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6 December 2016

Uganda - Human rights defenders need our continuous support

By Dónal Cronin, Ambassador of Ireland to Uganda

The UN Declaration on Human Rights, 68 years old on December 10th 2016, recognised for the first time something that has become universally accepted since then, that human rights are inherent to all and should be of concern to all. The Declaration and its core values, including non-discrimination, equality, fairness and universality, apply to everyone, everywhere and always.

The UN Declaration has gone on to inspire many human rights defenders who have struggled to make that vision a reality in their own communities. Human rights defenders are those people who, often in the most dangerous of circumstances, stand up for human rights and just causes; brave people, who often make personal sacrifices to advance the cause of those who are vulnerable to, or who have suffered, an abuse of their fundamental human rights. They act as both watchdogs and advocates for the marginalized and oppressed.

Such human rights defenders can be found everywhere, in economically advanced and in poor countries, fragile and stable states.

But the human rights defenders that operate in challenging environments, where human rights are prone to abuse, deserve perhaps our greatest admiration – and our clear support.

Ireland has always been a strong advocate for human rights defenders. During the Irish Presidency of the EU in 2004, we succeeded in getting agreement on EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders which up to today offer practical guidance on how the EU and its member states can and should engage.

We have long prioritised human rights defenders as one of our key areas of engagement and support at the Embassy of Ireland in Uganda, through the Irish Aid programme and in our political dialogue. And in that time we have learned some important lessons.

To begin with, there is a need to know the context well.

Human rights, and human rights defenders, do not exist in a vacuum, but in a complex and multi-facetted context. This context needs to be understood to enable an engagement and support that is both appropriate and effective.

When an Embassy engages on sensitive issues relating to human rights defenders, it is important to do so with care and attention, in a constructive manner, and with their consent. Megaphone diplomacy does not work, and could make matters worse. Being able to refer a case that comes to our attention to the right place, having a word where it matters, linking human rights defenders into a supportive network can be powerful, often unseen, interventions.

It is important, though, to encourage the development of a support structure for human rights defenders wherever they are.

In Uganda, for example, there is a national Human Rights Defenders Coalition of civil society actors, a police human rights directorate, a national human rights commission with a mandate to investigate and bring abusers of human rights to justice, a local EU human rights defenders contact group, an active Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (which Irish Aid supports financially), as well as an effective engagement by Frontline Defenders, an Irish organisation that does great work on human rights defenders world-wide.

This ‘ecosystem’ provides a context in which human rights defenders can be protected and supported in their work – and responded to where they face threats, intimidation and violence.

Making the UN Declaration on Human Rights a reality for all remains an onerous challenge. One of the best things we can do to help this along is to stand with those who stand up for their rights and the rights of others, those who defend the spirit and content of the UN Declaration. We can all play a part in that.