“I sincerely hope that 2018 will turn a page on this, and be a real turning point for us all,” proclaimed Michel Forst, United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, speaking at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC).

As the Council opened its doors in recent weeks, the landmark Declaration on human rights defenders turned 20. Diplomats and officials took the opportunity to reflect on the vital role played by human rights defenders.

“I deeply admire the courage and sacrifice of human rights defenders. These individuals and organisations are our eyes and ears and conscience,” commended UN Secretary General António Guterres.

“Every day, human rights defenders all over the world show impressive courage as they know and demand respect for human rights. They are an inspiration to us all and they give us hope. They deserve our wholehearted support,” said Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ine Eriksen Søreide.

The UN General Assembly adopted a robust resolution on human rights defenders by consensus in December 2017. This has created a favourable context for a positive narrative around human rights defenders and their achievements in 2018.

“This high degree of interest and fresh vision of hope for human rights defenders is an opportunity that civil society must grasp with both hands,” commented Florian Irminger, HRHF’s head of advocacy.

HRHF will be campaigning in 2018 to protect, empower and support human rights defenders and their organisations, and will do its part in reporting to the UN General Assembly on the situation of human rights defenders in the countries where HRHF works. All actors should play their part, holding celebrations at national and local level, to ensure 2018 is a special year for all human rights defenders.

While 2018 is an opportunity to celebrate human rights defenders, it is also a time to reflect on the protection afforded by the original Declaration, and to address the numerous gaps that have become apparent during 20 years of subsequent implementation.

“We need to work even harder on implementation and on closing the gap between agreed norms and the realities on the ground,” continued Irminger.

Changing the narrative on human rights defenders

Several states highlighted the importance of 2018 for human rights defenders, during an interactive dialogue with the special rapporteur at HRC.

Austria, Lichtenstein, Slovenia, and Switzerland welcomed the efforts of the special rapporteur on “changing the narrative on human rights defenders and promoting a more positive image, highlighting their important contributions to a democratic and pluralistic society based on human rights.”

The European Union, Austria, Montenegro, United Kingdom, Ireland, Netherlands, and Germany discussed the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Declaration, asking “what actions states should take to better support human rights defenders” and “to move from shrinking spaces to creating spaces for human rights defenders.”

Norway, among other states, encouraged the international community to use the anniversary events this year and the high-level meeting on defenders in New York at end of 2018 to “energise and focus” efforts.

The special rapporteur also announced that France, supported by other states, has nominated the human rights defender community for the Nobel peace prize, adding “we all have an historic connected responsibility to change the way civil society look at human rights defenders.”

Yet not all states have shown their support at the UN, with Russia calling for the abolition of the mandate of the special rapporteur.

“We deplore the attitude of Russia toward the mandate of the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. This is a blatant example of the work that remains to be done on changing the narrative on human rights defenders,” responded Irminger.

More than resisting support for human rights defenders at the UN, governments in many countries also continue to target defenders and their organisations, and have developed systemised practices and legislation that close the space for them to work.

“HRHF calls upon states that have serious challenges where human rights defenders are concerned, including Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Russia, to bring their legislation in line with the requirements of the Declaration and commit themselves to working with human rights in a new, positive and constructive fashion,” said Irminger.

The special rapporteur concluded the interactive dialogue by sharing what he has experienced during its mandate: “Indigenous people are called enemies of the states and considered as anti-development; defenders of migrants are called supporters of the burden on states; environmental defenders are seen as anti-progressives; defenders of freedom of assembly are seen as political activists. We need to find ways to change the narrative and present a better picture of the positive role they are playing around the world.”

UN resolutions on human rights defenders

The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998. The mandate for the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders was created in 2000, to strengthen the implementation of the declaration and be a voice to support the work of human rights defenders.

The UN has set the stage to celebrate the essential role of human rights defenders in 2018, adopting a resolution highlighting their positive impact toward the end of 2017.

The UN adopted a resolution in support of human rights defenders in 2015. This recognised threats against human rights defenders on social media and the need to provide protections for family members and legal representatives of human rights defenders, who are increasingly under pressure in repressive States.

The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on women human rights defenders on 4 November 2013. This resolution expresses concern over the systemic and structural discrimination and violence faced by women human rights defenders, and urges States to adopt gender-specific laws and policies to protect women human rights defenders.