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February 20, 2014

UN Special Rapporteur Warns of “Extraordinary Risks” Facing Human Rights Defenders

By Mai El-Sadany

Human rights defenders continue to face “extraordinary risks, according to the report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs), set to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in March. In the report, Margaret Sekaggya, the second rapporteur with this mandate, reflects on both the status of defenders across the globe as her term, which began in 2008, comes to an end this year.

“Defending rights and speaking up against violations and abuses still remains a dangerous activity,” reads the report. Defenders—especially women, young people, environmental activists, journalists, lawyers, trade unionists, and those who work on LGBT issues—are intimidated, harassed, subject to surveillance, detained, tortured, kidnapped, and killed.

Although the greatest responsibility to protect defenders lies with the state, non-state actors are often complicit in violations against the defenders. Sekaggya reports that the space for civil society has shrunk during her tenure and that the crackdown on defenders has become more sophisticated. It includes, for example, the application of administrative and legal procedures and the misuse of the judicial system. Defenders are also labeled as terrorists and targeted indirectly through the criminalization of the activities of unregistered groups, restrictions on funding from foreign sources, defamation legislation, and limitations on access to information.

Sekaggya calls upon states to refrain from criminalizing legal and peaceful activities, combat impunity for violations against defenders, empower national human rights institutions with broad mandates, provide training to public officials on the rights of human rights defenders, and ensure that acts of intimidation against defenders are unequivocally condemned. She specifically applauds the efforts of Mexico which in 2012 passed a law to create a legal basis for the coordination between government agencies to protect defenders and journalists. She also notes that non-state actors, the international community, and even human rights defenders themselves have a role to play in communicating with each other and carrying out their responsibilities professionally in order to ensure safety.

Sekaggya’s successor is expected to be named in the upcoming weeks. The mandate 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 2008 and 2011, the Human Rights Council decided to continue the mandate for consecutive periods of three years.