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Bachelet marks 30 years of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention

29 March 2022

Delivered by

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


30th anniversary of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention - Arbitrary detention of human rights defenders


Distinguished members of the Working Group,


I am glad to participate in marking the 30th anniversary of one of the first UN Special Procedures. The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has a unique mandate: not only because it is so broad but also because it is the only Special Procedure mechanism that issues opinions based on individual complaints.

Over the past 30 years, the Working Group has adopted more than 1,500 opinions. That cadence has accelerated significantly, with the current pace reaching some 85 or 90 opinions per year. I applaud your determination to maintain this high number of opinions despite – and throughout – the COVID-19 pandemic.

And every year, you receive an increasing number of requests for action. They demonstrate how important your work is deemed to be by victims and their representatives. They know, as we all do, that the urgent appeals and communications that are issued by the Working Group can be extremely influential, generating real impact on the conditions and duration of victims' arbitrary detention. Last year, at least 11 individuals were released after opinions on their cases were issued by the Working Group. Just this month, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori were also freed – both of them subjects of the Working Group's opinions.

But the Working Group's mandate extends beyond individual requests. Its deliberations constitute important guidelines and standard-setting. To take one example, Deliberation No. 11, in September 2020 – on arbitrary deprivation of liberty in the implementation of public health emergency measures – was an extremely timely and useful piece of guidance. The Working Group’s more recent Deliberation No. 12 examines gender issues in arbitrary detention, and the need to prevent and address the arbitrary detention of women in criminal justice systems; immigration or administrative detention; health-care institutions and other settings.

Last year's report on arbitrary detentions resulting from drug policies – with detailed recommendations on how they can be avoided – is another example of a practical piece of guidance with potentially important impacts on the lives of many.

This influence and impact is magnified by the Working Group's country visits, of which there have been more than 50 to date. I understand that the Working Group has already resumed its country visits, after their suspension due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dear colleagues,

All too frequently, detention is used as an instrument of coercion or punishment against perceived opponents of the Government or State.

Human rights defenders are acutely and disproportionately affected by arbitrary detention, whether they are women's rights and youth activists, climate activists and environmental human rights defenders, trade unionists, people investigating or fighting corruption, journalists or those who struggle to support the rule of law. In 2021, 24 per cent of the Working Group's opinions involved the detention of human rights defenders. In every one of these cases, the Working Group found that the victim had been arbitrarily detained due to her or his activities in support of human rights.

Many of these victims of arbitrary detention are themselves members of marginalized groups, or seek to protect the rights of those marginalized. In addition, women human rights defenders are frequently arrested and subjected to specific threats.

These human rights violations constitute an attack on all of us. Detaining individuals on the basis of their activities as human rights defenders violates their fundamental rights – and deprives all of society of their essential contributions.

As this Working Group has rightly pointed out, the arbitrary detention of human rights defenders is a serious human rights violation occurring worldwide. This is unacceptable. It is not enough to sign the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders: States must uphold it. Promoting and protecting human rights means empowering, meaningfully engaging with and effectively protecting civil society activists – not sentencing them to lengthy imprisonment terms on flimsy charges in trials that do not merit the term due process.

In this context, I want to honour the powerful work that is done by human rights defenders who monitor judicial processes and advocate their reform.

Distinguished Members,

I thank you very deeply for your work. I do so, not only as the High Commissioner for Human Rights, but also as someone who was myself subjected to arbitrary detention – as were my parents. Your contribution to the work of advancing human rights is invaluable. I urge the Working Group to face the next thirty years and beyond with the same firm grasp of the law, the same steely determination to seek justice, and the same sense of humanity and compassion that your work has shown to date.

Thank you.