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The High Commissioner for Human Rights: a human rights defender-in-chief

The new High Commissioner has a particular responsibility to protect human rights defenders, especially so when they face intimidation and reprisals for their efforts to seek accountability at the UN for human rights violations. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on the New High Commissioner of Human Rights.

‘Human rights defenders are the heroes of our time,’ said outgoing High Commissioner Navi Pillay in one of her final addresses to the UN Human Rights Council. ‘They inject the life blood into human rights: they are the promoters of change, the people who ring the alarm about abuse, poor legislation and creeping authoritarianism.’

‘Human rights defenders are the heroes of our time,’ said outgoing High Commissioner Navi Pillay in one of her final addresses to the UN Human Rights Council. ‘They inject the life blood into human rights: they are the promoters of change, the people who ring the alarm about abuse, poor legislation and creeping authoritarianism.’

Pillay’s words should be the point of departure for incoming High Commissioner, Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein of Jordan. Protecting and supporting human rights defenders – the work of whom is essential to promote democracy and development, prevent and expose violations, and obtain justice and remedy for victims – should be the key priority for Zeid when his term commences in September.

Zeid will take office at a time when human rights defenders in many regions face worsening restrictions and attacks. In Uganda and Russia human rights defenders risk imprisonment for speaking out on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, while in Brazil and the Philippines human rights defenders are disappeared and killed in increasing numbers in connection with their work to protect environmental rights and expose corporate human rights violations. In some countries, such as Egypt and Bahrain, human rights defenders are being imprisoned merely for exercising their basic human rights to freedom of expression and peaceful protest, while in others, such as Sri Lanka and China, defenders are harassed and even killed for their efforts to expose and seek accountability at the UN for human rights violations. No person should face such risks for promoting and protecting the rights of others.


Flickr/Dying Regime (Some rights reserved)

Zeid will take office at a time when human rights defenders in many regions face worsening restrictions and attacks.


In addition to facing worsening physical threats and attacks, human rights defenders in many regions are operating in an increasingly hostile legislative environment, with proposed or recently enacted laws in states such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India and Russia severely curtailing the independence, operations and access to funds of non-governmental organizations. In other states, national security and counter-terrorism legislation is used and abused to criminalize the work of defenders.

In this context, protecting human rights defenders from risks and attacks, and promoting the vital role of defenders in democracy, development and good governance, should be a key priority for Zeid when he takes office.

There are a range of steps the new High Commissioner should take in this regard.

First, Zeid should be accessible and proactive in his engagement with civil society, prioritizing the focus of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on the strategic goal of ‘widening democratic space’, that was developed under his predecessor. Civil society and OHCHR are vital partners in the promotion and protection of human rights and the High Commissioner’s close engagement with those working at the frontline of human rights will ensure that the work of the Office is targeted, relevant and responsive. Such engagement will also help ensure that, at a time when OHCHR faces what Pillay describes as significant 'financial and political constraints', Zeid can count on civil society to be vigilant in safeguarding the independence and integrity of the Office and advocating for an increase in its resources.

As a second step, Zeid should push states to develop and implement specific national laws and policies to recognise and protect the work of human rights defenders. The legal recognition and protection of human rights defenders is crucial to ensure that they can work in a safe, supportive environment and be free from attacks, reprisals and unreasonable legal restrictions. Despite this, fifteen years on from the adoption of the international Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, very few states have taken the crucial next step of incorporating its provisions into domestic law.

The vast majority of attacks on defenders – up to ninety percent – are perpetrated with impunity.

Third, Zeid should promote and pursue investigations and accountability for attacks on human rights defenders. The vast majority of attacks on defenders – up to ninety percent – are perpetrated with impunity. Under Zeid’s leadership, the Office should promote and support the prompt, thorough and impartial investigation of all violations against human rights defenders, the prosecution of perpetrators, and access to effective remedies for victims.

As a fourth step, Zeid should build on the commitment of his predecessor to the universality of human rights, including women’s rights and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. He must stand up against efforts to weaken the universality of rights by subjecting their interpretation to notions such as ‘traditional values’, and speak out against efforts to silence women human rights defenders and those who work on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Human Rights Council in September is likely to present an unprecedented opportunity to do just that, with some states likely to push the Council to strengthen its response to homophobic violence and discrimination.

Finally, as the High Commissioner, Zeid has a particular responsibility to protect human rights defenders and others who face intimidation and reprisals, from both state and non-state actors, for their efforts to expose and seek accountability at the UN for human rights violations. There are numerous egregious cases of defenders being persecuted for their cooperation with the UN – from the arbitrary detention and death of Cao Shunli in China to the deregistration of leading non-governmental organization ADC Memorial in Russia – which engage the responsibility of the UN to investigate and pursue accountability. As an immediate step, Zeid should push States to support a proposal for the UN Secretary-General to appoint a high-level focal point to combat reprisals when that issue is considered by the General Assembly in September.

In her final speech to the Human Rights Council, delivered in June, Pillay said that it is the role of the High Commissioner ‘to speak truth to power’ and ‘to confront privilege and entrenched hierarchy with an unshakeable belief in human dignity, equality and freedom.' Zeid comes to the post with a reputation as one of the world’s leading diplomats. He should aim to leave it with a reputation as the world’s leading human rights defender.

 


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