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March 28, 2014

UN Human Rights Council Adopts New Human Rights Defenders Resolution

By Mai El-Sadany

This week, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a vital resolution furthering the protection of human rights defenders globally. The resolution, which was pushed forward by Norway and Ireland, was co-sponsored by 74 nation-states, including the United States, and eventually adopted by consensus.

Building on the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Human Rights, in addition to earlier resolutions on the topic, the resolution reaffirms the obligation of states to protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms and respect and support the activities of human rights defenders, with specific emphasis on women human rights defenders who are targeted twice, both for their work and their gender.

In new language, the resolution emphasizes the importance of domestic law and administrative provisions which protect human rights defenders from criminalization, stigmatization, impediments, and obstructions contrary to international human rights law. The misuse of national security and counterterrorism legislation to crackdown on human rights defenders, as has been the recent trend in multiple countries including Egypt, is also explicitly warned against. Perhaps the resolution’s most prominent contribution is its recognition of the impact of how a country’s laws can be used by a government to further or impede the work of human rights defenders within the country.

On the logistical side, the resolution also extends the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders for a period of three years and encourages states to assist the Special Rapporteur in his or her tasks and to accommodate requests for country visits and timely dialogues. Margaret Sekaggya, the present Rapporteur, will see her term (which began in 2008) expire this year.

The Special Rapporteur position was first established in 2000 by the Commission on Human Rights to support the implementation of the 1998 Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which gave activists international legal recognition and protection. Hina Jilani of Pakistan was the first Special Rapporteur with this mandate.

In recent years, the crackdown on human rights defenders has only intensified and become more sophisticated. In a recent report, Sekaggya wrote, “Defending rights and speaking up against violations and abuses still remains a dangerous activity.” Countries are beginning to label defenders as terrorists, criminalize the activities of unregistered groups, restrict foreign funding, and pass defamation legislation in a concerted effort to limit the impact of human rights defenders globally. With women, young people, environmental activists, journalists, lawyers, trade unionists, and those who work on LGBT issues specifically targeted, resolutions like the one passed this week become a vital means for the international community to halt the culture of impunity by which states use to target defenders.