As the world celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, atrocities against human rights defenders around the globe are on the increase. More than 120 activists campaigning to protect their land, environment and labor rights from business were killed during the last year. The London based Business & Human Rights Resource Centre have seen a 34% increase in violence against human rights defenders. Human rights defenders are victims of violations of the right to life, liberty, integrity, security and due process. They are perceived as ‘traitors’ and not as diligent citizens. Disappearances and extrajudicial killings are a common practice in some countries. NGOs in many countries are facing restrictions targeting their funding and operations. Too often governments restrict their movements, and place them under surveillance, file false cases and even sanction their torture. There are increased attacks on activists and civic freedoms in general around the world. Governments prefer to stand with powerful corporations, rather than with their citizens who need defense. 2017 has seen a dangerous movement towards more populist, nationalist and authoritarian governments around the world. This trend makes it difficult for people to promote and protect human rights in places where it is most urgently needed.
“The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders” adopted by the United Nations in 1988, was initiated by many human rights non-governmental organizations and some State delegations. The Declaration’s full name is the “Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.” It is not addressed to particular states, but to all human beings. It provides for the support and protection of human rights defenders in the context of their work. It enumerates the ‘rights and protection accorded to human rights defenders and the duties of the States.” It emphasizes that ‘everyone has duties towards and within community and encourages us all to be human rights defenders.’ It is not a legally binding instrument, but it was adopted by consensus by the General Assembly – there is a strong commitment by States for its implementation.
Speaking to truth to power impacts not only activists at the grassroots, but also those at the top echelons. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein have been outspoken about human rights violations committed by the powerful and mighty – the Russian-backed government of Syria, Chinese-backed government of Myanmar, and travel ban against citizens of Muslim-majority countries by the US government. His willingness to speak up in the face of human rights violations has consequences – he is not seeking a second term when his four-term ends in September. In an email to his staff he expressed his concern that his voice would be silenced in an age ‘when world powers are retreating from their historical commitment to human rights.’ He further stated: “After reflection, I have decided not to seek a second four-year term. To do so, in the current geopolitical context, might involve bending a knee in supplication; muting a statement of advocacy; lessening the independence and integrity of my voice…”
This hard reality is a poor reflection of our times…it is time for us to step up to be leaders and champions and defenders of human rights.
Watch a video on “Let’s Protect Human Rights Defenders”
Teresa Kotturan, SCN, NGO Representative for Sisters of Charity Federation