International mechanisms

10 November 2007

Governments throughout the world have acknowledged the important role played by human rights defenders and made commitments to protect them. Over the last decade, the international community has agreed on an international framework, which recognizes the role of everyone in defending human rights. It has also been recognized that civil society has the right and obligation to act autonomously to protect human rights.

While commitments on paper have not always been implemented in reality, this framework offers new opportunities for protection of human rights defenders.

The United Nations

There are many human rights bodies at the United Nations, all of which are relevant to the work of human rights defenders. These include the intergovernmental Human Rights Council and the expert mechanisms of the Special Procedures and Treaty Bodies. The UN appointed a Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders under the provisions of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

The Human Rights Council

In 2006 the UN General Assembly created the Human Rights Council, a new political body to deal with human rights, which replaces the Commission on Human Rights. The Human Rights Council has a mandate to promote and protect human rights, including:

  • addressing gross and systematic violations
  • contributing to the prevention of human rights violations
  • responding promptly to human rights emergencies

The UN has produced a useful handbook for NGOs setting out in detail how to work with the UN human rights mechanisms.

The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (DHRD) was adopted on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on 9 December 1998. This indicated the recognition among UN member states that the ideals enshrined in the UDHR can only become reality if everyone participates in their implementation and if those who work to promote them are able to do so free from interference, obstacles, intimidations and threats.

Governments agreed that efforts by human rights defenders in regard to monitoring, scrutiny and making proposals for improvements are not only compatible with state obligations to comply with domestic and international human rights law and standards, but greatly contribute to and further this end.

The DHRD requires governments to protect the rights that are essential to human rights defenders’ work. The right to free speech, to free peaceful assembly, to collective action and to peaceful advocacy for change, as well as the right to receive and impart information and to communicate with national and international organizations are all recognized as being essential to human rights defenders.

Human rights defenders often put themselves at risk by criticizing the state or other powerful actors. Governments are therefore obliged to ensure that human rights defenders can carry out their work without interference, obstacles, discrimination or fear of retaliation.

When there are allegations of such abuses, human rights defenders have the right to have a complaint reviewed before an independent, impartial and competent judicial or other authority and, where a violation is found to have taken place, to obtain redress.

The DHRD requires governments to promote the understanding of human rights, including through:

  • the dissemination of human rights related information
  • human rights education
  • creation of national human rights institutions

The UN Commission on Human Rights has urged governments to give effect to the DHRD and to report on their efforts. It has also urged all UN human rights bodies and mechanisms to take the provisions of the DHRD into account.

The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders

In 2000, the UN Secretary General appointed Hina Jilani, a Pakistani, as the first Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders to help implement the DHRD.

The new mandate was given a new title of Special Rapporteur on Human Rights on the situation of Human Rights Defenders in April 2008, and a new mandate holder, Margaret Sekaggya, a Ugandan lawyer and academic, was appointed. Her mandate includes:

  • producing reports
  • monitoring
  • country visits to get a more comprehensive understanding of the situation facing human rights defenders in particular countries
  • individual action on cases of violations
  • making recommendations to improve protection of human rights defenders

When human rights defenders are at particular risk, the Special Rapporteur can take urgent action on their behalf. In taking such action, she usually depends on information from local human rights defenders or international organizations working on their behalf.

Since 2000, the Special Rapporteur has sent over 1,500 communications to governments, raising concern about human rights defenders at risk, and has visited 10 countries. However, not all countries have cooperated fully: twenty-one countries have not issued invitations that would allow a visit, while others have failed to respond to her communications.

Information about best practice, training and how to submit a complaint to the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders is available on the website of the Special Rapporteur.

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