«It is time to start changing how political leaders speak about human rights defenders»

MaryLawlor

These remarks from Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, are opening the ProtectDefenders.eu 2020 Annual Report.

Human rights defenders have continued to confront a range of assaults from State and non-State actors

This year and around the world, human rights defenders have continued to confront a range of assaults from State and nonState actors, including stigmatization, criminalization, physical attacks, arrest, and torture. Attacks, including killings of human rights defenders, have often happened in a context of structural violence and inequality, including in societies in conflict, and as the product of patriarchal, heteronormative systems. Human rights defenders working on some issues continued to be particularly vulnerable to attacks, such as environmental human rights defenders, those protesting land grabs, or those defending the rights of people, including indigenous peoples. This year, the risky situation facing the HRD community has worsened due to the impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic around the world.

Since I took office in May 2020, I have continuously received information from civil society about human rights violations against HRDs. It is my mission to use this information to raise my concerns with Governments via formal letters, called communications — which become public 60 days after being sent. Also, alarmed by the number of killings of HRDs, my first thematic report presented at the UN Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly will address the pattern of murders against defenders, as one of the priorities of my mandate. I continue engaging with States, formally and informally, about the situation of human rights defenders in their countries through meetings, webinars, and other events. In normal times, I would make two official visits to States annually to assess the situation of HRDs and produce a report afterward, including recommendations to the government on how to better support and protect them. However, due to the movement restrictions imposed by the pandemic, I have not been able to travel yet.

Throughout my previous experience in the field of the protection of defenders and in developing my mandate, I continue to assess that many Governments are failing in their obligations to protect human rights defenders from threats. Even if some States have established dedicated protection mechanisms to prevent and respond to risks and attacks against human rights defenders, human rights defenders often complain that these mechanisms are underresourced, or that States lack the necessary political will to properly protect defenders. That is why I warmly celebrate the remarkable impacts of the EU Human Rights Defenders mechanism, ProtectDefenders.eu.

In a year of extraordinary challenges, the consortium of international civil society organizations implementing ProtectDefenders.eu has continued to provide indispensable and often crucial support to ensure the safety, protection, accompaniment, and training of people who defend rights in the most vulnerable contexts and situations, as well as their families.

In a year of extraordinary challenges, ProtectDefenders.eu has continued to provide indispensable and often crucial support

While I advocate for the enhancement and reinforcement of this strategic alliance of international civil society with the European institutions in order to ensure access to fast and flexible support for defenders in distress, I also encourage the EU Delegations and the EU Member states’ missions to contribute to these efforts and fully implement the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders in a systematic and conscientious manner. Finally, I reiterate my call to States to comply with their international commitments and take special measures to protect human rights defenders wherever they are at risk.

Furthermore, in order to ensure effective protection, it is time to start changing how political leaders and the public perceive and speak about the value of the work of human rights defenders and communities defending rights, emphasizing their essential and positive contributions to society.