Posted by: joellazar | March 12, 2015

Defending the defenders

Room XX, Human Rights Council.

Room XX, Human Rights Council

This is my first blog entry. It and the ones that follow will contain reflections and questions emanating from my 4-month internship at the International Service for Human Rights (Geneva).

I hope not simply to engage in reportage here, but to use this forum to think more deeply about human rights, the mechanisms designed to protect them and, perhaps above all, to engage in difficult questions that surround my work.

I sincerely welcome your critique, comments, outraged and affronted outbursts (no human rights forum would be complete without: Dear Writer, I am outraged and affronted. Sincerely, Affronted of Ascot Vale, Melbourne).

The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)

The “About” section of the ISHR website will tell you all the basics about this NGO – how it was born and why it lives. From three weeks’ experience with ISHR, I summarize its raison d’être as follows: An NGO that supports human rights defenders and strengthens the space within which they operate.

From my study and discussion of human rights, it didn’t occur to me that a discrete group of human rights victims existed and were unified by virtue of the actions they took to advance human rights. To put it another way, I understood that many human rights victims possessed idiosyncrasies that facilitated their unique grouping (by, for example, ethnic minority, nationality, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation or nationality). With effective advocacy, these idiosyncrasies help in the design and implementation of international human rights law mechanisms (resolutions, treaties, debates) to support those groups in ways that are targeted to their particular existential vantage point.

My experiences so far have brought me an important new perspective and have also left me with some lingering questions that I hope to explore throughout my time here.

What is a ‘human rights defender’? Good question. I’m glad you asked.

A ‘human rights defender’ (HRD) is a particular category of individuals who, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) ‘individually or with others, act[s] to promote or protect human rights.’

The kinds of activities that HRDs engage in include:

  • gathering, analyzing and disseminating data on human rights abuses;
  • providing support and advice to victims of human rights violations and strengthening their capacity;
  • calling for accountability and seeking to end impunity enjoyed by human rights violators;
  • monitoring the implementation of UN treaties and resolutions;
  • designing and providing human rights education

In opposition to these efforts, a barrage of malicious tools are increasingly being used – by State and non-State actors – to undermine the work of HRDs and narrow the space within which they operate. These tactics include: death threats to HRDs or members of their family, arbitrary executions, discriminatory policing, military crackdowns, harsh sentencing, oppressive and illegitimate regulation of civil society movements, public smear campaigns, stifling rights in the online space, and the abusive use of oppressive legislation to impinge on freedom of expression, association, assembly and peaceful protest.

And with an extensive menu of human rights abuses comes an equally wide variety of defenders. Human rights defenders are mothers who march on government steps opposing sexist and discriminatory laws; they are students who Tweet about ruthless regimes; they are journalists who shine glistening lights on State corruption; they are teenage boys who defend their younger brothers from armed militia; they are NGOs and civil society groups that run capacity building workshops on how to engage effectively with UN mechanisms; they are coalitions of individuals and groups fighting to end discrimination and persecution of people on account of their sexual orientation or gender identity; they are members of indigenous communities – bound by spirit to their land – combating transnational corporations and State sponsored development projects that threaten to dispossess communities or poison their environment.

Newton’s Third Law: for every action an equal and opposite reaction.

Opposition: courageously, almost always. Equal opposition: that depends on the defender.

Defending the defenders

In 1999, a General Assembly resolution on HRDs was adopted, by consensus, aiming to cater preexisting human rights laws, principles and norms to HRD’s unique vulnerabilities; to protect them from reprisal, help them assemble freely, communicate openly, critique the State apparatus, gather information without fear and have access to effective remedies when abuses occurred. The resolution is called the 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. The DRRIGOSPPURHRFF (whether you say that quickly or slowly it sounds offensive in most languages; most call it The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders). In 2000, advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, prominent human-rights activist and ISHR Board member Hina Jilani was appointed the inaugural UN Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders to help give effect to the Declaration and advance the principles it espoused.

Moving beyond words

Importantly, the movement to protect HRDs has stepped well beyond the carefully curated rhetoric of UN resolutions and declarations, and the sometimes robotic, rehearsed and rehashed diplomatic statements that seem to coalesce with the oxygen that Geneva sucks down.  The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, devoted a great deal of attention to, and expressed grave concern about, reprisals against HRDs in the presentation of his annual report to the 28th HRC session last week. I attended Zeid’s presentation, wrote this about it on behalf of ISHR, and felt Zeid to be genuinely and passionately committed to advancing this cause with every fiber of his being (and the dwindling budget and staff of his office).

In another example of the HRD discourse rising from the Declaration document, and with the help of NGOs like ISHR, HRDs are making their way into the design of National Action Plans (NAPs) which countries are beginning to design and implement to give effect to the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. I co-authored a submission to Ireland in my first week at ISHR, calling on the Irish government to incorporate HRDs into the design and substance of its NAP. Even Twitter, usually preoccupied with Justin Bieber’s birthday (even when it’s not his birthday) and Kim Kardashian’s behind (also when it’s not her birthday), has taken up a #idefend campaign, helping raise awareness about HRDs among the thousands of delegates, journalists and civil society members streaming through the UN this month, and anyone participating from around the world.

Evidently, the cause of HRDs and the vital they play in defending the rights of the abused, is not foreign to the international community. Bitterly and sweetly, its prominence is intrinsically linked to its prevalence. I pray for the day when ISHR and all HRDs run out of business.

Who’s in and who’s out? 

I have begun wondering, though: how do we distinguish between a human rights defender whose rights have been violated qua defender, and a person whose rights have been violated qua person? If the OHCHR defines a HRD as someone who ‘acts’ to promote or protect human rights, is not the very existence of a victim an ‘act’ of defiance in the eyes of the perpetrator? Isn’t then every person who suffers a human rights violation a ‘human rights defender’? Alejandra Burgos of the Salvadoran Network of Women Human Rights Defenders expressed a similar question in a HRC side-event co-sponsored by ISHR this week. I’d like to look into this nuance further and ascertain whether it’s merely semantic, or whether it reflects an underlying philosophical position about what it means to ‘stand up’ for human rights and how that is perceived in the international human rights community. I welcome any thoughts or responses to this.

Who’s the better defender?

A second question I would like to consider over my time here (and final one for this blog entry) is which players or mechanisms are most effective in defending human rights? Or more precisely, which players are more effective in which contexts? And even more personally: in which capacity will be most effective through a career and life committed to promoting and securing human rights for all?

So which actors are really earning their stripes in the protection of HRDs and human rights generally? Is it the impeccably-dressed State delegates who cast their votes in the UN quorums? Is it domestic members of parliament? Is it the programming or communication staff of the international and intergovernmental human rights bodies? Is it the grassroots activists on the streets? Is it the staff of NGOs engaging in advocacy and training? Is it a member of the private sector who by simple virtue of engaging in fair and ethical economic activity (if indeed it is fair and ethical) contributes to a just economy and thereby contributes to the economic rights of her society? Is it an academic who researches and publishes in an area of human rights? Is it a school teacher? Who else have I missed?

Just posing these questions on paper has made it clear to me that in the broad human rights system, everyone is playing role. I’m especially curious about who is playing the largest, most effective one? Again, I welcome your answers and thoughts to those ponderous ponderings; whoever you are, wherever you’re from.

In conclusion, your Honour.

I’m really enjoying my time with the incredibly dedicated, intelligent and good-humoured staff at ISHR. Four out of fourteen staff members (including Director Phil Lynch) are Australian, and one is a New Zealander. I must admit I’m pleased to be taking part in this antipodean human rights conspiracy.

That’s it from me, from here, for now.



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