UN expert urges Member States to strengthen legal protections for human rights workers

Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

5 March 2013 – Member States must provide human rights defenders and activists with at least a “bare minimum” of a legal framework that enables them to work freely and effectively, a United Nations independent expert today urged.

Speaking at the presentation of her latest report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on the role of national human rights institutions in the promotion and protection of human rights, the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, expressed deep concern about the widespread trend of using legislation “to restrict, criminalize, and stigmatize the work of human rights defenders in all parts of the world.”

“From anti-terrorism and other legislation relating to public security to legislation governing registration, functioning and funding of associations, from defamation and blasphemy legislation to legislation relating to public morals, States are using laws and administrative provisions to unduly restrict the work of human rights defenders,” Ms. Sekaggya warned.

According to the Human Rights Council, human rights defenders can “act to address any human right, or rights, on behalf of individuals or groups” and “seek the promotion and protection of civil and political rights as well.”

Ms. Sekaggya noted that in the face of discouragement, the “best guarantee” for ensuring legislation in compliance with human rights activities was a “robust, independent, and well-resourced national human rights institution.” 

“National institutions can be key actors in the fight against stigmatization, misuse of legislation and impunity,” she said.

However, the UN expert also raised concern about reported violations against national institutions themselves, including their staff and members, through attacks, threats and intimidation and harassment, noting that such antagonistic behaviour risked undermining “the independence, efficiency, credibility and impact of such institutions.”

“States should ensure proper consultation processes when new legislation is being discussed and should be open to assessing the impact of existing legislation,” she continued, adding that “this requires close cooperation and frank engagement with the main stakeholders, in particular with civil society and national human rights institutions.”

Pointing to a number of governments which she said had “gone about creatively” to ensure that recommendations from national institutions were duly implemented to facilitate the work of human rights defenders, Ms. Sekaggya concluded by calling on Member States to consult the good practices in her report and apply them where needed.  

Independent experts, or special rapporteurs, like Ms. Sekaggya, are appointed by the Geneva-based Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.


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