The General Assembly today commemorated anniversaries of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, with high-level plenary meetings that included a dedicated award ceremony honouring the 2018 recipients of the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights.
Recognizing those who have made outstanding contributions to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, the Assembly presented awards to Rebeca Gyumi, founder and executive director of the Msichana Initiative, an organization in the United Republic of Tanzania that aims to empower girls through education, and the late Asma Jahangir, who as Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyer defended the rights of women, children, religious minorities and the poor. The Assembly also honoured both Joênia Wapichana, a member of the Wapichana tribe in northern Brazil, who became the country’s first female indigenous lawyer and the first to appear before its Supreme Court, and the organization Front Line Defenders, founded in Dublin in 2001 to address the protection needs of defenders and to help them to continue their work without risk of harassment, intimidation or arrest.
Secretary-General António Guterres said the work of the 2018 prize recipients and that of other human rights defenders is essential for collective efforts to sustain peace and ensure inclusive sustainable development. Often that work is dangerous, he said, with defenders facing murder, disappearances, torture, arbitrary imprisonment and other attempts to silence them.
Marking the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés (Ecuador), said it was one of the most important contributions that the world body has made to mankind, reflecting the collective aspirations of an international order founded on human dignity and with a view to making the world a better place.
Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said upholding all people’s human rights is the only possible path to peace. Attacks on fundamental rights and freedoms of the Universal Declaration are not motivated by that document’s failure, but rather stem from its success, she said, urging Member States to work towards peace and justice for all.
The representative of Tajikistan said the Universal Declaration and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action are “two pillars of global human rights action”. They codify important messages and understandings of the past and provide the international community with frameworks to respond to emerging challenges. Most importantly, they enshrine the international community’s commitment to find global solutions to common challenges that hinder humanity’s progress, he said.
The representative of Lithuania, speaking on behalf of the Eastern European Group, said the Universal Declaration has become a cornerstone of international law, enabling many States to build a solid and robust human rights architecture. While that Declaration “spells out in a mere 30 articles the rights and duties we owe to each other by virtue of our humanity”, she added, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action manifested a great hopefulness for the post-cold war era. However, promises made are yet to be fulfilled, she said, stressing that its anniversary is an opportune moment to evaluate the overall societal impact human rights have had throughout the years.
Speaking on behalf of the African Group, the representative of Namibia, recalled that when the Universal Declaration was adopted in 1948, only four African countries were members of the Organization and had a seat at the table. By setting out the fundamental freedoms that should be inherent for every human being, the Universal Declaration “spoke directly to our plight”, he said, also expressing pride in the progress that African countries have made in advancing human rights.
Commemorating the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders adopted by the General Assembly in 1998, many speakers voiced admiration for human rights defenders around the world who dedicate and sometimes sacrifice their lives fighting for economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. Others called on the international community to recommit to the Declaration and do more to protect those who stood up for the rights of their fellow human beings.
The almost 300 deaths of human rights defenders recorded in 2018 could have been avoided if Member States had undertaken the commitments made 20 years ago to protect those who defend rights and democracy, said Michel Forst, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. Sounding an alarm, he called on Member States to do more. It is no longer the time to diagnose or take half measures, he said, adding that human rights defenders are counting on the international community to take action.
The representative of Tunisia said her country is a living example of the real change that human rights defenders can bring to the world. Since 2011, when Tunisians called for more justice and freedom, partnerships with civil society have been instrumental in building democracy and achieving inclusive and sustainable development. However, she voiced regret that human rights defenders remain subject to attacks and violence, many of which are directed at women.
Calling attention to the human rights defenders that were able to join today’s meeting, the representative of the United Kingdom expressed regret over the opposition by some Member States to their full participation, emphasizing the enormous benefit to be derived when civil society is present to speak about human rights violations and hold States to account, including the vital role journalists play.
The representative of Colombia said work must continue to ensure that efforts to defend human rights are not stigmatized. Highlighting his country’s experience, he said early warning systems make it possible for national institutions to address threats to human rights defenders in a coordinated way, adding that such an arrangement can be a model for other parts of the world.
Representatives of Tajikistan (on behalf of the Asia-Pacific Group), Bolivia (on behalf of the Latin American and Caribbean Group), Netherlands (on behalf of the Group of Western European and other States), Bahamas (on behalf of Caribbean Community), Austria, Russian Federation, Norway, Ukraine, Italy, Argentina, Canada, Liechtenstein, France, Indonesia, Uruguay, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Armenia, Belgium, Ecuador, Ireland, Georgia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Chile, Germany, Iceland and Portugal.
A representative of the European Union also delivered a statement.
Delivering opening remarks were the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Norway, an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and representatives of the following groups: Ditshwanelo and the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions.
The General Assembly will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 19 December, to conclude its commemoration of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
Anniversary Commemoration of Human Rights Instruments
MARÍA FERNANDA ESPINOSA GARCÉS, President of the General Assembly, said that the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was one of the most important contributions that the Assembly has made to mankind. Indeed, it is irrefutable proof of the impact of the organ’s work on the lives of people worldwide. The historic document was the legacy of a generation that suffered two world wars. She stressed the role of Eleanor Roosevelt and other visionary women who helped build a more inclusive and egalitarian declaration, which inspired women around the world. Today, the Assembly is looking back at an extraordinary achievement that is a strong foundation for the protection of human rights, she said. It is also an opportunity to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, which created the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR). The Universal Declaration reflects the collective aspirations of an international order founded on human dignity and that has made the world a better place. It has also inspired the development of many international instruments, while its precepts have gradually been included into national laws.
At a time of global instability when the world is facing so many challenges, she urged the international community to stay faithful to current agreements and avoid the politicization of human rights. Member States must uphold the principles included in the Universal Declaration, she said, otherwise mankind will face fear, division and conflict. She went on to stress that human rights are for everyone and that selective interpretations weaken them. At the same time, the fight for human rights is an ongoing struggle that must be a part of the international community’s daily efforts. Much remains to be done, she said, noting the millions of people yet to be freed from misery, poverty and inequality. Moreover, racism and discrimination are still a reality, and the rights of women and girls continue to be violated systematically. The undermining of human rights has led to barbaric acts. The world must not forget the path walked so far to achieve the Universal Declaration. Multilateralism must return to its roots and be inspired by the women and men who left future generations with hope. She called for a renewed commitment to the Universal Declaration, which is the best way to pay tribute to it. Freedom and equality are not utopian, she concluded, they continue to be as relevant today as when the human rights instrument was proclaimed in 1948.
ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said the adoption of the Universal Declaration marked the first time that countries had ever come together to recognize that all people, everywhere, are born free and equal and share fundamental and inalienable rights. “The economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights enshrined in this document belong to everyone,” he said, regardless of race, colour, gender or sexual orientation, language, religion, opinion, nationality or economic status. No one ever loses their human rights, regardless of who they are or what they do. Describing the Universal Declaration as the world’s most widely translated document, he said that the challenge of translating it into reality for all people everywhere remains.
Since its adoption, people around the world have progressively gained more freedoms and equality, he said, citing, among other things, advances in the rights of women, children, victims of racial and religious discrimination, indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities. Perpetrators of horrific human rights violations have also been held to account by international tribunals. However, there is still a long way to go, he said, pointing to the persistence of torture, extrajudicial killings, detention without trial and other egregious human rights violations. Women and girls face insecurity, violence and discrimination, and there is a rising tide of authoritarianism, intolerance, xenophobia and racism.
“It is only by respecting and promoting human rights that we can achieve the goals of the 2030 Agenda of sustainable, diverse, inclusive and peaceful societies thriving on a healthy planet,” he said, recalling how he personally grew up under a dictatorship, worked in the slums of Lisbon and, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, witnessed the bitter results of human rights abuses. He highlighted the fact that the United Nations Charter makes human rights part of the Organization’s very identity. As custodians of the Universal Declaration, Member States’ ongoing commitment to the rights it enshrines is critical. “Let us keep the beacon of this towering document alight so it can continue to guide us all on the path to peace, dignity, security and opportunity for all,” he said.
MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the recognition that the world’s people possess fundamental rights and freedoms cannot be extinguished. Upholding all people’s human rights is the only possible path to peace, and inclusive development is as valid today as it was 70 years ago, she said, adding that the achievements inspired by the Universal Declaration cannot be denied. Around the world, millions of women and men have come together to demand an end to tyranny and injustice, to insist on their rights to justice and freedom from exploitation, discrimination and violence. Today’s attacks on fundamental rights and freedoms of the Universal Declaration are not motivated by that document’s failure, but rather they stem from its success, she said. Because human rights stand against exploitation of many by the few, they require governance and institutions that serve the people, not the narrow interests of powerful individuals.
The Assembly represents the hopes and interests of all the people of all Member States, she continued. Its bedrock is the determination to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, to reaffirm the faith in fundamental human rights; to establish conditions under which justice and respect for international law can be maintained; and to promote social progress and better standards of life. The anniversary of the Universal Declaration is an important reminder of why the United Nations and the Assembly came to be, and the purpose it must serve today. Its articles guide the international community to measures that resolve violence and global destruction and mark the path away from conflict and towards peaceful solutions. They build, inseparably, on each other, she said. In that connection, the right to participate in decisions, speak freely and seek justice contribute to the right to health, life, education and development. Meanwhile, fostering truly inclusive and sustainable economies requires the participation of everyone. Governance that serves rather than silences, and economic systems rooted in dignity are the responsibility of every leadership. They underpin the legitimacy of Government and the sovereignty of States. In that light, she urged Member States to work towards that vision of peace and justice for all its peoples.
NEVILLE MELVIN GERTZE (Namibia), speaking on behalf of the African Group, and noting the historic effects the Universal Declaration has had on the countries in his bloc, recalled that when it was adopted in 1948, only four African countries were members of the Organization and had a seat at the table. “Most of us were absent because we were still under the yoke of colonialism,” he said, adding that the Universal Declaration by setting out the fundamental freedoms that should be inherent for every human being, “spoke directly to our plight”. Saluting Eleanor Roosevelt, whose dynamic leadership as Chair of the Drafting Committee led President Harry Truman to refer to her as the “First Lady of the World”, he also expressed pride in the progress that African countries have made in advancing human rights.
Through the African Union, many Member States of the Group have adopted important instruments such as the 1969 Organization of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and its 2003 Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, among others, he noted. Some of those instruments, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, make direct reference to the Universal Declaration, having expanded the scope of human rights provided for therein. Several institutions set up to facilitate the effective implementation of human rights instruments — such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights, and the Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child — have made a tremendous contribution to the advancement of human rights on the continent. “If they are resourced sufficiently, their impact will be felt across the continent, especially where it matters most, with those furthest left behind,” he said.
MAHMADAMIN MAHMADAMINOV (Tajikistan), speaking on behalf of the Asia-Pacific Group, said that while a comprehensive normative framework of human rights treaties and covenants has evolved, along with an elaborate architecture of mechanisms, to support human rights work around the world, there are greater concerns about increasing challenges to multilateralism. The international community must ensure a safe working environment for persons engaged in the promotion and protection of human rights. It must effectively address reprisals and intimidation of any kind, including through cooperation with the United Nations and its mechanisms in the field of human rights.
The international community must remember the rule of law applies equally to all, he said. It should not let human rights be politicized and any challenges should be addressed in a spirit of cooperation and genuine dialogue. The Universal Declaration and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action are the two pillars of global human rights action today. These two documents codify important messages and understandings of the past and provide the international community with frameworks to respond to emerging challenges. Most importantly, these two documents enshrine the international community’s commitment to find global solutions to common challenges that hinder humanity’s progress.
AUDRA PLEPYTĖ (Lithuania), speaking on behalf of the Eastern European Group, said that the Universal Declaration has become a cornerstone of international law, enabling many States to build a solid and robust human rights architecture. While that Declaration “spells out in a mere 30 articles the rights and duties we owe to each other by virtue of our humanity,” she added, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action manifested a great hopefulness for the era that began with the end of the cold war. However, the promises of those documents are yet to be fulfilled, and the anniversary is an opportune moment to evaluate the overall societal impact human rights have had throughout the years. “We cannot take human rights for granted,” she stressed, pointing to current struggles being waged by people across the globe. Human rights violations and suppressions can and must be addressed, violence prevented and peace sustained.
She said the anniversary is a chance for the world to reaffirm the enduring human rights principles and standards the two declarations have helped establish, secure achievements and advances thus far and continue to defend human rights with fierce commitment. “We need to reaffirm the fundamental significance of human rights for our lives and those of the future generations, finding our strength in the moral language of the Universal Declaration,” she said.
VERÓNICA CORDOVA SORIA (Bolivia), speaking on behalf of the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States, noted that after the devastation of war, the historic adoption of the Universal Declaration on 10 December 1948 marked the first time that countries in the world had come together to recognize that every human being anywhere shares fundamental and inalienable rights. Also, the adoption of the Vienna Declaration on 25 June 1993 reaffirmed the commitment of all States to fulfil their obligations to promote universal respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms, highlighting that international cooperation on this matter is essential for the full achievement of the purposes of the United Nations.
There is no doubt that “we have come a long way, but we still have much more to achieve on the field on human rights and overcome the current challenges in the world when universal values are being eroded,” she said. The international community must face challenges together, by strengthening the multilateral system, promoting international cooperation, and respecting the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of States. All human rights must be treated fairly and equally. The promotion and protection of all human rights must be guided by the principles of impartiality, objectivity, non-selectivity and non-politicization in the spirit of constructive international dialogue, solidarity and cooperation. To that end, she assured the Group’s full cooperation and commitment.
LISE GREGOIRE VAN HAAREN (Netherlands), speaking for the Group of Western European and Other States, said that since the signing of the Universal Declaration 70 years ago, the world has moved in a promising direction. More and more people see their human rights codified into national laws and protected by functioning justice systems. This, in turn, has led to more freedom, more equality and more prosperity. The Universal Declaration has played an instrumental role in the progress made. It has repeatedly served as a source of inspiration for national constitutions, as well as for other international and regional human rights conventions. However, she said, the peoples of the United Nations have also failed many fellow human beings, many who would doubt if they really were born free and equal in dignity and rights, and who face violations and abuses often at the hands of the very Governments whose responsibility it is to protect and promote such rights. “And where we have failed them, we should learn lessons and do better,” she stressed.
The role of civil society, including through a free press, is crucial in holding Governments accountable for respecting and fulfilling human rights, she said. Strong international human rights institutions are also essential for furthering intergovernmental dialogue and mutual understanding. She paid tribute to all the women who have made crucial contributions to gender equality and the achievements of human rights over the past 70 years. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the Drafting Committee of the Universal Declaration and Hansa Mehta ensured the inclusion of “human beings” instead of “men” in article 1. Tribute should also be paid to the brave women of today such as Malala Yousafzai and Nadia Murad, both winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. Quoting Eleanor Roosevelt, she said: “We face the future with the lessons we have learned from the past. It is today that we must create the world of the future.”
SHEILA GWENETH CAREY (Bahamas), speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), noted her country’s upcoming membership in the Human Rights Council in 2019. For small island developing States, climate change represents a challenge to the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Such countries’ vulnerability to the negative impacts of climate change threatens the right to water, food and housing. It also impedes their ability to implement the Sustainable Development Goals. She underscored CARICOM’s support for greater cooperation at all levels to address the adverse impact of global financial and economic crises, food crises, climate change and natural disasters on the full enjoyment of human rights. She went on to emphasize the need for a holistic approach to addressing human rights — one that is mindful of the nexus between peace and security, sustainable development and human rights.
JAN KICKERT (Austria), recalling the adoption in 1993 of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, said 2018 is an opportunity to reflect openly and honestly on what has been achieved and what more must be done. While the world sees a backtracking on established human rights commitments, a need to address such challenges is being confronted by mistrust and hostility, with civil society organizations and rights defenders in many countries facing pressure, restrictions and reprisals. Encouraging delegates to reflect on suggestions that emerged from the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, held in May, he said the gathering saw participants discuss how global trends such as urbanization, digitalization, demographic changes and climate change will shape the human rights agenda going forward. Only if human rights are effectively protected can they help to strengthen the rule of law, combat social exclusion, drive sustainable security and guarantee justice and equality in a spirit of solidarity.
GRIGORY LUKYANTSEV (Russian Federation) said the Universal Declaration set the course for the modern system that aims to promote and protect human rights. Even today, the text sounds like a political manifesto, bringing together benchmarks that Member States should follow in response to relevant human rights challenges. Although it does not have the strength of an international treaty, it has been widely recognized by Member States. It highlights diversity, taking into account the national and historic traditions of different countries. For its success, States must renounce short-term political interests and strengthen dialogue. The Universal Declaration’s driving force must be, like 70 years ago, the United Nations, while the implementation of the goals is incumbent upon Member States. Since the document was adopted, Member States have made steps to overcome discord in human rights. However, serious difficulties continue to arise, making the implementation of the document more challenging. Looking back, it was adopted following the Second World War in response to the suffering stemming from that tragedy. Many who adopted it had suffered from doctrines such as Nazism. Today, the Universal Declaration is still relevant and is invaluable as a platform for dialogue. More broadly, it can become a powerful tool to build bridges between civilizations, he said.
MAGED ABDELFATTAH ABDELAZIZ, Permanent Observer for the League of Arab States, said that, based on shared responsibility, the League has always worked to strengthen cooperation with the United Nations and interact with its documents and resolutions, including the Universal Declaration. He outlined a number of Arab-led initiatives that seek to mainstream human rights in Arab States, including the adoption of an Arab Day for Human Rights; a programme of action on human rights education; the implementation of an action plan to promote a culture of human rights in the Arab world; and a biannual conference on human rights protection. Strengthening respect for human rights is key for Arab States in their collaboration with the United Nations and other organizations. When celebrating the Universal Declaration’s anniversary, the League stresses the importance of achieving peaceful solutions to crises around the world, especially in the Middle East. In that vein, he called for the right of Palestinian people to enjoy the human rights outlined in the Universal Declaration. The League will continue to support the document’s implementation to ensure that its people’s aspirations can be met, he said.
United Nations Prizes in the Field of Human Rights
The Assembly then awarded the 2018 United Nations Prizes in the Field of Human Rights, honouring those who have made outstanding contributions to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
This year’s recipients are Rebeca Gyumi, founder and executive director of Msichana Initiative, a civil society organization in the United Republic of Tanzania that aims to empower girls through education; the late Asma Jahangir, who as Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyer defended the rights of women, children, religious minorities and the poor, and who later served as United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, arbitrary or summary executions, freedom of religion or belief and the situation of human rights in Iran; Joênia Wapichana, a member of the Wapichana tribe in northern Brazil who became the country’s first woman indigenous lawyer and the first to appear before its Supreme Court; and Front Line Defenders, also known as the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, founded in Dublin in 2001 to address the protection needs of defenders and to help them continue their work without risk of harassment, intimidation or arrest.
Ms. ESPINOSA said today’s prizes not only recognize the awardee’s work, but also sent a message of thanks to all human rights defenders whose sacrifices and struggles have contributed to a less unjust and unequal society. Such efforts testify to the fact that actions matter and that people can always make a difference. She encouraged the awardees not to let up on their work, emphasizing that they held the potential to change the destiny of the world. “You are part of our hope and we will always be grateful to you,” she said.
Mr. GUTERRES said the work of this year’s recipients — and that of other human rights defenders — is essential for collective efforts to sustain peace and ensure inclusive sustainable development. Often that work is dangerous, with defenders facing murder, disappearances, torture, arbitrary imprisonment and other attempts to silence them. “Human rights defenders give voice to the voiceless and shield the powerless against injustice,” he said, acknowledging past awardees including Eleanor Roosevelt; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Nelson Mandela; Jimmy Carter; Malala Yousafzai; this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad; as well as organizations such as Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Ms. BACHELET said that defending human rights is not just a noble act, but an essential part of how resilient societies solve problems, right wrongs and advance peace, inclusion and sustainable prosperity. Outlining the accomplishments of this year’s recipients of the United Nations Prizes, she lauded them for their inspiring work. The impact of their struggles for greater justice, dignity and equality extends not only across their communities and countries, but also to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The prize itself is one of the oldest and most distinguished awards of its kind, she explained. Established by the Assembly in 1966, it recognizes outstanding contributions to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. At the same time, it is an opportunity to recognize recipients publicly and send a clear message of support and gratitude to human rights defenders around the world, she said.
The President of the General Assembly then presented the awards to Ms. Gyumi; Munizae Jahangir, on behalf of her mother Ms. Jahangir; Ms. Wapichana; and Maryam Al-Khawaja, on behalf of Front Line Defenders.
Also present on the stage were the United Nations Secretary-General, High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly and Conference Management.
Human Rights Defenders
In the afternoon, the General Assembly held a high-level plenary meeting to mark the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
Ms. ESPINOSA, describing that proclamation as a landmark in the legitimatization of the work of human rights defenders around the world, underscored the critical role they play in building inclusive, just and free societies. At times, they give early warning to systematic violations of human rights. States have the primary responsibility for creating appropriate conditions for human rights defenders to carry out their work, as they give life to the Universal Declaration and are agents of change. Wherever they are, their contributions are decisive, she said, underscoring the risks they face. Since the Declaration’s adoption, 3,500 activists and human rights defenders have been killed for their work. For many, defending human rights means exposing themselves to many dangers, with women facing a double threat. Noting a rise in attacks against environmental defenders, she said States must act, lest injustice comes knocking on the door. As such, she called for the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders to be strengthened and supported.
Mr. GUTERRES expressed his admiration for the world’s human rights defenders who dedicate and sometimes sacrifice their lives while demanding respect for economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. All are defending and advocating for the rights, principles and values upon which the United Nations was built. Nevertheless, these rights remain under threat in many areas, he said, noting a growth of intolerance and shrinking space for civil society. Indeed, human rights and their defenders are under increasing pressure in all regions, he said, expressing hope that this trend will not become the “new normal”. At the same time, human rights defenders are important partners to Governments and to the United Nations in tackling the enormous challenges the world faces in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. But, they can only play this crucial role if they are afforded the necessary protection to do so.
Meanwhile, promoting human rights strengthens States and societies and helps to prevent conflict, he continued. If the international community had paid greater attention to human rights globally over the past two decades, the world could have averted much death, suffering and instability while preserving hard-won development gains. He called on States to treat human rights defenders as partners, rather than as a threat. To the contrary, human rights defenders are a great asset in enhancing the work of the international community in sustaining peace and fostering sustainable development.
Ms. BACHELET said the work of human rights defenders benefits States, societies, businesses and their own communities, pointing to Mr. Mukwege, Ms. Murad and Mr. Mandela as examples of those who stood up for the rights of their fellow human beings. The Declaration is a promise by States to protect human rights defenders, she said, adding that much remains to be done two decades after its adoption. In a growing number of societies, they are being slandered as traitors and harassed or attacked and their work is being severely restricted by the authorities. Dissenting and legitimate perspectives are termed “terrorist”, while acts of compassion and solidarity are criminalized. In the past three years, on average, a human rights defender is killed every day, she said, paying particular tribute to women activists. “It is time to defend the defenders, whose altruism and courage should be an inspiration for us all,” she said, voicing her commitment to speak up when they are threatened.
MICHEL FORST, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said that 2018 was a particularly bloody one for activists. While there were too many human rights defenders to name today, many died anonymously in the name of their commitment. All these deaths could have been avoided if Member States had undertaken the commitments made 20 years ago to protect those who defend rights and democracy. When human rights defenders are killed, the rule of law is jeopardized. They are men, women and sometimes children whose lives have been transformed because of injustice and the violation of human rights. He went on to announce the launch of an international campaign to alert Member States about the urgency of acting together on the issue and recommended United Nations guidelines on the protection of human rights defenders to hasten change within the Organization itself. Sounding an alarm, he called on Member States to do more. It is no longer the time to diagnose or take half measures, he said, adding that human rights defenders are counting on the international community to take action. He urged Member States to listen to them and stand firm against those who openly or indirectly try to delegitimize them.
INE MARIE ERIKSEN SØREIDE, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Norway, said that despite 70 years of significant progress, the world of a human rights defender in 2018 is a very dangerous place. Stories of threats, harassment, persecution and imprisonment are told all over the world. In many regions, the space for civil society is shrinking, she noted. Laws are passed to protect public interest, but what they really do is serve as a detriment to public engagement, undermining the freedoms of association and expression. As reported by the United Nations, human rights defenders are being killed on a daily basis. More must be done, and human rights defenders must be given legitimacy through public acknowledgement of their work.
In 2015, the world agreed on the Sustainable Development Goals, she said, underscoring that it is a paradox that environmental human rights defenders and indigenous peoples, fighting to protect the planet, are among those who face the greatest risk of violence. Respect for human rights, the environment and economic growth are not contradictions. The international community must work together to find out how to strengthen the protection of environmental human rights defenders, through the resolution on that topic to be considered during the upcoming fortieth session of the Human Rights Council. It is Norway’s hope that this resolution will make a real difference for the courageous people who stand up against exploitation of land and resources. Norway’s commitment to promote, protect and realize all human rights and fundamental freedoms continues, in New York, Geneva, and in what Eleanor Roosevelt called “small places close to home”.
HINA JILANI, Advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and Member of the Elders, said the adoption of the Declaration was a significant addition to the work of the United Nations. She paid tribute to human rights defenders as fundamental actors in implementing the overall international human rights framework, as they contribute to poverty alleviation, humanitarian assistance, post-conflict reconstruction and combating violence. While they promote transparency and accountability of Governments, they have also suffered severe harm in the process of defending human rights. Acknowledging the steps taken by some Member States, she remains encouraged by the Declaration’s recognition of human rights defenders as agents of change. Nevertheless, she expressed regret that the international community has not been able to eliminate negative trends or to effectively protect them or the activities they carry out. Human rights defenders continue to be subjected to assassinations, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and torture. Reprisals and repressive measures are also taken against individuals. Women human rights defenders continue to be hampered by various actors and are vulnerable to prejudice and exclusion. The preamble of the Declaration reminds the world that the absence of peace and security does not justify non-compliance. States must be reminded that civil society promoting human rights does not hamper national security efforts. In fact, by helping to resolve local grievances through peaceful means, civil society helps communities move from the shadow of violence. Member States must renew their commitment to the collective responsibility to enforce respectful human rights. Expressing concern about reports during her eight-year tenure as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders regarding barriers preventing them from gaining access to United Nations personnel at the country level, she said that while some progress has been made on this front, more work is needed.
ALICE MOGWE, Director of Ditshwanelo, the Botswana Centre for Human Rights, summarized the outcome of the recent Human Rights Defenders World Summit in Paris, which recognized that, on the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration and the twentieth anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, much remains to be done. Globally, human rights defenders find themselves under constant attack and often they have been killed. Such attacks have reached alarming levels, especially when they occur in the context of combating terrorism and violent extremism. Unfortunately, the challenge has permeated the United Nations. The fact that her colleagues and friends from civil society could not address the General Assembly today as it celebrates their work is a clear indication of how regressive policies are undermining the Organization’s raison d’être. She went on to discuss the action plan adopted by the World Summit that underscored the responsibility of States, businesses, financial institutions, donors and others vis-à-vis the protection of human rights defenders. While States must take urgent action to recognize their essential role and to protect them, the issue must be a priority for United Nations entities in the field.
FLORENCE SIMBIRI-JAOKO, Special Envoy of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions and former Chair of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, said the Declaration marks the first time that human rights defenders’ critical and legitimate role was formally recognized by the international community. It recognized a global movement in which all citizens have a role as human rights defenders. Important progress has been made, yet human rights defenders find themselves under significant pressure and face threats across all regions. Critical to their work is the need to safeguard civil space, she said, calling for collective action in this regard. Human rights defenders need the highest level of commitment and recognition of their legitimate role and their contribution to human rights where it matters most, at the local level for the most vulnerable members of communities. Redoubled efforts to ensure the participation of human rights defenders in State affairs would send a strong signal to those attempting to claw back hard-won human rights gains.
SERGE LEON A. CHRISTIANE, of the European Union delegation, underlined the importance of global partnerships at a time when space for civil society is under pressure and when violence and reprisals against those who speak up is on the rise. That human rights defenders increasingly face attacks and often pay a high price for their work is a matter of concern that should evoke a renewed commitment to act. It is unacceptable that, according to the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, around 1,000 human rights defenders were murdered between 2015 and 2017. Those responsible must be held accountable, he said, calling for mechanisms to protect activists from threats and reprisals. He underscored the European Union’s commitment to the protection of human rights defenders, including a €3 million grant programme for emergency protection that has reached more than 550 human rights defenders in critical situations. He then acknowledged the work and life of Lyudmila Mikhaylovna Alexeyeva, a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group and winner of the 2009 Sakharov Prize, who passed away last week.
SERGIY KYSLYTSYA (Ukraine) recalled that during the Holodomor, a wide-scale famine in 1932 and 1933, the Soviet Union trampled the fundamental human rights and freedoms of Ukrainians through discriminatory laws and policies, including Russification. The Soviet Government targeted Ukraine with the only aim of terrorizing it into submission to the Stalinist totalitarian regime. Recently, 39 United Nations Member States signed a declaration on the eighty-fifth anniversary of the Holodomor to remember this tragedy. In doing so, they condemned the Stalinist regime’s cruel policies that led to the death of a significant proportion of the Ukrainian people. Raising awareness about this event is one way to ensure that such crimes are not repeated in the future.
MARIA ANGELA ZAPPIA (Italy) said her delegation led consultations on today’s high-level meetings, a difficult task, but one that created space to reflect on how best to support the work of human rights defenders. Italy defends an open approach to human rights, in line with the European Union’s position. Her Government has given clear instructions to its representatives around the world to support civil society organizations on the ground. As current Chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Italy organized a meeting on the protection of human rights to establish best practices among States. She went on to call on the international community to pay particular attention to the protection of female and child human rights defenders.
ALEJANDRO GUILLERMO VERDIER (Argentina) said it is essential for the international community to promote the provisions of the Declaration. Argentina recognizes the valuable contribution of protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms. At the same time, he lauded their struggles to allow for a more peaceful, just and inclusive world. Condemning all acts that hamper their work, he urged Member States to step up efforts to adopt measures to guarantee their safety, personal integrity and freedom of expression in accordance with national and international laws.
MARC-ANDRÉ BLANCHARD (Canada) said that the Declaration is a key milestone in recognizing the important work carried out by human rights defenders and the need to create a safe and enabling environment and to provide them with protection. It recognizes the legitimacy of their activities, defining human rights defenders by what they do. Human rights defenders must be able to act freely and without any interference, intimidation, abuse, threats, violence or reprisal. Internationally recognized human rights such as the right to freedom of expression, assembly and association are the cornerstone principles of their work. The level of harassment, intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders, including in digital contexts, is alarming. Human rights defenders are increasingly under attack, often as a result of their work. Women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, indigenous and youth human rights defenders are particularly vulnerable, facing additional threats and challenges. Attacks against human rights defenders are attacks against everyone’s human rights. He urged Member States to halt attacks on human rights defenders and to provide them with a safe space to carry out their work.
CHRISTIAN WENAWESER (Liechtenstein) said human rights defenders and civil society actors play an important and legitimate role in promoting and protecting human rights at the local, national, regional and international levels. They also work to secure accountability for violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms. As much as the world has to celebrate following 20 successful years of the Declaration, there is also reason for concern about attempts to undermine or disregard the text. In particular, his Government is concerned by the growing intimidation, threats, harassment and attacks against individuals, groups and associations. Since the adoption of the Declaration, at least 3,500 human rights defenders have been killed for their role in the struggle for human rights. He especially condemned reprisals against human rights defenders in retaliation for their engagement with international and regional human rights systems.
FRANÇOIS DELATTRE (France) saluted the courage of all who fight for the freedom and dignity and the rights of all. Human rights defenders are those who disturb, criticize and denounce to ensure States strengthen protections of all rights. By their very nature, they create inconvenience and as such, are threatened. In that context, they must be supported and protected. He called for a collective commitment to ensure that the Declaration is fully implemented and that human rights defenders can carry out their work with full independence and without fear of harassment and intimidation. In 2019, France will mobilize further support for human rights defenders, including supporting projects in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Declarations being commemorated today are pillars of the multilateral structure that the international community has built together over nearly 75 years, he said.
INA HAGNININGTYAS KRISNAMURTHI (Indonesia) said that since her country’s journey of democratic reform started in 1998, its vibrant civil society continues to play a meaningful role in the promotion of human rights and democracy. Human rights activists enjoy ample freedom to conduct activities, and the Government provides space for civil society to function independently, she said. All human rights defenders, be they non-governmental activists, teachers, doctors, judges, prosecutors, farmers, police or military officers, are protected equally under the law. The promotion of human rights defenders was reaffirmed during Indonesia’s third cycle of its universal periodic review in the Human Rights Council, and it is also undertaking various activities to raise awareness for a better understanding of the work of human rights defenders.
ELBIO OSCAR ROSSELLI FRIERI (Uruguay) emphasized the responsibility of Governments to guarantee and promote human rights and underscored the essential role of human rights defenders. He noted in particular the important role of human rights defenders in preventing conflict, building peace and sustaining development. He expressed deep concern about the proliferation of attacks and the lack of firm measures to address that situation. It is crucial that States guarantee safe working conditions and ensure there is no impunity for acts of violence against human rights defenders, he said, adding that Uruguay firmly supports efforts by the United Nations to respond to those instances when human rights defenders face reprisals for working with the Organization.
DARJA BAVDAŽ KURET (Slovenia), associating herself with the European Union, said it is unacceptable that in many parts of the world, human rights defenders still face discrimination, threats of violence, mistreatment and criminalization. She underscored Slovenia’s deep concern about ongoing limits on civil society space and reported cases of reprisals against individuals and groups. States must have in place mechanisms and institutions to protect human rights defenders, she said, citing examples from her country in that regard.
SAMUEL GROUT-SMITH (United Kingdom) welcomed the human rights defenders who are able to join the meeting today from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), both with and without Economic and Social Council accreditation. He expressed regret over the opposition by some Member States to their full participation. The attempts to restrict the voices that are at the centre of the meeting are deeply concerning. There is enormous benefit to be derived when civil society is present to speak about human rights violations and hold States to account, he noted, adding that access is particularly critical for those facing restrictions at the national level. As the twentieth anniversary of the Declaration is celebrated, it is against a backdrop of more than 300 defenders having been killed in 2018 alone. The United Kingdom has put in place its Guidelines on Working with Human Rights Defenders to support them where it can. Media freedom is also under attack. Journalists play a vital role in shining a light on abuses or violations of human rights. The United Kingdom Foreign Secretary is championing the issue of media freedom and the safety of journalists.
AGUSTÍN SANTOS MARAVER (Spain), underscoring the important role played by civil society actors in protecting democracy, said the Declaration recognizes them and human rights defenders. Unfortunately, threats remain, with more than 300 human rights defenders killed in 2018 alone. It is crystal clear that there is a long way to go. It is alarming that the work of human rights defenders is criminalized and the space for their work is shrinking. Protecting their legitimate activities is a priority of Spain’s foreign policy. As such, Spain provides support for them, including offering protection for those at risk.
JÜRG LAUBER (Switzerland) said the Declaration remains a landmark document. Welcoming today’s high-level meeting, he underscored the role that civil society plays and the importance of the inclusion of NGOs and human rights defenders in proceedings. Switzerland supports the work of human rights defenders and recognizes their work and outstanding courage. Despite progress made, including the Declaration’s adoption, they have increasingly become targets of threats and violence. He highlighted the roles of women and children as next year marks anniversaries of the signing of the Convention of the Rights of the Child and the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
MHER MARGARYAN (Armenia) highlighted the important role of human rights defenders as “preventative mechanisms” who can give early warning of deteriorating human rights situations on the ground. Armenia strongly condemns all forms of attacks, violence, threats and intimidation against human rights defenders and activists, including journalists and other media workers. Upholding human rights and human dignity has been at the centre of democratic change in Armenia, as seen during the peaceful Velvet Revolution earlier this year.
GUILLERMO ROQUE FERNÁNDEZ DE SOTO VALDERRAMA (Colombia) said his country roundly condemns attacks on the lives and integrity of human rights defenders. Work must continue to ensure that efforts to defend human rights are not stigmatized. He noted that early warning systems in Colombia make it possible for national institutions to address threats to human rights defenders in a coordinated way. Such an arrangement can be a model for other parts of the world.
JEROEN COOREMAN (Belgium) recognized the crucial role played by human rights defenders, who are courageous, indispensable and inspirational allies in the defence of rights around the world. Their work is often dangerous, with the space for civil society shrinking in several countries and critical voices silenced. An increasing number of these defenders face attacks, threats, harassment and insecurity, he observed, noting that more than a thousand have been killed over the past two years. The perpetrators of these crimes must be held responsible, he said, calling on Governments to defend human rights and create a safe and enabling environment for civil society organizations and human rights defenders.
Mr. AL-KHALIL (Syria) expressed doubt that the aim of the Universal Declaration has been achieved. In fact, many human rights instruments have been adopted, but many have become political tools for some States to threaten other sovereign countries, including his own. Some Governments repeat human rights slogans, but attack other States, with unilateral measures killing thousands of civilians. He urged the High Commissioner for Human Rights to adhere to her mandate and respect the sovereignty of Member States. He also urged Israel to release Syrian prisoners in the occupied Syrian Golan.
FABIÁN OSWALDO GARCÍA PAZ Y MIÑO (Ecuador) said that what is enshrined in the Declaration adopted 20 years ago should become a reality for human rights defenders. For its part, Ecuador is taking steps to ensure that national laws reflect standards in the Declaration. Indeed, his country has become the fifth country in the world to ratify 18 fundamental human rights instruments. Development is a right itself, but it is also a precondition for the protection and promotion of human rights.
NESRINE ELMANSOURI (Tunisia) said her country is a living example of the real change that human rights defenders can bring to the world. Since 2011 when Tunisians called for more justice and freedom, partnership with civil society has been instrumental for building democracy and achieving inclusive and sustainable development. Guided by the spirit of a new Constitution, Tunisia is determined to build a well-functioning national human rights system that includes a secure and enabling environment for all those engaged in safeguarding human rights. She voiced regret that, 20 years on, human rights defenders remain subject to attacks and violence, many of which are directed at women and many of which are fatal.
GERALDINE BYRNE NASON (Ireland), associating herself with the European Union, said it is a shared tragedy that human rights defenders are facing growing pressure in scores of countries from both State and non-State actors. Their capacity to promote human rights has been limited by fresh restrictions on civil society and the media. Friends and relatives of human rights defenders also face persecution. Such a situation is unacceptable, she said. She welcomed the awarding of the United Nations human rights prize to Front Line Defenders and underscored the role of women in defending human rights globally. She went on to note her country’s plan to install a memorial for human rights defenders in the garden of its Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Dublin.
ELENE AGLADZE (Georgia) said that its Public Defender’s Office is a constitutional institution established to supervise the protection of human rights and freedoms in her country. Regrettably, human rights defenders continue to face many challenges and often are the subject of reprisals. The challenge is particularly acute in territories where sovereign States are deprived of the opportunity to exercise effective control, namely the Russian-occupied Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions of Georgia, where human rights defenders are silenced for their criticism, she said, pointing to a recent example of this practice involving civil activist Tamar Mearakishvili.
AMRITH ROHAN PERERA (Sri Lanka) said his country follows a policy of constructive engagement and dialogue in its efforts to advance human rights and fundamental freedoms. It constantly and closely cooperates with the human rights mechanisms and treaty bodies of the United Nations, including the OHCHR. During the past three years, human rights related missions have visited Sri Lanka, at the country’s invitation. During the visits, Sri Lanka provided unrestricted access and cooperated in every way, letting the special procedures mandate holders fulfil their respective mandates. The Government has strengthened the independence of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, following the enactment of the nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Sri Lanka is pleased the Commission was reaccredited with an “A” status by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions in May, as per the Paris Principles. Since 2015, Sri Lanka has taken far-reaching measures to strengthen the role of Parliament, re-establish independent commissions, ensure an independent judiciary and strengthen civil society.
LYLE PATRICK DAVIDSON (South Africa) said the anniversaries of the landmark declarations on human rights commemorated today coincide with the centenaries of Nelson Mandela and Albertina Sisulu. These two South African icons championed human rights at home, on the African continent and globally. It is important to ensure the practical enjoyment of human rights, including the right to development. In this regard, South Africa continues to call for transnational corporations and other business enterprises to be held accountable for human rights violations in areas where they conduct their business activities.
JORGE ANDRÉS IGLESIAS MORI (Chile), paying tribute to civil society and human rights defenders, said that the Universal Declaration and other instruments that followed provide a human rights framework over the past 70 years. While human rights instruments have since proliferated and been perfected, violations against them have also spread. “We must strengthen the idea that defending human rights is a right itself,” he said. Growing threats to these defenders is a worrying trend. Their noble work is the highest peak of humanity that must be celebrated and protected. The United Nations has made progress by appointing the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders and a focal point for reprisals. Chile supports these mandates, but that is not sufficient without the will of all States.
CHRISTOPH HEUSGEN (Germany) said human rights defenders are among the most courageous members of society, yet space for them has been shrinking as they confront violence, threats, intimidation and legislation that aims to restrict their work. He acknowledged their work in different parts of the world, including those involved with the situation of the “White Helmets” in Syria, the two detained Reuters journalists in Myanmar and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons activists. He emphasized a need to focus on protecting and empowering women human rights defenders, who face gender-specific risks including sexual violence. Disturbed by a growing trend to limit the participation of civil society at the United Nations, he said Germany will support efforts to create an enabling space for human rights defenders within the Organization, including at the Security Council during his country’s upcoming term as a non-permanent member.
JONAS G. ALLANSSON (Iceland) drew attention to those human rights defenders who promote fundamental freedoms as they relate to a safe, healthy and sustainable environment. If the international community is to translate the 2030 Agenda into reality, it must address the increase in violence, harassment and demonization of environmental human rights defenders by State and non-State actors. Individuals and groups at the front lines of defending sustainable development should be protected, he stated, noting that Iceland has made the protection of human rights defenders a priority of its current membership on the Human Rights Council.
FRANCISCO DUARTE LOPES (Portugal) expressed his country’s support for the mandates of the High Commissioner, special rapporteurs and other bodies. Elements contained in the Declaration, such as rights to peaceful assembly and access to information, are all enshrined in the national Constitution. Portugal led efforts on these fronts in the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly’s Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural), including the co-sponsorship of resolutions on human rights defenders and on civil society space. Because human rights defenders are key actors at local, regional and international levels as they monitor and identify violations, they should be supported and protected. It is his Government’s conviction that education is key to raising awareness about human rights. In his country, human rights education is mandatory.