Skip to main content

Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders 20192 October 2019Dublin Castle Statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

02 October 2019

Friends and colleagues,

Fellow human rights defenders,

I'm delighted to be here today with so many human rights defenders from around the world.  More than anyone else, you make a difference on the ground and make positive contributions to people's lives. You have my respect, support and gratitude for the individual sacrifices you are making.

As this gathering reminds us, we are more than a collection of individuals. We are a collective force for the defence and promotion of human rights in an age of unprecedented global challenges: climate change, deforestation, populism, food and water security, the globalisation and increasing automation of industry, the unprecedented movement of people, and many more. It has never been more important to uphold and advance people's human rights.

In the past few months we have seen people in many parts of the world – including Hong Kong, Russia, Indonesian Papua, Indian-administered Kashmir, Honduras and Zimbabwe – taking to the streets to ask for something fundamentally human: to have the right to participate in decisions about their lives and their futures. To demand that their human rights are respected.

Our role as human rights defenders in these processes is to act as a sort of conduit – amplifying the voices of those at risk of not being heard; raising sometimes difficult issues; defending those whom others seek to silence.

This role is crucial but is not always welcomed.  Obstacles are created by States and others. Civil society groups face curbs on funding and complex registration rules. Human rights defenders increasingly face online abuse and harassment, disinformation and smear campaigns. Criminal justice systems are misused to target legitimate groups and individuals. Those who kill, attack and harass, whether on behalf of States or other groups, may go unpunished.

Public discourse against human rights is on the rise.  Even some States are adopting narratives that are hostile to human rights and human rights defenders. Minorities are vilified and targeted. Women's rights face pushbacks and resistance to progress. 

Friends and colleagues,

At times the scale of our worldwide and individual challenges can look overwhelming. We know that tides in international affairs ebb and flow. How can we anchor ourselves to the bedrock of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, in the face of a rising tide of worldwide challenges and populism?

Firstly, it is essential that we rebuild the global consensus around the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – and I am absolutely committed to using my mandate to help achieve this. We must never allow the narrative to take hold that civil society participation is valueless or, worse, dangerous.

Civil society participation is the lifeblood of any healthy democracy and society. Each of you here today will have examples of it in action, from indigenous communities to mega-cities. There is no place on earth so remote that people's human rights cannot be threatened, and there no city so vast that its people cease to be of significance, or autonomous bearers of human rights.

In all these places, people will always seek ways to improve their lives and futures. This is a basic human desire. It is therefore critical for us to push States to honour their obligations to protect all human rights defenders and civic space, to insist that they take their duties as States seriously, and to call them out when they fail to do so.

When civil society channels flow freely, it means vibrant debate, freedom of thought and opinion, and public engagement in policy. It means healthy democracies, benefits for the economy and improved social protection. It means better health services, education, housing, and water and food security.  When debate is stifled and opposition voices are silenced, it means increasing repression, growing tension and the risk of explosive rage. It means the truth is suppressed and populism thrives.

The UN's founding principles make clear that civil society is not an optional extra for States. The UDHR grants people rights not only to do things that States like, but also things they may dislike. People are free to hold opinions that are different from those of their government, to mobilise other people for legitimate purposes, and to protest against political decisions. These are neither crimes nor terrorism. They are basic human rights.

Friends and colleagues,

Alongside this vital work of rebuilding consensus, I secondly want to highlight two other ways that we can positively promote human rights and the work of human rights defenders – connection and communication.   

Our generation of human rights defenders has unique ways to connect and communicate, by using online spaces.  Social media has democratised the sharing of information. We can build networks of human rights defenders within countries and regions, and create global support for particular issues. We can speak more directly to political leaders. We can highlight challenges and celebrate success.

We can back each other more effectively in cases of attack. We can tell our stories to wider audiences.  Anywhere that online spaces are available and not deliberately restricted by governments, we are no longer dependent on mainstream media or communications campaigns to shine a spotlight on human rights abuses and violations.

Our power to build consensus is directly linked to our ability to connect and communicate – both with each other, and with the wider public.  As part of this, we need to develop our work at the level of ideas.  We can create a vision that shows people the world we would like to see – where human rights defenders can work safely and reach out to encourage people to stand up against violations. A world where people understand that human rights are everyone's business, and are prepared to stand up for them.

Friends and colleagues,

I hope we can all be part of this shared work to build consensus, connect and communicate. As we break this down country by country, issue by issue, we can test the "human rights health" of States with two sets of key questions.

The first relates to collective space. Do States recognise that participation and freedoms of expression and association are rights? Do they create space for people to voice their views and influence decisions about their lives and futures? Do they establish channels for people to contribute to society, to have an opinion and to express their views peacefully? Do they ensure that a free and widely accessible internet enables critical debate and a "battle of ideas"?

The second relates to respect for people operating in that collective space. Do States acknowledge and respect the vital role of human rights defenders? Do they celebrate them and their contributions? Do they provide protection? Do they monitor the situation and address any issues that arise?

States' track records in these two areas tell us so much, because human rights exist in dynamic societies, not static spaces.  For every new protection mechanism or law, a new setback is created.  Alongside the familiar attacks on human rights defenders, we now see intrusive surveillance tools, online disinformation campaigns, the blocking of accounts and websites, even the wholesale shutdown of the internet. These difficulties are exacerbated when it comes to women, religious or ethnic minorities, migrants or LGBTI defenders.

It is essential that we use consensus-building, connection and communication to recreate a virtuous circle in which the enjoyment of human rights leads to better societies, which leads in turn to fuller enjoyment of human rights, which then feeds back into better societies.  This work has to be done at the global AND the grassroots level. Neither is complete without the other.

Friends and colleagues,

We don't yet know how the world will emerge from its current period of unprecedented challenges. As the late American writer Toni Morrison expressed it in 2015, "I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence."

Some of us here today may have ourselves been left bruised and bleeding in the name of human rights, some have comforted the bruised and bleeding, while others have highlighted their stories. What we must not do is give in, and fall silent.

Thank you and I look forward to your questions.