New York

18 December 2018

Secretary-General's remarks to General Assembly on Human Rights Defenders [as delivered]

Today we commemorate the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by consensus, twenty years ago. 
 
As Wangari Maathai, the late Kenyan environmental campaigner and Nobel laureate, once said: “Human rights are not things that are put on the table for people to enjoy.  These are things you fight for and then you protect.” 
 
That is what human rights defenders do for the benefit of us all. 
 
So, today, I join you to express my admiration for the world’s human rights defenders who dedicate – and sometimes sacrifice – their lives demanding respect for economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. 
 
They are a diverse set of individuals and groups. 
 
Indigenous peoples defending their lands, traditions and the environment. 
 
Citizens groups saving migrants from drowning and exploitation. 
 
Humanitarian workers delivering life-saving aid to civilians caught up in conflict. 
 
Women fighting for participation in boardrooms and at peace tables. 
 
Lawyers advocating for the independence of judiciary. 
 
Trade union leaders pushing for decent jobs and a living wage. 
 
Journalists investigating disappearances and corruption. 
 
Campaigners protesting pollution and climate change. 
 
People of African descent standing up against racism and discrimination. 
 
Health workers looking for ways to improve treatment for HIV patients. 
 
All are defending and advocating for the rights, principles and values on which our Organization is built. 
 
These rights remain under threat in many areas. 
 
We are seeing a growth of intolerance and shrinking space for civil society. 
 
Human rights and their defenders are under increasing pressure in all regions. 
 
This must not become a new normal. 
 
Some defenders are persecuted, intimidated, incarcerated and even murdered. 
 
And a number of nations have enacted laws or adopted measures under the pretext of countering terrorism that restrict the work of human rights defenders. 
 
It is important to recognize that human rights defenders are essential partners to Governments and to the United Nations in tackling the enormous challenges we face globally in fully implementing the 2030 Agenda. 
 
They can only play this crucial role if they are afforded the necessary protection and room to do so. 
 
Promoting human rights strengthens states and societies and helps to prevent conflict. 
 
Disregard for human rights does great harm. 
 
If we had given much greater attention to human rights globally over the past two decades we could have averted much death, suffering and instability and preserved hard-won development gains. 
 
It is imperative that States and everyone else consider and treat human rights defenders as partners, not as a threat. 
 
When human rights defenders are threatened the principles of the United Nations are under attack. 
 
Human rights defenders are a great asset in enhancing our work to sustaining peace and sustainable development. 
 
These individuals and organizations are often the first to set off alarm bells and provide us with early warnings of impending crises, and they are key actors in the development of potential solutions in all areas of life. 
 
I admire their courage and sacrifice. 
 
Let us embrace and support human rights defenders everywhere so they can continue to do their essential work. Thank you.