Press Release

The critical situation of human rights defenders: The urgent need to protect and recognize their contributions

Joint Statement on International Human Rights Defenders' Day

December 9, 2015

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Geneva / Banjul / Washington, D.C. - On this 17th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms ("Declaration on Human Rights Defenders"), a group of international experts* working to advance the rights of human rights defenders share this important call for States, to enhance protections for the rights to life and personal integrity of all human rights defenders. 

The experts urge all States to adopt effective measures to increase the social understanding of the important role of human rights defenders in building tolerant societies and in consolidating democracy. They are alarmed by the increase in attacks and reprisals against human rights defenders globally in performing their work. Furthermore, there are daily allegations of defenders being harassed, threatened, and killed, and many of these acts are not properly investigated.

The experts wish to remind States of the importance of ensuring effective access to justice. Reine Alapini-Gansou, Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders at the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, explained: "Impunity only serves to fuel the repetition of aggressions and threats against human rights defenders.  It is absolutely essential that violations on the human rights of defenders are investigated in a serious, efficient, and prompt manner, that perpetrators are sanctioned, and that the victims are redressed. States must ensure by all means possible that there is an effective access to justice.”

Over the past year, the experts have also particularly noted an increase in the criminalization of defenders for reasons related to their work. Such criminalization manifests itself in the initiation of unjustified criminal processes against defenders. Launching these processes has many goals, including the intimidation of defenders, and their families and friends, and to disrupt the work of the defender at crucial moments by having to invest resources and time in his or her case.  These also aim to dissuade victims of human rights violations from seeking justice and making similar claims in the future. The experts consider it important that States act with the due diligence necessary to end all forms of criminalization of the work of human rights defenders and take steps to address the contexts of risk in which defenders advance their causes.

"Human rights defenders are currently facing multiple challenges,” expressed Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Jose de Jesus Orozco. “In my work with defenders in the Americas, I have noticed an increase in their stigmatization and criminalization by both State and non-State actors. This situation is plainly unacceptable, no matter where it takes place. Human rights defenders are critical for building tolerant and open societies, free from all forms of discrimination and violence.  When the rights to life and personal integrity of a defender are not respected, this sends a social message dissuading human rights work in general."

In the framework of this anniversary, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, stated, "I urge States that have national protection mechanisms in place to monitor violations committed against defenders, and continuously improve their functioning, adopt protection measures that are integral and that are effectively and collaboratively implemented by all relevant sectors of government.” He further added, “States that do not yet have protection mechanisms in place should immediately create such mechanisms because the lives and safety of many human rights defenders are in the line."

Lastly, the experts call special attention to the particular vulnerability and situation of risk faced by certain groups of human rights defenders, such as women human rights defenders and those who promote and protect sexual and reproductive rights, the rights of LGBTI persons, indigenous peoples' rights, and the rights to territory and environmental rights. With regard to these groups, they strongly advocate for States to ensure their protection as well as to publicly recognize and support their work. They also encourage States to create spaces where these defenders can participate in the adoption and monitoring of legislation, public policies, and national protection programs, which have been designed with them in mind as beneficiaries, to increase their effectiveness.

(*) The experts: UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst; the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders at the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, Reine Alapini-Gansou,; and the Rapporteur on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Jose de Jesus Orozco.

Michel Forst was appointed by the Human Rights Council as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders in 2014. Michel Forst has extensive experience on human rights issues and particularly on the situation of human rights defenders. In particular, he was the Director General of Amnesty International (France) and Secretary General of the first World Summit on Human Rights Defenders in 1998. More information.

Reine Alapini-Gansou was appointed Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights in 2011. She is Member of the Commission since 2005 and she has formerly been the Special Rapporteur on Rights of Human Rights Defenders in Africa (2005-2009). Member of the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration since 2011. Recently, she has been Member of the United Nations’ International Commission of Inquiry on post-electoral violence in Cote d’Ivoire (May-June 2011). She is a Lawyer to the Bar of Benin since 1986. More information.

Jose de Jesus Orozco undertook the responsibility of leading the IACHR's Unit for Human Rights Defenders and stayed as Rapporteur when the IACHR decided to convert the Unit into a Rapporteurship in 2011. Jose de Jesus Orozco is a researcher on human rights law and other areas at the Legal Research Institute of the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and he formerly served for 16 years as a Magistrate on Mexico's highest electoral courts. More information.

No. 147/15