around the globe,
Colleagues and friends,

Warm greetings to all. It is a pleasure to address you.

I want to begin by acknowledging the work of the human rights defenders here today. I am moved by your courage, and inspired by your determination and willpower.

Standing up for human rights – especially in the face of injustice, discrimination and oppression – is a Herculean task.

It is essential to the progress of our societies.

As you know, this year, we mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We have an opportunity to revive its spirit and its ambitions for solidarity, equality, justice and respect.

To use the common language of human rights to better address humanity’s most pressing challenges, and to deliver on the promises the Universal Declaration made for a better future.

The Declaration of Human Rights Defenders also celebrates its 25th year.

At the heart of both anniversaries lies your work to translate human rights into tangible change in people’s lives.

It is you who ensure that people know what human rights mean in practice. You who ensure every article of the Universal Declaration has a specific meaning that resonates with people who face injustice and discrimination. It is you who hold the powerful to account.

Every person who benefits from your efforts, every perpetrator brought to justice, is a victory for your work and most importantly, a victory for human dignity.

As you know, the environment in which you conduct your work is filled with obstacles.

Globally, we are seeing disturbing trends of shrinking civic space.

Where human rights defenders, civil society and journalists, particularly women, face mounting surveillance, threats, arbitrary detention and physical attacks.

And the result is often a self-enforced censorship under fear of violence, reprisals and intimidation.

This month, as part of our initiative to mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration - and to use it to achieve concrete progress - my Office is spotlighting civic space.

The civic space we all want is safe, free and open. I have called on States to protect the rights and work of human rights defenders, civil society and journalists, and to ensure the voices of everyone, everywhere, are heard and taken into account in governance and institution building.


This Forum is a symbol of the spirit of human rights.

And Gwangju itself is a symbol of the power of grassroots action.

It was here that the Gwangju Student Independence Movement of 1929 helped trigger strong nationwide resistance to imperialism.

Here, in 1980, where citizens rose up against an authoritarian regime, demanding their fundamental rights and a say in their futures.

I honour the memory of the hundreds who lost their lives in these struggles.

Their legacy is freedom.

Over the past years, Gwangju’s citizens have championed the role of human rights cities as great protectors of human rights.

And all over Asia, human rights movements have transformed countries and alerted the world to injustice, inspiring transitions to democracy -- here in the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Nepal, to name just a few.

In more recent years, we have seen striking and creative forms of peaceful protest from young people across the region, demanding their rights, often at risk of severe reprisals. Let me pay special tribute and express solidarity to the courageous young activists in Myanmar and the women human rights defenders in Afghanistan.

Of course challenges remain. Not least the lack of effective regional human rights mechanisms – contrary to all other continents – which results in diminished accountability and even impunity.


I see three areas where more and more coordinated transformative actions are needed to safeguard and expand civic space, in Asia and around the world.

First, we need to mobilize people working to promote and protect human rights, renewing the spirit that led to the Universal Declaration and the Declaration of Human Rights Defenders.

My Office will expand its efforts to bring human rights allies to the table and to celebrate and shine the light on the work of human rights defenders.

Second, we need a grand scale-up of efforts to protect human rights defenders at risk.

Many protection networks and civil society organisations are already conducting remarkable work to reduce the risks to defenders.

But they cannot do it alone.

We urgently need stronger innovation in our protection and prevention strategies. We have many new tools available – better disaggregated data, and better technology to identify people at risk.

It is urgent that we harness it for good so defenders can conduct their essential work, free from fear.

And third, we need more forceful – and united - calls for safe and open civic space, both online and offline.

A safe and open civic space that is inclusive and celebrates diversity, and that incorporates an age and gender-sensitive approach.

Civic space is the litmus test for governments in this anniversary year.

By strengthening the space for debate, by increasing access to information, by implementing accountability mechanisms and through a genuine recognition of the role of civil society actors, especially women human rights defenders and journalists, governments can meet this test. The judiciary can also play an important role in the defence of civic space, and I encourage them to review cases and legislation in light of international human rights obligations that States have assumed.


Human rights defenders are an integral part of the Human Rights 75 Initiative, and the spirit of solidarity and unity that we hope to reinvigorate.  

My Office and I will do our best to support and accompany you in your journey to effect change.

Thank you for your tireless – and invaluable – work.