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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Opening Remarks by Ms. Navanethem Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the Press Conference following the conference “Sixty years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: The defenders take the floor, Brussels, 8 October 2008

08 October 2008

8 October 2008, Brussels

Mr. President of the European Parliament,
Distinguished Members of the European Parliament, Council and Commission,
Dear Colleagues,

It gives me great pleasure to meet you. It is a honour to speak after such a distinguished group of panellists and add some of my thoughts to their in-depth and enlightening contributions to your debate. This meeting takes place at a very auspicious moment, as this year marks not only the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also the 10th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. This is indeed an opportunity to celebrate and honour their vital work.

I am also pleased that you had the opportunity to get a preview of “Stories on Human Rights.” Commemorating the Universal Declaration’s sixth decade, this artistic production is a collaboration of the OHCHR and Art for the World. It gathers twenty short films by award-winning directors from around the world. I wish to express my gratitude to the European Commission for their financial support, as well as the French Government and Business Social Services of Sao Paulo in Brazil, together with all the other partners, who have contributed in kind to this unique project.

Works such as those collected in “Stories on Human Rights” challenge us not only to contemplate and consume, but also to reflect on how civil society can be a powerful agent of the change that the Universal Declaration envisaged for everybody everywhere. Indeed, the principles underpinning the Universal Declaration can be found in virtually all cultures and traditions. Conversely, at all latitudes tyranny abhors the free expression of the human spirit and its aspirations. Yet, coercion can be defied and ultimately defeated. Inequity can be challenged in all its aspects. That is the hard work that human rights defenders in civil society, international organizations and even in government undertake on a daily basis.

I underscore as often as I can the centrality of their role. Mine is not just a ritual tribute, but the expression of a deeply-held conviction. I have put that conviction into practice many times in my life not only as a human rights defender and the co-founder of an international nongovernmental organization. As a judge and a UN official I also strove to be an available and attentive interlocutor of civil society as, at heart, I remain a human rights defender.

Giving effect to the principles of the Universal Declaration, human rights defenders have very much kept alive the momentum, the focus, and the pressure for change. They are at the frontlines in early warning—by reporting emerging and potentially escalating patterns of abuse; in monitoring— by pointing to deviations from international human rights and humanitarian law; in transition facilitation—by challenging impunity, strengthening the rule of law, devising measures to flesh out best democratic practices, and establishing principles of good governance in societies emerging from conflict or transitioning to democracy. Their work is fraught with risks, which they face in full awareness that their advocacy and objectives may remain long unheeded. Defenders of women's rights are often as vulnerable to attacks as those they strive to protect. Many defenders pay with their lives the ultimate price of dedication. Our collective responsibility is to ensure that these defenders’ efforts are matched with concrete action and timely remedies.

To this effect, I will continue to draw extensively from these advocates’ expertise and recommendations, as well as from the wisdom, experience and knowledge of the Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders. The Civil Society Unit of OHCHR was created precisely to harness and maximize these essential contributions, assist and facilitate our interaction, and ensure that civil society’s voice resonates with stakeholders and duty bearers alike. Let me also point out that OHCHR field presences are increasingly developing their outreach and cooperation with those diverse civil society actors on the ground who are frequently at the forefront of human rights protection and monitoring. In the year-long campaign launched by the Secretary General to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, the opportunities for our interaction have intensified. We have also mobilized our staff and partners to reach out to detainees in an effort that this week will draw attention to the rights of detainees, including prisoners of conscience.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Freedom of association, assembly and expression are fundamental tenets of the Universal Declaration. They underpin the very existence of civil society everywhere and in all walks of life. Your presence here testifies to the vitality and enduring appeal of these principles, as well as to the gradual, but unstoppable expansion of civil society in its numbers, sphere of action, and influence.

Yet, in many countries a worrisome trend is emerging or re-emerging. I refer in particular to laws that aim at curtailing civil society’s scope of action. I am fully aware that some of these laws have been used to harass and obstruct the work of human rights defenders, hinder the registration and regulation of NGOs and their activities, and ban or hamper the receipt of financial support from abroad. This legislation often carries direct or indirect limitations that effectively render moot the right to freedom of association.

Not only may restrictive NGO-focused laws freeze the incisiveness and effectiveness of civil society domestically. They also retain the potential of both undermining international campaigns that are predicated on broad partnerships between governments and civil society, as well as of disabling solidarity networks which are crucial to human rights work. In worst case scenarios, some NGO-related legislation is used to discredit or even criminalize the work of human rights defenders.

Likewise, in too many countries in the world the press continues to be constrained by restrictions that are inimical to freedom of expression. Although the roles of human rights defenders and the press are different, both are crucial to sustaining healthy checks and balances on those who hold power.

Rest assured that I intend to keep monitoring these worrisome trends and will seek to counter them to the best of my ability.

This said, let me also point out that human rights law allows for certain restrictions of certain rights and freedoms. But let’s make no mistake: Article 29 of the UDHR clearly states that these limitations can be invoked solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society. They should be narrowly defined and cautiously applied in order not to jeopardize rights themselves. In particular the existence of a fully independent judiciary is fundamental to check the potential for government abuse, including arbitrary applications of limitations to freedom of expression.

Against this background, it is also of grave concern that freedom of expression has recently been denounced as antithetic to freedom of religion or belief, another fundamental right under the UDHR, when used irresponsibly and with a view of undermining peaceful coexistence among diverse communities. Freedom of religion cannot exist in an environment where freedom of expression is not respected.

Allow me to be clear on this score. It is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is incumbent upon all to promote tolerance to foster understanding for diversity so that even contrasting views and convictions can be freely and respectfully expressed in the public arena.

Expressions that constitute incitement to racial or religious hatred should be acted upon in an urgent but proportionate manner. However, speeches that criticize religions, even vehemently, do not automatically constitute incitement. At the same time, violent and abusive criticism against a particular religion is likely to create a threatening and discriminating context for the followers of that creed who, consequently, may become afraid to openly express their beliefs. Each case should be assessed on its own circumstances, and in accordance with all relevant international human rights standards.

It is crucial to protect the rights of religious minorities and of non-believers, as well as other groups or vulnerable individuals, including women and girls. In addition, we should be mindful that individuals belonging to a majority religion are not always free from pressure to adhere to a certain interpretation of that religion, or to change or renounce their religious affiliation. Their freedoms of religion and expression must also be protected by creating an environment conducive to frankness and debate, rather than imposed conformism.

To clarify the contours of this vital debate my Office has held an expert seminar on October 2-3 specifically on the links between articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.


Upholding freedom of association and freedom of expression is of crucial importance at all times, including when communities are either exposed to severe threats or undergo delicate transitions.

Without any doubt, terrorism represents one such severe threat and a profound challenge to human rights. No one could quarrel with the fact that States have a duty to protect their populations against terrorism. In response to legitimate security concerns, however, many governments expanded executive power at the expense of those of the legislature and the courts. This has caused concern as experience shows that if checks and balances are not adequate, the margin of abuse is high. I caution against such tendencies.

Against this background, let me welcome a U.S. court order last Tuesday to free 17 Chinese Muslims held at Guantanamo Bay.

Let me also underscore that in introducing new or amended legislation to counter this challenge, States must avoid vague, unclear or overbroad definitions of terrorism which may lead—and have already done so in some cases—to inappropriate restrictions on the legitimate exercise of fundamental liberties, such as freedom of association, expression and peaceful political and social opposition.

Furthermore, some States have included non-violent activities in their national definitions of terrorism, which has increased the risk and the practice of prosecuting individuals who are legitimately and peacefully exercising and advocating rights enshrined in international law.

In my view, human rights should be placed at the core of international cooperation in counter-terrorism. States must ensure that measures taken to combat crimes of terrorism comply with their obligations under international human rights law, in particular the protection from torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, arbitrary detention, the right to recognition as a person before the law, due process and non-refoulement.

This approach, grounded in international law, is of vital importance in our increasingly interdependent, multiethnic and multicultural societies where the risks of discrimination and stigmatization of minorities is ever present and may be exploited to pursue dubious political agendas. Such agendas often reflect ingrained and easily manipulated prejudice against perceived diversity, rather than a genuine concern for communal security. They also have automatically conflated ethnic origin with disruptive intent and capacities, and dangerously stoke suspicions for purely political gain.

In this regard, the work of defenders, particularly concerning the rights of migrant workers and of minorities—individuals and groups that can be either long-established or newly settled—is crucial in alerting against the potential and the actual manifestations of abuse, as well as in ensuring that the rule of law and due process are uniformly and equitably applied.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
In a different way, political transitions also pose challenges of great magnitude. At such times, human rights defenders have an essential role to play as evaluators and guarantors of democratic progress: their voices must be protected. They play an important role in assessing whether citizens have the right and the opportunity to take part in the public affairs of their country and whether they can access public services, as required by human rights law. There is also the issue of periodic elections that are a pivotal moment in democratic transitions. However, in some States the electoral process has seen governments placing overt restrictions and limitations on the freedoms of participation, assembly, association, opinion, expression and information. Practices of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and the lack of due process have been adopted against those not towing the government’s line, including opponents and human rights defenders.

Coordination and partnerships with the United Nations, regional organizations, States and civil society are crucial to developing and sharing a wide range of available experience and expertise that can help build democratic institutions and respect for human rights and the rule of law while political transitions are ongoing.

Distinguished Participants,

In light of your discussion, as well as developments that continue to take place in all regions of the world, it is quite clear that civil society should be constantly vigilant and jealously defend its prerogatives and rights. In doing so, it should take advantage of the human rights mechanisms which can assist individuals and organizations in this vital task. I refer in particular to mandate holders of special procedures, namely those experts that are mandated by the Human Rights Council to investigate and report on specific human rights situations, including emergencies and chronic conditions of human rights abuses. I also refer to the Universal Periodic Review that the Human Rights Council, the intergovernmental body mandated to promote and protect human rights, has put in place. At regular intervals, the review provides an assessment of the human rights record of all UN Member States and it is open to nongovernmental organizations’ contributions.

Let me reiterate that civil society is one of OHCHR’s valued partners. Indeed, the High Commissioner can and should be considered as perhaps the most visible among the human rights defenders, and as such OHCHR will also keep the channels of communications open and platforms for joint action available.

In concluding, I wish to underscore that a global culture of human rights is predicated on the universality of human rights and their connection with security and development and welfare for all. We should never accept the argument that some rights fit the traditions of certain cultures, but are antithetical to other customs. Universality is anchored in our common humanity, and not on those mutable historic, cultural, economic and geographic circumstances that critics of universality invoke to shore up their views. At all latitudes, human rights defenders have known this simple, but fundamental fact. The fight for universality will continue to inform and shape their action. Rest assured that my Office will always be ready to assist them in their vital work.

Thank you.