factsheet29United Nations action in favour of human  rights defenders has developed from recognition  of the following:

❖  Implementation of international human  rights standards  within countries  depends to a great extent  on the contribution  of individuals and groups (working inside as well as outside the State), and support  to these  human  rights defenders is fundamental to achieving universal respect  for human  rights;

❖  Where Governments, national  legislation, the police, the judiciary and the State as a whole do not provide adequate protection against  human   rights  violations  in  a  country,  human   rights defenders become  the last line of defence; 

❖  Human  rights  defenders are often  the  target  of human  rights violations precisely because  of their human  rights work and they themselves  require protection.

Recognition  of the vital role of human  rights defenders  and the violations that  many of them face convinced the United Nations that  special efforts  were  needed  to protect  both  defenders  and their activities.

The first major step was formally to define the “defence” of human rights as a right in itself and to recognize  persons  who undertake human rights work as “human rights defenders”. On 9 December 1998,  by its resolution 53/144,  the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote  and Protect Universally Recognized  Human  Rights and  Fundamental  Freedoms (commonly  known  as the  “Declaration  on  human  rights  defenders”). The second  step was taken  in April 2000,  when  the United Nations Commission on Human Rights asked the Secretary-General to appoint  a special representative on human  rights defenders  to monitor and support  the implementation of the Declaration.

A.     The Declaration on human  rights  defenders

Elaboration of the Declaration on human  rights defenders began  in 1984 and ended  with  the  adoption of the  text  by the  General  Assembly in 1998,   on  the   occasion   of  the   fiftieth  anniversary  of  the   Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A collective effort by a number  of human rights   non-governmental  organizations  and   some   State   delegations helped  to ensure that  the final result was a strong,  very useful and pragmatic  text.  Perhaps  most  importantly,  the  Declaration  is addressed  not just to States and to human  rights defenders, but to everyone.  It tells us that we all have a role to fulfil as human  rights defenders and emphasizes that  there is a global human  rights movement that  involves us all.

1.      Legal character

The Declaration is not, in itself, a legally binding instrument. However, it contains  a series of principles and rights that  are based  on human  rights standards  enshrined  in other  international instruments that  are  legally binding—such  as the International  Covenant  on Civil and Political Rights. Moreover,  the  Declaration  was  adopted by consensus  by the  General Assembly and  therefore  represents  a very strong  commitment by States to  its implementation. States  are increasingly considering  adopting the Declaration as binding national  legislation.

2.      The Declaration’s provisions

The Declaration provides for the support  and protection  of human rights defenders in the context of their work. It does not create new rights but  instead  articulates  existing rights in a way that  makes it easier to apply them  to the  practical role and  situation  of human rights defenders. It gives attention, for example, to access to funding by organizations of human  rights defenders and to the gathering and  exchange  of information  on human  rights standards  and their  violation.  The  Declaration  outlines  some  specific  duties  of States and the responsibilities of everyone with regard to defending human  rights, in addition to explaining its relationship  with national law. Most of the  Declaration’s provisions are summarized  in the following paragraphs. It is important to reiterate  that human  rights defenders have  an  obligation  under  the  Declaration  to  conduct peaceful  activities.

(a)       Rights and protections  accorded to human  rights defenders

Articles 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12 and 13 of the Declaration provide specific protections  to human  rights defenders, including the rights:

❖  To  seek  the  protection  and  realization  of human  rights  at  the national  and international levels;

❖  To  conduct  human  rights  work  individually and  in association with others;

❖ To form associations and non-governmental organizations;

❖ To meet  or assemble  peacefully;

❖  To seek, obtain,  receive and hold information  relating to human rights;

❖  To develop  and  discuss new  human  rights ideas and  principles and to advocate  their acceptance;

❖To submit  to governmental bodies  and  agencies  and  organizations  concerned  with  public affairs criticism and  proposals  for improving their functioning  and to draw attention to any aspect of their work that  may impede  the realization of human  rights;

❖  To make  complaints  about  official policies and  acts  relating  to human  rights and to have such complaints  reviewed;

❖  To offer and  provide professionally qualified legal assistance  or other  advice and assistance  in defence  of human  rights;

❖  To  attend public  hearings,  proceedings and  trials in order  to assess  their  compliance   with  national   law  and  international human  rights obligations;

❖To unhindered access to and  communication with non-governmental  and intergovernmental organizations;

❖ To benefit  from an effective remedy;

❖  To the lawful exercise of the occupation or profession of human rights defender;

❖  To effective protection  under  national  law in reacting  against  or opposing,  through  peaceful  means,  acts or omissions attributable to the State that  result in violations of human  rights;

❖  To solicit, receive and  utilize resources  for the  purpose  of protecting   human   rights  (including  the   receipt   of  funds   from abroad).

(b)      The duties of States

States have a responsibility to implement  and respect all the provisions of the Declaration. However, articles 2, 9, 12, 14 and 15 make particular reference  to the role of States and indicate that  each State has a responsibility and duty:

❖ To protect,  promote and implement  all human  rights;

❖ To ensure that  all persons  under its jurisdiction are able to enjoy all social, economic,  political and  other  rights and  freedoms  in practice;

❖ To adopt  such legislative, administrative  and other  steps as may be  necessary  to  ensure  effective implementation of rights and freedoms;

❖ To provide an effective remedy  for persons  who  claim to have been  victims of a human  rights violation;

❖  To conduct  prompt  and impartial investigations  of alleged violations of human  rights;

❖ To take all necessary measures to ensure the protection  of everyone against any violence, threats, retaliation, adverse discrimination, pressure or any other  arbitrary action as a consequence of his or  her  legitimate  exercise  of  the  rights  referred  to  in the Declaration;

❖  To  promote public  understanding of  civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights;

❖  To ensure  and  support  the  creation  and  development of independent national  institutions  for the  promotion  and  protection of human  rights, such as ombudsmen or human  rights commissions;

❖ To promote and facilitate the teaching  of human  rights at all levels of formal education and professional training.

(c)       The responsibilities of everyone

The Declaration emphasizes  that  everyone has duties towards  and within the  community  and  encourages us all to be human  rights defenders.

Articles 10,  11  and  18  outline  responsibilities  for everyone  to  promote human  rights, to safeguard democracy and its institutions and not to violate the human  rights of others.  Article 11 makes a special reference  to the  responsibilities of persons  exercising professions  that  can affect the human   rights  of  others,   and  is especially  relevant  for  police  officers, lawyers, judges, etc.

(d)      The role of national law

Articles 3 and 4 outline the relationship of the Declaration to national and international law with a view to assuring the application of the highest possible legal standards of human  rights.

B.    The Special  Representative of the  Secretary- General on human  rights  defenders

In its resolution 2000/61 of  26  April 2000,  the  Commission  on Human Rights requested the Secretary-General  to appoint  a special representative on human  rights defenders. The Commission’s intention  was   to  provide   support   to  the   implementation  of  the Declaration  and  to gather  information  on the  situation  of human rights defenders around  the world. In August 2000,  Ms. Hina Jilani was  appointed  by  the  Secretary-General   as  the  first  holder  of this office.

1.      The formal mandate of the  Special  Representative

The Special Representative  undertakes activities in complete  independence  of any State,  is not  a United Nations staff member  and  does  not receive a salary. The Special Representative’s mandate, as set out in paragraph  3 of Commission on Human Rights resolution  2000/61, is to conduct the following main activities:

(a)      To seek, receive, examine  and  respond  to information  on the situation  and  the  rights  of  anyone,  acting  individually or  in association  with others,  to promote and protect  human  rights and fundamental freedoms;

(b)       To   establish   cooperation   and   conduct    dialogue    with Governments and  other  interested actors  on  the  promotion and effective implementation of the Declaration;

(c)    To  recommend effective  strategies  better  to  protect  human rights defenders and follow up on these  recommendations;

The Commission on Human Rights urged  all Governments to cooperate with and assist the Special Representative  and to provide all information requested.  The  Special  Representative   was  asked   to  submit   annual reports  to the Commission and to the General Assembly.

2.      The practical activities of the  Special  Representative

The Special Representative’s formal mandate is a very broad  one,  requiring the  identification  of strategies,  priorities and  activities to implement it. The “protection” of human rights defenders  is the Special Representative’s overriding concern.  Protection  is understood to include the protection  of defenders themselves  and the protection  of their right to defend  human  rights.

The Special Representative  makes  every effort to  ensure  that  the  same standards  are applied  equally to  each  State,  in keeping  with  the  mandate’s global character.  Several broad  types of activities are undertaken, although there is often some overlap between them,  with some activities serving a number  of different  objectives.

(a)       Contacts with human  rights defenders

First and  foremost,  the  Special Representative  tries to  be  accessible  to human  rights defenders themselves  by:

❖  Being available to receive information  from defenders, including allegations  of human  rights violations committed  against  them (see “(d) Individual cases”  below), and using this information  in identifying concerns to be raised with States;

❖  Regularly attending national,  regional and  international human rights events  (including the  annual  session of the  Commission on Human Rights), which provide opportunities for contact  with defenders from around  the world.

(b)      Contacts with States

The Special Representative  maintains regular contacts  with States. General contacts  are conducted through  forums such as the annual  sessions of the  Commission  on Human  Rights in Geneva  and  the  General Assembly in New York, during which the Special Representative  presents annual  reports  to States,  responds  to their questions  and can meet  with individual State  delegations to discuss issues of concern,  including individual cases.

More specific contacts  are conducted on a bilateral basis in meetings  or in writing and these  are used by the Special Representative  to raise specific issues of concern  with individual States  and  to seek State  support, for example, in addressing  a case or in obtaining  an invitation to visit.

(c)       Contacts with other key actors

The Special Representative  meets,  during the year, with numerous other actors  of relevance  to the  mandate and  its activities, including national parliaments;   regional  intergovernmental organizations; and  groups  of States  having  a  commitment to  improving  the  role  and  situation  of human  rights defenders.

(d)      Individual cases

The Special Representative  takes up with the States concerned  individual cases of human rights violations committed  against human rights defenders. Information on such cases is received from a variety of sources, including State authorities, non-governmental organizations, United Nations agencies,  the media and individual human  rights defenders.

As information arrives, the Special Representative  first seeks to determine if it falls within the mandate. Secondly, every effort is made to determine the probable validity of the allegation  of human  rights violation and the reliability of the source of the information. Thirdly, the Special Representative  makes  contact  with the  Government of the  State  where the alleged violation is said to have occurred.  Contact  is usually conducted through  either an “urgent action”  or an “allegation” letter addressed to the State’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and copied to its diplomatic mission to the  United Nations in Geneva.  The letter  provides details of the victim, the  human  rights concerns  and  the  alleged  events.  The primary objective of the letter is to ensure  that  State authorities  are informed  of the  allegation  as early as possible and  that  they have an opportunity to investigate  it and to end or prevent any human  rights violation.

❖  “Urgent  action”  letters  are  used  to  communicate information about  a violation that is allegedly ongoing  or about  to occur. The intention  is to ensure  that  the appropriate State authorities  are informed as quickly as possible of the circumstances  so that they can intervene to end or prevent a violation. For example, a death threat   reportedly   made   against   a  human   rights   lawyer  in response  to his or her human  rights work would  be addressed through  an urgent  action letter.

❖  “Allegation” letters are used to communicate information about violations  that  are  said  to  have  already  occurred  and  whose impact on the human  rights defender affected  can no longer be changed. This kind of letter is used, for example, in cases where information  reaches  the  Special Representative  long  after  the human  rights abuse has already been  committed  and reached  a conclusion.  For example,  where  a human  rights  defender has been  killed, the matter  would be raised with the State through an allegation  letter.

In both  types of letter,  the  Special Representative  asks the  Government concerned  to take  all appropriate action  to investigate  and  address  the alleged  events  and  to  communicate the  results  of its investigation  and actions.  Allegation letters focus primarily on asking the State authorities to investigate  the  events  and  to conduct  criminal prosecutions of those responsible.  The letters sent to Governments are confidential and remain so until the  end  of the  reporting  year, when  the  Special Representative submits an annual  report  to the Commission on Human Rights on communications with Governments on specific cases.

The Special Representative  constantly  consults  with United Nations special rapporteurs whose  own  mandates are involved in a particular  case and frequently sends joint letters of concern with these mandate holders.

(e)       Country visits

The Special Representative  is mandated to conduct official visits to States. Some  States  have  issued  standing   invitations,  and  in other  cases  the Special Representative  writes to the Government requesting that  an invitation  be  extended. These visits provide  an  opportunity to  examine  in detail the role and situation of human  rights defenders in the country, to identify particular problems and to make recommendations on how these could   be   resolved.   By  the   nature   of  the   mandate,  the   Special Representative   is required  to  look  critically at  the  situation  of  human rights  defenders in a country.  Nevertheless, the  process  is intended to provide an independent and impartial assessment which will be of use to all actors in strengthening both  the contribution  of defenders to human rights and their protection.

Country  visits usually take  place  over a period  of 5 to  10  days, during which   the   Special  Representative   meets   with   heads   of  State   and Government, relevant government ministers, independent human  rights institutions,   United  Nations  agencies,   the   media   and   human   rights defenders themselves,  among  others.

Issues  raised  during  such  visits include:  violations  committed   against human  rights defenders; the strength  of the “environment” within which defenders conduct  their human  rights work, including freedoms  of association and  expression,  access to funding  and  the  support  to defenders provided by domestic  legislation; and efforts undertaken by the authorities to protect  human  rights defenders from violations.

A few months after each visit, the Special Representative  issues a report on the visit indicating, among  other things, main concerns and recommendations  for  action.  The  report  is  then  formally  presented by  the  Special Representative  at the next session of the Commission on Human Rights.

(f)     Workshops and conferences

Every year,  the  Special  Representative   attends a  number   of  events— including  workshops   and  conferences—organized  around   the  central theme  of human  rights defenders, or around  broader  themes  relevant to defenders, such as democratization. These events  may be organized  by States, the United Nations, academic institutions, non-governmental organizations or other  actors.

(g)      Strategies

The Special Representative  may identify themes  that  are considered  to have a fundamental bearing  on the  role and  situation  of human  rights defenders across the world and seek to support  defenders through  action specifically  in  those   areas.   Some  such   themes   are  democratization processes, the responsibilities of local authorities  and the impact of security or anti-terrorist legislation on human  rights defenders. One consistent strategy  for  supporting   defenders  has  been   the   establishment and strengthening of regional protection  networks  for them.

(h)      Reports

The Special Representative’s annual reports to the Commission on Human Rights and  to the  General  Assembly, required  under  the  mandate, pro vide a record of the year’s activities, describe the primary trends and concerns  identified  during  the  year,  and  make  recommendations for how these  should be addressed. Some reports  examine major themes  of concern,  for  example  the  impact  of  security  legislation  on  human   rights defenders and  their work.  The reports  are very useful indicators  of the problems  confronted by defenders in specific countries  and  regions,  as well as of particular  themes  of global  concern.  The recommendations outlined  in  each  report  provide  a  basis  for  action  by  States,  United Nations agencies,  human  rights defenders themselves,  the private sector and a range of other actors. The Special Representative’s reports are available   on   the   web   site  of  the   Office  of  the   United   Nations   High Commissioner for Human Rights (www.ohchr.org).

The goal of all the above groups  of activities is to contribute to the protection of human  rights defenders and the implementation of the Declaration.

3.      Logistical and  resource arrangementsthe role  of OHCHR

Like United Nations special rapporteurs,  the  Special Representative  has access  to  only  limited  resources.  Strategies  and  activities  need  to  be adapted accordingly.

The Special Representative  receives substantive  support  in the implementation   of  the  mandate from  the  Office  of  the  United  Nations  High Commissioner for Human Rights, in particular through  the relevant “desk officer(s)”. These are OHCHR staff members,  based  in Geneva,  who are responsible  for managing, under  the  instructions  of mandate  holders, day-to-day activities of the thematic  mandates established  by the Commission on Human Rights. For example,  OHCHR desk officers regularly receive information  on alleged violations committed  against  human rights  defenders, which  they  analyse  and  communicate to  the  Special Representative.   They  support   the   Special  Representative   in  drafting reports and help in the preparation and conduct  of country visits. Day-to-day external contacts  with the mandate—by embassies, non-governmental organizations  and United Nations staff—are most frequently maintained via contact  with the desk officers. The Administrative Services of OHCHR provide support  in the organization  and funding  of travel and other  activities.

A small amount  of funds is provided from the United Nations budget  for travel by the Special Representative  to conduct  about  two official country visits per year, to attend  the sessions of the Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly and to participate  in consultations  in Geneva. Occasionally,  United   Nations  agencies   and   NGOs  provide  additional resources   to  support   the  holding   of  workshops,   the  publication   of research reports and other general activities related to the mandate.

(Source: Fact Sheet No.29, Ch. 3, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights)