On the occasion of the conference “The Human Rights Defenders’ Movement at a Crossroad”, held in Brussels on September 29, 2022, Cristina Palabay, Secretary-General of Karapatan Alliance (The Philippines) delivered a powerful statement in her opening speech – on behalf of the delegation of human rights defenders participating in the annual meetings of ProtectDefenders.eu. In her speech, she made an unequivocal call to the European institutions to renew their pledge to the protection of defenders at risk around the world. The full content of her statement is available below.
We, human rights defenders from more than thirty countries, are immensely honored to be with you today, four years after the last annual meeting of ProtectDefenders.eu amid extremely difficult contexts in our communities, countries, and regions. In the past years, we saw the poorest of the poor and disadvantaged peoples bearing the heaviest impact of a pandemic, wars of aggression inflicting massive loss of lives of civilians, the steady rise of authoritarianism and extreme repression of rights and freedoms, and unprecedented economic crises that have shaken the core of our rights and dignity as human beings.
In our work as human rights defenders in the past years, we have come together, defying constraints of borders and State imposed restrictions, to strengthen, support, complement, and help each other overcome our grief, our loss, and our pains to provide life-saving, essential service for communities and peoples. We celebrate and take our wins whenever and wherever we get them, such as the release of some detained human rights defenders in Guatemala, Burundi, Philippines, and Saudi Arabia; UN resolutions on access to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, on environmental defenders, on the protection of human rights defenders in conflict situations and during the pandemic. Our movements, our communities, and our solidarity remain our pillars of strength.
However, the great risks to our lives, liberty, and security have gone on overdrive. Defenders have been increasingly stigmatized – called with various names and labels that depict us as criminals or as less than humans or to inflict harmful gendered impacts that increase our vulnerabilities in a world where patriarchy and discrimination still largely exist. Social media platforms and offline attacks have increased manifold. Lawfare – or the weaponization of laws – against human rights defenders, whether through criminal trumped-up charges, counter-terror or anti-money laundering or administrative policies and laws, or the COVID 19 pandemic restrictions – have been vastly used to curtail and transgress our freedom of expression, press freedom, freedom of assembly and association, of mobility, of privacy, to access to funding and resources, and many other rights and liberties. In an environment that is likewise unprecedented, we see our journalists, our lawyers, our judges and magistrates, our truth-tellers from extremely distressed Palestine, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Colombia, South Africa, Myanmar, and many other countries, experiencing the greatest challenges in a supposedly democratic and free world, but they are increasingly gagged and attacked. Extrajudicial killings of human rights defenders and arbitrary or illegal arrests and detentions of our colleagues are on an uptick, especially among land, environmental and indigenous defenders, with nary a sliver of justice for the victims. Civic and democratic spaces are repressed or are closing, if not already closed in many countries.
We lament that as we see the 25th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights Defenders and the 14th year after the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders, we are in a more difficult world. Only 15 countries out of the 193 UN Member States or 8% have enacted national policies for the protection of human rights defenders. Legislations that protect us from direct and indirect actions of businesses that impact on the environment and on the quality of lives of those in communities have yet to be realized.
As NGOs supported by ProtectDefenders.eu, we take this occasion to say that the Consortium needs further stronger and broader support as its takes on, adapts, or responds to the needs and risks faced by defenders and strengthens the current programmes it has to help us.
We likewise call on and enjoin the EU and the Member States to ensure the effective, timely, relevant, and comprehensive implementation of the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders including regular briefings of country missions with defenders; increased support for defenders through political support for their causes and through funding and technical resources, and visa and relocation mechanisms, with strong gender-sensitive approach; pushing for enactment of human rights defenders protection legislation and mechanisms; and clear, definite indicators on justice for human rights defenders. We enjoin the EU to promote the guidelines among States including the US, Canada, Australia, ASEAN, and SAARC, among others.
Guidelines on enabling the environment for civil society and strong language on the protection of human rights defenders in the mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence likewise need to be developed. We propose to the EU engage with social media and internet-based companies to uphold and protect the rights of human rights defenders against attacks and disinformation. Similarly, we call on the EU to ensure corporate accountability for their involvement in attacks on human rights defenders around the world, including by supporting the UN process for the development of a binding instrument on corporate accountability.
To close, we thank ProtectDefenders.eu for bringing us together today. Let us all hope and work relentlessly in addressing the seeming backsliding of our democracies and in promoting the vision that everyone should enjoy our rights to promote, protect and defend human rights.