Posted by: samdipnall | April 11, 2016

Fresh beginnings: It’s remarkable what you can achieve in just 28 days

Fresh beginnings: It’s remarkable what you can achieve in just 28 days.

Within the right context, place and time, in an enabling and encouraging working environment, with real leadership and helpful support, through friendly and caring work colleagues, and within the heartland of the global human rights community – it’s true to say that a young professional can, with irresistible fervor and force, engage, grow and flourish. These highly desirable elements I have experienced to the fullest since arriving at International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) in Geneva, Switzerland.

I truly feel a new confidence that I am on a path to reach my potential as a future human rights leader.

In such a short time I have …

  • Played a key supporting role in lobbying and producing reports and analysis on the consultation process and (marathon) final vote on the last available sitting day of the 31st UN Human Rights Council of the adoption of a new and historic UN resolution on protecting human rights defenders working in economic, social and cultural rights. Read about the significance of this international achievement here.
  • Successfully delivered an oral statement on behalf of the National Association of Community Legal Centers (NACLC) at Australia’s Universal Periodic Review at the 31st session of the UN Human Rights Council. Watch me here (my thanks to the Castan Centre for posting this).
  • Taken up a leading role organising the 2016 ISHR Human Rights Defender Advocacy Programme: a two week intensive training for defenders to develop their advocacy skills engaging with the UN human rights mechanisms in June at the 32nd session of the Human Rights Council. Learn more about this here.
  • Drafted new online advocacy publications on current human rights defender issues, like this one, covering all aspects of reportage and internal updates and communications concerning developments at interactive dialogue and panel discussion segments at the 31st session of the Human Rights Council.
  • Learnt how to use and took on the responsibility for updating ISHR’s Twitter account as an effective media platform and real-time advocacy tool to report on live developments.
  • and even met Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission!

… and I’ve only just begun.


Above: Just after a successful morning at Australia’s Universal Periodic Review outcomes session. (Left to Right) Tess McEvoy – ISHR Advocate, Gillian Triggs – President, Australian Human Rights Commission, Juli Dugdale – YWCA Global Program Manager, Sam Dipnall – Castan Centre and ISHR Intern, Phil Lynch – ISHR Director


Where am I working, and what do they do?

ISHR is a leading not-for-profit focused on protecting and advancing the rights of human rights defenders – passionate advocates who form a vital component of vibrant and effective democracies and civil society. ISHR forms the pre-eminent global focal point for human rights defenders interacting with the UN human rights system.

It supports human rights defenders by: advocating for them through the vast array of UN mechanisms and procedures; calling out instances of reprisals against them; providing training services and outreach to increase their suite of fieldwork and advocacy skills; leading influential coalitions, working groups and facilitating human rights defender professional networks, as well as facilitating knowledge and news sharing.

What a wonderful organisation it is to be a part of and contribute to every single day.

Leading ISHR is an Australian human rights advocate, Phil Lynch. He’s also former director of the Human Rights Law Centre – and I really enjoy being able to say “g’day” to him without getting a quizzical faced response that I tend to get over here when using that quintessentially Australian introductory turn of phrase.

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Can you define what a ‘human rights defender’ is for me?

It’s certainly not a legal term of art I’ve heard used back home, so what does ‘human rights defender’ mean in the wider international human rights community?

The starting point is the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1998 by consensus, the Declaration confirms that States have a duty to protect, promote and implement all human rights and freedoms and to create the conditions and environment to allows this to be achieved. Many of these human rights States previously have agreed to protect, such as those contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – freedoms of speech, association, opinion and expression etc.

But, the Declaration does more – it confirms the paramount importance of these human rights, and that States must protect and secure these types of human rights through creating a safe and enabling environment for human rights advocates to carry out their important work defending and advancing human rights.

The Declaration does not provide us an itemised list of who is a ‘human rights defender,’ but trying to could actually undercut the durability of this key instrument. Rather, the text provides ample latitude for human rights defenders to be defined by the special effort they make to advance, protect and eliminate violations of human rights – such as by discussing, publishing and disseminating ideas about the observance of all aspects of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to draw public attention to human rights issues: see Article 6.

To this end, Article 18(2) of the Declaration confirms that:

“Individuals, groups, institutions and non-governmental organizations have an important role to play and a responsibility in safeguarding democracy, promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms and contributing to the promotion and advancement of democratic societies, institutions and processes.”

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights puts it well:

“Clearly, it is impossible to catalogue the huge variety of contexts in which human rights defenders are active. However, common to most defenders are a commitment to helping others, a commitment to international human rights standards, a belief in equality and in non-discrimination, determination and, in many instances, tremendous courage.”

More of us are human rights defenders then we think – we just don’t realise it. “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it,” my father use to say to me when I was a young lad. For me, that phrase is a useful prism to understand what it means to be a human rights defender. That is – to have a care for the value or human right lying beyond the subject matter, the actor or the even the message. What matters is protecting the space to say it, such as rights to freedom of opinion, expression and speech – that are reasonably and justifiably limited, of course.

We can all be human rights defenders in some small way, but only if we choose to take up the challenge.

Violent reprisals. Killed in the name of …

Unfortunately, for all those who would step forward and bravely defend fundamental human rights and freedoms, the price paid for their tremendous courage being outspoken is far too high, far too often. In some places around the world, human rights defenders are killed or disappear in deadly acts of reprisals. These reprisals often go without effective investigation or sanction, and are carried out with impunity beyond the rule of law.

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Above: The current UN Special Rapporteur (Independent Expert) on Human Rights Defenders is Mr Michel Forst. Pictured here at an ISHR hosted side-event I assisted at. (Photo courtesy of ISHR)

The problem is worse then what you might first think.

Berta Caceres, an environmental and land rights defender, was murdered at her home in Honduras during this session of the 31st Human Rights Council that I worked at. Please watch and read ISHR’s statement made during the annual interactive dialogue session with the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders (the UN expert who reports back to the Council). Violent reprisals such as this underscore the critical need for States to ensure that human rights defenders operate in safe and enabling environments.

There is no logical explanation for any form of reprisals. They must stop.

Be a human rights defender.

I think that we take the civil space to stand up and advocate for our human rights for granted in Australia. It really is something we ought to cherish and protect.

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Above: I spotted the Dalai Lama providing a free public lecture near the ISHR office. Just a normal lunchtime in Geneva I suppose …

Without a bill of rights, few constitutional protections (remember, your freedom of political communication is only an implied right), limited statutory protections, such as the Charter – in the main, Australians’ right to stand up and engage in human rights defender advocacy exists, and deadly reprisals thankfully do not occur.

Definitely, more work certainly needs to be done to safeguard our democracy, and protect against legal encroachments on our human rights, with some other trends, such as Commonwealth government funding cuts preventing community legal centres undertaking advocacy and law reform work illustrative of this. But speaking very generally, human rights defenders actions are only limited only in justifiable ways we understand, such as laws preventing incitement to hate or discrimination, for example.

I’ll expand on the role of human rights defenders within a functioning civil society more over the coming weeks. But for now, do please take a look at the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and if you’re more interested, the authoritative international commentary containing case studies and examples. Then, think for a moment about who in your community, or close to you, is a ‘human rights defender’ and what role they have to play in your local economic, social or cultural space. Go on, be a human rights defender.

Take care back there in Australie.

Sam Dipnall

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