Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. With the latest resolution, this is a timely opportunity to celebrate defenders’ contribution to society and the crucial role they play in protecting rights. Such recognition and praise is much needed, with human rights defenders facing significant efforts to limit their freedoms and attack their legitimacy in many parts of the world.

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

The resolution highlights the significant and positive contribution that human rights defenders make within their communities, and at the national and international level. It calls for a series of “high level” events at the UN to mark the anniversary, and for activities by human rights defenders, as well as governments and senior UN officials.

Celebrations should include reporting by States, UN organisations, and other actors – including civil society – to the General Assembly on the implementation of the Declaration. Specifically, the resolution calls for a high-level panel event, and a report by the UN Secretary General.

Florian Irminger, Head of Advocacy at Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF), praised the new resolution and urged for all involved to ensure the anniversary events shine a spotlight on the important and legitimate work of human rights defenders.

“Human rights defenders play a vitally beneficial role in any country,” he said. “They raise awareness of human rights violations, monitor human rights situations in countries, and help to create conditions conducive to peace. They play a crucial role in implementing and strengthening international standards on human rights, and in advocating for policy changes to improve respect for human rights. Who would not want more of that?”

“And yet frequently, human rights defenders – including many of our partners – are not only witnesses of human rights violations; they live them,” Irminger continued. “They face numerous attempts by the authorities to undermine their rights and silence them, with the authorities in many contexts using all means at their disposal to criminalise them. This is because human rights defenders are actors of change, and they have impact.”

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 General Assembly on the situation of human rights defenders in the countries where HRHF works. All actors should play their part, ensuring 2018 is a special year for all human rights defenders, including through holding celebrations at national and local level.

“This resolution is a first step in all of us saying clearly that human rights defenders are not a threat to societies; they are indeed beneficial to all and retaliation against them must stop,” concluded Irminger.

It is noteworthy that the resolution passed by consensus at the committee, as the 2015 resolution on human rights defenders had to be voted on. HRHF calls for the resolution to also be adopted by consensus at the plenary of the General Assembly in December.


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 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.