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17 October 2017

Statement by Andrew Gilmour, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights

2017 Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders
Hosted by Front Line Defenders, Dublin, Ireland

Human rights around the world are currently under major attack. I feel it even in the rarefied atmosphere of the UN in New York and Geneva, where High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, my colleagues and I are criticized from many quarters, and attempts are made to silence us, slash our budgets and reduce our capacities. So if we feel it, even there, you on the frontline surely feel it far more acutely.  An antagonistic nationalism is on the rise, with mounting levels of racism and xenophobia. We are seeing a form of populism that is often demagogic, cheap and xenophobic, with leaders and the media claiming to speak “on behalf of the will of the people”. This form of populism tends to be anti-foreigner, anti-minority, and seeks out victims to blame who are usually from the most vulnerable groups in society.

As High Commissioner Zeid put it not long ago:

"The bellowing of hatred I heard around the world sends us back to a time when women, sexual minorities, and racial and religious groups had far fewer liberties”. 

And that is precisely the point of many of the populists who want to return to some idyllic age when rights were privileges reserved for only a few.

I joined the human rights movement at the end of the 70s, as a naïve enthusiastic teenage volunteer.  Not that we knew it then, but it was the start of a human rights revolution that lasted more than three decades. A period when enormous progress was made. But now we are seeing a backlash, or the pendulum swinging in the other direction, with many influential people questioning, and trends going against the values of human rights, freedoms and tolerance.  The shrinking of civil society space is not an accident of fate, but is usually the result of intolerant, and at the same time insecure, leaders (whether politically, militarily or sometimes psychologically insecure), who cannot bear the fact that NGOs might question their infallible decisions, and speak up for the rights of those being targeted. In the last few years, we have seen bans against NGOs passed in many countries, including Russia, Turkey, Israel, India, Egypt, Ethiopia and Kenya.

The backlash takes many forms.  We see it in countries like the Philippines, where thousands of people – both petty criminals and bystanders – have been mercilessly gunned down in the streets and their homes by state agents, with a President who boasts of having personally participated in some murders, and encourages his soldiers to rape village women.  

Millions of people around the world were shocked to hear talk from some leaders about actually “liking torture”, believe it or not, and claiming that “torture works”.  Such glorification of torture is profoundly troubling, beyond a reluctant condoning, though even that would be bad enough.

The backlash continues to be felt also in connection with efforts to fight terrorism. While of course an important goal, we have however seen that these efforts have been used as a blanket justification to silence critical voices, clamp down on civil society, arbitrary detention in huge numbers and even execution of innocent people. Some of these measures, which are in total contravention of human rights, have been observed in places like Nigeria, Bahrain and Egypt. What we find time and again – Governments simply refuse to learn this lesson – is that when you fight terrorism in a way that abuses the civilian population and leads to communities feeling more marginalized, then you end up with more terrorists than there were in the first place.  This is something we in the UN are really trying to do something about now.  

We have also seen entire groups unjustly vilified – immigrants and minorities, whether Roma, Muslims or Mexicans.

And we still have a long way to go in our struggle to fully realise the rights of women, including their right to equality and to be free from discrimination, violence, and sexual harassment (though the enormous brouhaha about the conduct of Harvey Weinstein suggests that we may at last be at some welcome tipping point on that).

What human rights need to survive and to push back against the backlash is a strong civil society, in the form of courageous NGOs and human rights defenders. And what we in the UN know – and must do more to acknowledge –  is that you play a fundamental role in consistently standing up for human rights, tolerance and justice.  You open space for debate, and help shape opinion.  You are key in driving local decision-making processes for reform.

And as you know all too well, interrupting the status quo is often not well-received.  Standing up for the rights of others and for what is right can mean exposing what powerful interests do not want exposed.  When it involves the redistribution of power, and access to valuable resources, it can cause a violent response. Indigenous and environmental rights defenders are often the target - as I learned just last week when I was in Colombia, and before that in Honduras.  And women human rights defenders too are exposed to specific risks.

We at the United Nations rely on cooperation with civil society actors around the world. You provide indispensable on-the-ground insights and information, alert the UN system to developing situations, and push for the right action to be taken. For the work of the UN Human Rights Office – our advocacy with governments; our technical cooperation and training programmes for law enforcement, government officials, justice and security personnel, civil society and more; especially our monitoring and investigating reports of human rights violations – all this would be without foundation if we could not count on your courage, your expertise, your sense of principle, and your voices.

We have prioritized support to civil society in some of the following ways:
    •    we provide legal advice and capacity-building;
    •    we share lessons learned and best practices, and produce practical tools;
    •    we facilitate civil society engagement with UN Special procedures, treaty bodies and the Universal Periodic Review;
    •    we foster dialogue with State actors, and support legal frameworks and effective access to justice.

At times – as some of you have experienced or witnessed – engagement with the UN on human rights can lead to reprisals and intimidation. This has been a long-standing concern to the Organization, and we are distressed at the increasing number of such acts. These range from travel bans, threats and harassment, smear campaigns, surveillance, restrictive legislation, physical attacks, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and ill-treatment, including sexual violence, denial of access to medical attention, and even killings.

Intimidation of human rights defenders is happening all the time.  The purpose is to penalize individuals who have already spoken out, thereby also sending a signal to many others from speaking out in future.  Recognising the gravity of this issue, last October the Secretary-General announced that he had asked me to lead efforts to strengthen UN-wide action for prevention of, protection against, investigation into and accountability for reprisals.  Many Governments are very supportive, and have offered resources for this endeavor.  Our host country Ireland is very strong in this regard. We are trying to get as much information about what is going on, and for this we need your input, and will circulate our email address to help us get it.

Last month I presented the annual report of the Secretary-General on reprisals to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

I am normally suspicious of the type of people who quote themselves. But I hope I may be forgiven – in light of the direct relevance to what I am talking about today – if I recount a few lines of what I said in my speech to the Human Rights Council three weeks ago as I presented the Secretary-General’s report on reprisals:  

We believe the significance of this report goes far beyond the individual cases contained in it. I think we should see these individuals as the canary in the coal-mine, bravely singing until they are silenced by this toxic backlash against people, rights and dignity – as a dark warning to us all. (…)  

It is frankly nothing short of abhorrent that, year after year, we are compelled to present cases to you, the UN membership, of intimidation and reprisals carried out against people whose crime – in the eyes of their respective Governments – was to cooperate with the UN institutions and mechanisms whose mandate of course derives from you, the UN membership. (…)  

"I salute the extraordinary courage that it sometimes takes for the victims and their families to come forward and share their stories with us, and also the dedication of the civil society organizations who act on behalf of those affected."

But since the report I presented was limited to reprisals against people cooperating with the UN, the cases covered in it represent only a small portion of the far more generalized backlash against civil society, especially human rights defenders.

So we are reaching out to you and other defenders, and also doing more to sensitize governments to this issue.  We are working on establishing a more coherent way at the UN system to deal with this issue. We are largely working through quiet diplomacy but go public when warranted.   I have already taken up numerous specific cases with Governments concerned.
But there too, we feel the backlash. Certain Member States are unhappy with this mandate entrusted to me and are seeking to overturn it, or at the very least undermine it. Those Governments called out in our report tend to be those more vocal in criticizing it – which must come as a surprise to precisely nobody.  
But let there be no mistake. Whether they succeed or not in pushing some hostile response in the Human Rights Council or the General Assembly, they cannot and will not stop us doing what we believe we have a moral obligation to do, explicit mandate or no explicit mandate: which is to defend the defenders and – at a very minimum – point out the hypocrisy that is involved when some UN Member States punish people cooperating with mechanisms that were established by UN Member States themselves.

On the overall questioning of human rights in the world, I do not know when the pendulum will swing back again. A historian by training, I never subscribed to the view that human history necessarily moves in a progressive direction. My fervent hope is that what we are seeing is just a temporary blip in the progress towards deeper fulfilment of human rights, and not a lasting reversal.

But it will only be so  –  the backlash will only be halted and the pendulum only reversed  –  if the human rights movement works together in an even more focused and coordinated way, to garner additional popular and political support for rights. That is the challenge.  You at the frontline have done by far the most to deliver the progress that we been lucky enough to see in the past few decades. And you on the frontline are the most at risk during this backlash. It’s the business of us in the UN – in particular OHCHR – to deliver the support you need.  Also to both salute and to draw attention to the inspirational courage and commitment to principle that so many of you demonstrate, day after day.

If I may again repeat something I told the Human Rights Council: “I can conceive of no higher or self-evident duty – either of Council members or of Secretariat staff such as myself – for us to do more to defend the defenders of human rights.”

That is why it is truly an honour for me to stand before you today, hoping to make my own contribution to strengthening further the vital alliance between the United Nations and civil society.

Thank you for giving me that chance.