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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Global Citizen Townhall

02 September 2023

Delivered by

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

“This is our World too: a North-South-East-West dialogue of civil Societies”

Greetings to all of you, and thank you for inviting me to speak to this far-reaching conversation.

To me, it harks back to a powerful turning point that took place 75 years ago. In 1948, amid the devastation of repeated cycles of global warfare; genocide; atomic destruction; colonial exploitation; and the Great Depression of the 1930s, world leaders took a decisive step to turn the tide.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights opened a new path that promised justice, peace and shared prosperity for all. Its commitments were intended as practical tools to generate real-world solutions.

Indonesia had recently won its independence, and its Panca Sila founding principles, with their emphasis on democracy and social justice, in many ways aligned with those values.

Over the past 75 years, the world – including Asia – has made great strides away from colonial exploitation, discrimination of every kind, and many other types of injustices. Democratic governance and acknowledgment of people’s rights to make their own choices and participate in national decisions have advanced. Nobody could possibly claim that this progress has been perfect, and deficits remain in many countries. But the Declaration, and the subsequent adoption of many human rights treaties and laws, have made a real difference in people’s lives around the world – forging a consensus that human dignity is at the centre of all action.

Human rights defenders keep pushing – on behalf of all of us in their communities -- to bring the promises of the Universal Declaration to life.

They are ordinary, yet also extraordinary, people.

But when power is in the hands of a closed group, critical voices, protests, investigative journalism, or human rights activism may be perceived as threatening.

Around the world, many human rights defenders are smeared, criminalized, threatened, detained, disappeared, silenced -- and sometimes forgotten. Vaguely worded laws are used to target them for so-called crimes based on dubious or non-existent evidence. Defenders of the rights of Indigenous Peoples, and environmental human rights defenders, are consistently among the activists most often targeted.

Women defenders are also disproportionately attacked, with pervasive threats and abuse on social media – often in explicitly sexual and deeply misogynistic language -- coupled with growing real-life attacks.

We see an alarming incidence of extractive industries, agribusiness and other corporations working to stifle dissenting views, particularly in the form of so-called “strategic lawsuits against public participation”, or SLAPPs. These baseless legal actions are intended to intimidate critics by forcing them to spend large sums of money on legal fees, and they have extremely damaging impacts on many forms of human rights campaigning. According to the monitoring group Forum Asia , those most frequently targeted across the region include land and environmental human rights defenders.

And yet we have a wealth of evidence of the importance and ingenuity of their work.

Law students at the University of the South Pacific sowed the seeds of a recent request by the UN General Assembly for an advisory opinion on the legal obligations, including the human rights obligations of States, to address climate change and its impacts.

A joint complaint by Indigenous inhabitants of four islands in Australia’s Torres Strait region led to the UN Human Rights Committee's ground-breaking decision last year that Australia should compensate Indigenous Islanders for its failure to protect them from harms arising from climate change, and should adopt corrective measures.

In the Philippines, action by civil society groups led to a seven-year-long national investigation that found fossil fuel and other companies have misinformed the public about environmental damage arising from their operations and products, and must assess, prevent and mitigate such impact. The inquiry by the Philippines National Human Rights Commission also emphasised the need for States to "drastically reduce" their own carbon footprint and that of businesses.

In Malaysia, activists have also spurred strong statements by the National Human Rights Commission on the human rights impact of local and transboundary air pollution – the infamous so-called "haze" which I witnessed when I lived in Malaysia in the mid-2000s.

Such work is vital to all of us. The fact is, every human being alive today – and millions who will follow us – faces a triple planetary crisis that threatens our human rights and even our survival. And critical voices, debate and protest are keys that help unlock the solutions that work best. We need the activism and ideas of human rights defenders and specifically, environmental human rights defenders.

We need to encourage their work and protect their safety.

We need to honour them, speak up and push back in their support.

Attacks against them are attacks against our common future. They must be addressed with comprehensive investigations and decisive justice measures.

My Office organizes an annual Asia-Pacific Environmental Human Rights Defenders Forum, and a Forum for Pacific Environmental Human Rights Defenders, together with partner organizations, to enable activists to dialogue safely about their work, shared challenges, potential solutions, and to strengthen their engagement with United Nations human rights bodies.

Key recommendations from recent Forums include:

o The need for more effective laws to safeguard environmental human rights defenders.

o The need to strengthen measures by governments to uphold our universal human right to a healthy environment.

o Much stronger action to enable the broadest possible space for civic participation and the rights to freedom of information, expression, peaceful assembly and association -- with accountability for violations of those rights.

But so much more needs to be done, especially with critically important climate and plastics negotiations underway. I strongly encourage all States and other actors to work hand-in-hand with my Office to value the important role of human rights defenders, and to do far more to protect human rights activism and advance human rights.