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19 October 2017

Welcome address to 2017 Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders

Andrew Anderson, Executive Director

Bonjour, buenos dias, dobroye utro, sabah alkhayr, good morning.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, and most importantly, human rights defenders,

welcome to the 2017 Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders.

It is a pleasure to see you all here, but especially the more than one hundred human rights defenders, all of you at risk in your own countries because of your peaceful and legitimate human rights work. This meeting is for you. We hope you will feel that it is your space. That it will feel like a safe space.

There is a draft agenda that focuses on security and protection, but we aim to make sure that there is space for all of you to contribute and to shape the discussions.

We are also honoured to have joining us:

Andrew Gilmour, United Nations Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, who has recently presented a very important report on the issue of reprisals against human rights defenders engaging with the UN system;

Stavros Lambrinidis, the European Union’s Special Representative for Human Rights;

Michel Forst, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders;

and Agnes Callamard, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions.

We will say more about their important work on behalf of human rights defenders when we introduce their sessions.

Tomorrow morning we will be privileged to welcome Ireland’s Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney TD to give a key-note address. His presence with us will also be an important manifestation of the priority the Irish Government has long given to the protection of human rights defenders. It was during the Irish Presidency of the EU in 2004 that the EU’s Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders were adopted and the government has continued to be a leading advocate for stronger international protection.

The Irish Government’s humanitarian visa scheme for human rights defenders is a brilliant example of what should be done by others. And it is important to note that a gathering like this, bringing 106 human rights defenders from 90 countries, would not be possible without fantastic help and cooperation from the Ministry of Justice. I would like to thank in particular Andrew Ferrari.

Ladies and gentlemen, in this room today, we have some of the most courageous and selfless people in the world, who struggle every day to make their communities, more safe, more fair and more just. It takes a special kind of courage to continue to defend the principles and values of universal human rights when you know the consequences will be severe. It is an honour to welcome you to Dublin.

In Irish and Scots Gaelic the word for welcome is fáilte and we say céad míle fáilte a hundred thousand welcomes.

Sadly though, some human rights defenders are not here with us.

We invited David Ravelo Crespo who was recently released from prison in Colombia following 7 years of incarceration on fabricated charges. However, he has not been permitted to leave the country because he still has charges hanging over him.

With regard to David’s case I would like to pay tribute to former Irish Foreign Minister and Tainaiste, Eamon Gilmore, who joined a mission we organised to meet with David in prison and has played a key role in advocating for David’s release in addition to his important work as EU envoy to the Colombian Peace Process.

We invited Nasako Besingi from Cameroon but sadly he was arrested on 25th September for his work in the context of Palm Oil plantations.

We invited Osman Isci from Turkey, Imad Abu Shamssieh from the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Ebtisam Al Saegh from Bahrain, Pham Thanh Nghien from Vietnam, Milton Sanchez Cubas, from Peru and Marlon Vargas, from Ecuador, but they have all been prevented from travelling.

We also invited human rights defenders from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and China who were also unable to come because of increased harassment or travel bans. We take this opportunity to call for the restrictions imposed upon all of them to be lifted.

This is also a moment to remember those human rights defenders who are held unjustly in prison. Our friend and former colleague Abdulhadi Alkhawaja is serving the seventh year of a life sentence in Bahrain that was imposed after torture and an unfair trial. He is always in my thoughts and the continuing detention of Abdulhadi, Nabeel Rajab, Naji Fateel and many other human rights defenders in Bahrain makes a mockery of the millions the Bahraini Government, with the support of the UK Government, has wasted on public relations efforts, including $20 million dollars with the odious Bell Pottinger.

In July two good friends we have worked with very closely were detained in Turkey. Ozlem Dalkiran is a passionate and courageous human rights defender. In addition to her work in support of all those facing oppression in Turkey. She has been a great help to Front Line Defenders supporting training, and rest and respite, in Istanbul for scores of human rights defenders from across Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Ali Gharavi has often been part of our team here at the Dublin Platform providing support with digital security clinics. He is an Iranian-Swedish writer, playwright and IT strategy consultant.

The two were detained together with eight colleagues during a workshop on holistic security on the small island of Büyükada near Istanbul. They are being kept under very restrictive conditions in a high security prison on absurd charges of membership of a terrorist organization. It was inspiring to hear one of Ozlem’s Turkish colleagues say during a visit last month, “We are still strong, despite everything.”

Ozlem herself wrote from prison:

“From the moment we got detained, we have been able to stand strong, without faltering thanks to the extraordinary solidarity of the human rights community in the country and abroad. After all, we have never lost faith in ourselves, in what we do and in our struggle for human rights: but the fact that you have stood by us has helped us to be even more resolute in prison.

This absurd situation we find ourselves in cannot compel me to give up the struggle for rights or doubt myself. As [the renowned author and journalist] Ilhan Selcuk said, every person chisels their own sculpture: it turns out that I was meant to chisel some of the twists and twines of mine in here.”

It is also good to welcome here today some friends who have recently been released from prison.

Dr Mudawi Ibrahim Adam from Sudan was the winner of the inaugural Front Line Defenders Award in 2005 and we are very pleased to welcome him following his release in August after 8 months of detention on baseless charges. We welcome also Tasneem Elzaki a lawyer from Darfur who was released a little earlier, and has also now been pardoned, even though she, like Mudawi, was never convicted of the fabricated charges against her.

As we celebrate those who have been released from prison and redouble our efforts for those who remain unjustly detained it is important to recognise that most of these human rights defenders had opportunities to leave their countries, but their values, integrity and commitment on behalf of the victims of human rights violations led them to persevere in their work.

Liu Xiabao could have enjoyed a distinguished retirement. He had already served three substantial prison terms, but this did not deter him. He knew that when he co-authored the Charter 08 initiative it would almost certainly bring him back to the harsh reality of a Chinese prison. But his courage and commitment led him to persevere.

As we know, he was sentenced to eleven years in prison where the poor conditions and inadequate medical care led to his death in July. And let us not forget that his wife Liu Xia remains under huse arrest. Part of Liu Xiabao’s powerful legacy are the beautiful words of his prison speech, “I have No Enemies,” he wrote:

“I still want to say to this regime, which is depriving me of my freedom, that I stand by the convictions I expressed in my "June Second Hunger Strike Declaration" twenty years ago.

I have no enemies and no hatred. None of the police who monitored, arrested, and interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who indicted me, and none of the judges who judged me are my enemies. Although there is no way I can accept your monitoring, arrests, indictments, and verdicts...

Hatred can rot away at a person's intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society's tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation's progress toward freedom and democracy. That is why I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation's development and social change, to counter the regime's hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love.”

Sadly, Liu Xiaobo is not the only human rights defender we have lost in the last year.

Human rights defender and journalist Gauri Lankesh was murdered in September in India.

In April, Yameen Rasheed a blogger and human rights defender was murdered in the Maldives.

In the same month transgender rights activist Sherlyn Montoya was murdered in Honduras.

And land rights defender Silvino Nunes Gouveia was murdered in Brazil.

Mother and daughter, Ouruba and Halla Barakat, both journalists and human rights defenders from Syria were murdered in Turkey in September.

And just yesterday Daphne Caruana Galizia, an anti-corruption activist who led the exposure of the Panama Papers scandal, was murdered by a car bomb in Malta.

These were not random acts of violence. This is the calculated elimination of those who defend the rights of the most vulnerable.

Front Line Defenders documented 281 killings of human rights defenders in 2016. And the 2017 figure will almost certainly be higher, with reports of increased numbers of killings in Colombia, in Brazil, in Mexico and in the Philippines, where President Duterte is encouraging the slaughter and has personally threatened to kill human rights defenders.

At the end of last year we were privileged and honoured to have Irish President Michael D Higgins launch the Human Rights Defenders Memorial project, which brings together Front Line Defenders with organizations working for human rights defenders protection at the national level in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and the Philippines as well as a range of international NGOs including Amnesty International, Global Witness, FIDH, OMCT, AWID and PBI.

Our first objective is to work with families and colleagues of those who have been killed to move beyond the statistics and celebrate their lives and their achievements. The second part is to develop more effective action to protect human rights defenders and stop the killings.

In most of the cases we document, human rights defenders have reported threats before they were killed. In almost all cases there has been a failure of the state to properly investigate such threats or to provide adequate protection measures.

In Bangladesh, we published a report on the killing of bloggers which highlighted that “victim blaming” by the Government was exacerbating the problem. And in almost all cases those who ordered the killings are not brought to justice.

I would like to pause at this moment and invite you all to stand to observe a minutes silence for all those we have lost in the struggle to defend and promote human rights.


Thank you

There was a saying much used in the context of the death of Liu Xiaobo:

"You want to bury him

Bury into the dirt

But you forget

He is a seed."

Pablo Neruda wrote:

“You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep Spring from coming.”

And if we focus only on the killings, and the torture, and the prison terms, and the abuse and harassment, we are missing the big story. The amazing thing is not the level of violence human rights defenders face, but that they persevere in spite of it.

There are more human rights defenders, doing more work, in more countries than ever before. It is because they are effective that human rights defenders are targetted.

Victor Hugo wrote that reaction was “a boat which is going against the current, but which does not prevent the river from flowing on.”

Mahatma Ghandi reportedly said "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

It is important to celebrate the strength and vibrancy, the creativity and diversity, the resilience and courage of human rights defenders all around our world. We must celebrate the universal values which inspire human rights defenders. Values that many human rights defenders feel are worth going to prison, or worse, to defend.

In a world where many of our political leaders seem to have lost touch with values and principles. Where the EU can do deals with the brutal regime in Egypt and turn a blind eye to repression in Ethiopia. It is human rights defenders who give us hope.

While the media reported the munificence of a corrupt and brutal Saudi ruler who announced that women would be allowed to drive, human rights defenders remembered the courage

of the 47 women who staged the first driving protest in 1990, and all those women who continue the struggle for women’s rights in that country and elsewhere in spite of all the threats and repression.

We know that those who make the real difference are those who work to advance human rights at local and national levels. This is why Front Line Defenders is focused on providing rapid and practical support to human rights defenders at risk.

Around half of those human rights defenders who are killed are working on land rights,

environmental rights and indigenous peoples rights. Those most at risk are often working in more rural areas where the rule of law is a remote concept and indeed the reach of the state is often tenuous. For these human rights defenders their visible presence, their occupation of their land, is part of their resistance. This context poses quite different protection challenges.

We are working with human rights defenders to develop more effective collective protection strategies and to explore how we can support civil society led protection mechanisms in places where the state is absent, or failing in its duty.

We will continue also to give focus to the gender-specific threats to women human rights defenders and we hope to use the discussions of the next days, including the panel discussion tomorrow, to develop further initiatives in collaboration with partners for our work in this area.

We will continue also to give focus to the needs of human rights defenders working for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex rights, defenders whose courage has delivered significant progress in recent years, but often at a very high cost.

One aspect of the backlash against human rights defenders, and indeed human rights itself, has been well resourced defamation campaigns that accompany and to some extent create the context to facilitate criminalisation, restrictive legislation and violent repression.

Women human rights defenders, defenders of indigenous peoples’ rights and LGBTI defenders have been particularly targeted in this regard.

We have been developing a number of initiatives in support of human rights defenders pushing back against this defamation and smearing, including through graphic novels, radio projects and video testimonies, and we look forward to a panel discussion on Wednesday which will address online threats and social media.

We will have a team running digital security clinics throughout the Platform offering one-to-one support in Arabic, English, French, Russian and Spanish. We have been working to integrate stress management in all our programmes for more than a decade and we have also expanded our rest and respite programme in recent years. We will support over 20 defenders in 2017, several of whom will have a break together with family members, some of whom will also engage in language classes or other projects. We have also been providing medical support to an increasing number of HRDs through our grants programme.

We have been building strong cooperation with a number of partners working at the regional and international levels through the HRD Memorial Project, the Lifeline Consortium and the EU Human Rights Defenders Mechanism,

I want to pay particular tribute to the staff and our eleven partners in whose commitment and forbearance has established a cooperation and mutual learning which has the potential to deliver long term added value.

Our inspirational founder, Mary Lawlor, exhorted us, to be “fast, flexible and furious” in our support of human rights defenders. Mary stepped down as Executive Director last year, but it is a tribute to her leadership that she bequeathed a thriving organization, with a team of dedicated, creative and resilient colleagues, who face ever more threats and challenges, even “hurricanes,” as they meet and work with human rights defenders.

Mary also helped to bring together a fantastic group of donors without whom we could not provide the support we do to human rights defenders at risk. First among those was our Chairman, Denis O’Brien, who continues to provide wise and challenging leadership. And we are privileged to have a strong Board with very diverse experience.

I also want to highlight the crucial ongoing support of the Irish, Norwegian, Swedish and Swiss Governments, the EU, the Lifeline Consortium, the Open Society Foundations, the Iris O'Brien Foundation, Wellspring, the OAK Foundation, Foundation for a Just Society, Hivos, the Ford Foundation, the Environmental Defenders Fund of RSF Social Finance, the Sigrid Rausing Trust, Bread for the World, the Overbrook Foundation, Arcus, AJWS, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the Helmsley Charitable Trust, Tikva Grassroots Empowerment Fund, the Mize Family Foundation, the Goldman Environmental Prize, the Roddick Foundation, the Channel Foundation, the Goelet Family Foundation, the Violet Jabara Trust, The Fairwind Foundation, and the Samuel Rubin Foundation.

And also specific support for the Dublin Platform from the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, the Open Society Foundations, Google, Irish Aid, the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs, the German Embassy in Dublin and the Finnish MFA. And of course, the brilliant folks here in Dublin Castle.

We depend on and hugely value your support and your engagement.

The funding environment for human rights defenders is increasingly difficult. The International Human Rights Funders Group documents in their annual study that only 1% of human rights funding goes to human rights defenders at risk.

Restrictive legislation has created challenges that has led some donors to back off. In Europe, a focus on refugees and migration has diverted funding, and the Trump administration’s policies have already led to a greater domestic focus by some US based funders.

All of this happens at a time when autocratic rulers are putting more and more resources into closing down, repressing and defaming human rights defenders. With violent extremism and intolerance on the rise it is self-evident that human rights defenders are key actors on the front lines pushing back against that.

And yet, whilst the civil society quartet in Tunisia won the Nobel Peace Prize there is way too little international support for consolidating progress in that country and too little focus on the crucial role of civil society. There is not much joined-up thinking about human rights, the role of human rights defenders, sustainable development, the environment, peace and security, and refugee flows. Taking our inspiration from human rights defenders those of us who work at the international level must rise to the challenge that confronts us.

One of Mary’s favourite quotes is from the Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, who graced our first Dublin Platform in 2001. He wrote:

History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

I recently discovered a poem by the Austrian writer Erich Fried which contains the lines:

“It is unhappiness

says caution

It is nothing but pain

says fear

It has no future

says insight

It is what it is

says love”

So welcome to the Dublin Platform,

Make this space your own,

let us talk about risks and challenges

but let us also nurture hope and love

and celebrate what you have achieved


céad míle fáilte