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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

"Freedom from Fear: Securing Rights in Challenging Times"; Remarks by Andrew Gilmour, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, at the Carter Center Human Rights Defenders Forum 2017, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Freedom from Fear: Securing Rights in Challenging Times

09 May 2017

9 May 2017
Thank you, First Lady and President Carter, for your inspirational leadership and for this initiative. At the UN, your name is still an icon for commitment, courage, truth and human rights, 40 years after your election.

I do not like to flatter audiences; it is usually more stimulating to provoke a bit. But in this group, how can one do anything other than to salute the astonishing commitment and courage it takes to be a human rights defender in so many of the countries that are represented here today?

We heard yesterday many moving accounts and some harrowing threats as well; so many setbacks to the human rights struggle. But what’s just happened in France is an exception, and on Sunday night I wrote something thanking the French for their thumping victory over vindictive and xenophobic populism, and asking them to please “now do for the Anglo-Saxons what they did for you in 1944”. I did not mean the D-day landings of course, but a form of liberation and restoration of national honour and values.

So France has given a “human rights goose bumps moment”, and there have not really been very many of those over the past year. But one I would like to mention happened in January – it was an astonishing thing to watch thousands of American human rights defenders and lawyers flock to US airports to protest the cruel and infamous Muslim immigration ban, and to protect those most in need and to provide solidarity, and also to restore faith in America’s goodness and indeed in humanity. That was a rare goosebumps moment, but unfortunately we will need many more such efforts to confront what is coming down the road.

One of the great illusions and myths propagated by repressive regimes, both at the UN and in their own countries, is that somehow human rights are a threat to security, and that conversely repressing human rights promotes security, particularly in an era of growing terrorism and violent extremism.

Our view at the UN Human Rights Office is - not surprisingly - precisely the opposite. We believe that failure to uphold freedoms, failure to have rule of law, will not protect public order. Repression may indeed drive tensions underground, but only to fester, only to ensure that it would explode later, far more dangerously. The number of countries who push back at us and use these arguments is growing all the time, and this is worrying.

Human rights are threatened in so many different ways, and I will not list them all, other just to mention the situation of civil society organisations, and how difficult it is to register, fund and operate them.

Human rights defenders here at this forum have spoken movingly about harsh laws targeting human rights, such as the “foreign agents” law in the Russian Federation, but also in other places, including Israel, Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Turkey and Egypt. Civil society space is not just shrinking – it has in some places, as was mentioned about Bahrain, closed altogether. Another participant shared accounts of grotesque threats that are issued against human rights defenders in Hungary, and we heard similar information about the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

We operate on the assumption that a State’s treatment of civil society is a litmus test of its commitment to human rights. As the High Commissioner has said, the breadth of democratic space shows whether the State is at the service of its people, or whether it is a predator more intent on just suppressing freedom and dissent and staying in power indefinitely, crushing diverse voices, stifling media, justice, and harming the interests of all.

So how can we at the UN help, with all our imperfections that I am sure some of you will point out to me after I finish speaking? How can we support civil society in this hour of need? I would like to mention four initiatives underway at the moment. I do not wish to oversell them, but they are nonetheless important.

The first is the general effort led by the UN Human Rights Office, to support civil society, and this goes on in many ways:
  • we offer legal advice, provide capacity-building and share information, lessons learned and best practices, and produce practical tools; 
  • we facilitate civil society engagement with UN Special procedures, treaty bodies and the Universal Periodic Review; 
  • we seek to foster dialogue between State actors and civil society - we do a lot of that, and are also getting civil society together where it has often been hard to do that. I have seen many such examples and participated in such initiatives, especially in Africa; 
  • we support legal frameworks and effective access to justice; and this is a consistent thing we are now doing. To mention my recent trip to the DRC, I did not have one meeting – whether it was with Government officials, Speaker of the Senate, National Assembly, and in media interview – in which I did not push for the law for HRDs, which is in draft form, and the need to have a law for freedom of assembly. Trying to register our concerns and obtain support for the legal framework for civil society is an increasing priority for us. 
Secondly, the Human Rights Up Front Initiative, that the former SG launched as a response to our manifest failures to do more to prevent the terrible killings in Sri Lanka in 2009. The killings were not our fault, but we definitely did not respond well, and afterwards we did a major soul-searching and lessons learned to see how we could do better in future. The aim is to get the whole system to work on human rights. Of the many thousands of staff who work at the UN in various forms, only about 3% work directly on human rights. So the aim is to get the other 97% to understand that human rights is also part of their work, even if it is not exactly in their job description as peacekeepers or as aid workers, still human rights is what they are doing. Trying to get them to work together and to have a common analysis as to what the threats to human rights threats might be.

This has been quite a successful initiative, and we have really managed to have some form of cultural change within the UN, getting people to speak up more frankly and to show more moral courage, even if it leads to having serious problem with the host country. We are not trying to get people to be kamikazes and become instantly declared persona non grata, but we are trying to raise the bar, and I feel we have had a little bit of success. And of course this involves working with civil society organisations.

The third initiative is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which we believe offers significant entry points to further realize freedom from fear and freedom from want for all people without discrimination, and using the overarching vision of leaving no one behind. As countries seek to implement the SDGs and their targets, it is crucial that they engage with civil society. You - assisted by us - need to work with them to ensure that Governments meet the commitments they voluntarily signed up to.

Goal 16 (on peaceful, just and inclusive societies) embeds many dimensions of civil and political rights, including: reduction of all forms of violence; ending abuse and exploitation, trafficking and torture; equal access to justice, strong and accountable national institutions; and inclusive decision-making. One of the indicators for Goal 16 explicitly spells out that States will be judged on the progress in reducing the “number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists, associated media personnel, trade unionists and human rights advocates.”

It is important to bear in mind that many Governments are far more comfortable and willing to talk about SDGs than they are to talk about human rights. They all agreed and signed up to SDGs, and while human rights is not there as explicitly as some would have liked, they are definitely there implicitly. We need to use this narrow opening to push for something much broader, and I am very optimistic that we can do that.

Fourthly: Reprisals. We at the United Nations rely on the cooperation with civil society actors around the world. You provide indispensable on-the-ground insights and information, alert the UN system to developing situations, and push for relevant action to be taken.

At times – as many of you have unfortunately witnessed – engagement with the UN on human rights leads to reprisals and intimidation. This has been a long-standing concern to the Organization, and we are distressed at the increasing number and scale of such acts. This ranges from travel bans, threats and harassment, including by officials, smear campaigns, surveillance, introduction of restrictive legislation, physical attacks, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and ill-treatment, including sexual violence, denial of access to medical attention and even killings. Such measures are unacceptable, and the UN as a whole has a collective responsibility to stop and prevent these reprehensible acts. We need to give this issue the attention it deserves.

Recognising the gravity of this issue, last October the Secretary-General asked me to lead efforts to strengthen UN wide action for prevention of, protection against, investigation into and accountability for reprisals. We are trying to get as much information about what is going on, and we would welcome your input and will circulate our address. We know reprisals are happening, but we are not receiving that many cases of it. This is explicitly about people who suffer for having cooperated with the UN, which is an outrageous thing of course – cooperating with the UN means cooperating with institutions (whether special procedures and treaty bodies) set up by Member States, and then people are being punished for cooperating with these.

I am taking up specific cases with certain Ambassadors concerned in New York. We are also working on establishing a more coherent way at the UN system to deal with this scourge. We will be working through quiet diplomacy but also public, I will be presenting the annual report of the Secretary-General on reprisals to the HRC and to the General Assembly. These various initiatives are some of our activities.

We are up against this growing perception by Governments – their perverse logic – that the best way to react to terrorism is to crack down on freedoms, and to intensify discrimination and even bring back torture. And to humiliate and alienate religious and ethnic minorities – who otherwise might be at the forefront of fighting terrorism – but are instead being driven into the terrorists' hands in the most counterproductive ways possible.

Since the root causes of so many grievances that lead to all forms of violence – be it protest, civil conflict, terrorism - arise from discrimination and exclusion, it is clear that human rights (not only for moral but also practical reasons) must be at the forefront of policy-making. President Carter was the first world leader to truly appreciate that.

I joined the human rights movement – Amnesty International – while he was President. Thanks in no small part to him, it was the beginning of a massive revolution, a true explosion of human rights, that lasted about three decades. We are now experiencing a backlash. I am a historian by training, but I do not have a world-view of history that holds that progress is inevitable. It would be tempting to believe that in this march of progress on human rights, this is just a temporary blip, a setback, and that in time we will circumvent it. I sincerely hope it is, but we cannot be sure. And to make sure it is just a temporary blip, we need to redouble our efforts to ensure that progress continues.

Yesterday, one Forum participant mentioned that women human rights defenders in her part of the world do not need saving, they need solidarity and support. She also said that those who are privileged have a responsibility to provide support. I fully agree with that, and those of us working in the UN are undeniably privileged. It is certainly not for someone from the UN – we are not on the frontlines of human rights defence after all – to exhort you to take even greater risks, to show even greater heroism, to expose yourselves to even greater threats of reprisals.

Our role is to show moral solidarity and practical support. We are trying to “up our game” in this regard, and to make that support more meaningful and effective. But we too face obstacles – and they are actually from the same source as the obstacles that you face. It is those Governments that are threatening you and removing your rights who are also putting many obstacles in our way. It could either be removing our budget, or creating difficulties every step of the way. A number of Governments are doing that with the UN Human Rights Office at the moment.

There is increased pressure on us to end our assistance to you. But we are genuinely determined to do something to circumvent these obstacles. It is going to be a difficult journey - especially for you of course. All I can say is that we are profoundly and sincerely with you.

Thank you so much.