ARTICLE 19 welcomes the adoption by consensus of a resolution on human rights defenders at the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee. Led by Norway, in close consultation with civil society, the resolution sets out plans to mark the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on HRDs next year. The resolution sets out the important role of human rights defenders, and raises “grave concerns” at the challenges they face in their work.

The resolution (A/C.3/72/L.50/Rev.1) is significant as it restores consensus to the issue of human rights defenders, after several years during which initiatives at the UN using this term having frequently gone to a vote, and faced hostile amendments from States seeking to dilute the protections they set out. The 75 States that cosponsored the resolution demonstrates significant and increased support for the work of human rights defenders ahead of the 20th Anniversary of the 1998 Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

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, more commonly known as “the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders”, was adopted unanimously by the General Assembly in 1998.

Through the resolution, States unanimously underscored the “positive, important and legitimate role of human rights defenders in promoting and advocating the realisation of all human rights”, and expressed concerns at the increasing restrictions on the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association and peaceful assembly, and the right to privacy. The resolution makes clear that national laws, in particular on national security and counter-terrorism, should not be used to hinder the work of human rights defenders, including by criminalising, stigmatising, impeding or otherwise obstructing or restricting them, and calls for their reform.

There is also strong language addressing the need to end arbitrary detentions, gender-based discrimination, and reprisals against human rights defenders that engage with the UN system. The resolution notes the importance of HRDs to the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights, as well as to sustainable development, and highlights the role of businesses in promoting, respecting and striving for the protection of human rights and those defending them. While these issues have been addressed in prior resolutions, regaining consensus on this language demonstrates significant progress.

For the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Declaration, the resolution calls on all stakeholders to speak out in support of human rights defenders, and to reject threats and attacks against them. It further:

  • Announces a high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly to take place in 2018 to mark the anniversary, and further promote the Declaration, and encourages all stakeholders to engage in awareness-raising activities on this issue
  • Encourages all stakeholders to engage in their own activities to mark the Anniversary and promote the Declaration, and for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to compile a report of those activities; and,
  • Requests the Secretary General to undertaken a “comprehensive assessment and analysis” of “progress, achievements and challenges” that the UN has experienced in promoting the Declaration, as well as in assisting States to implement UN commitments on this topic, encouraging the Secretary General to consult broadly in this exercise, with the view to providing conclusions and recommendations to the high-level plenary meeting.

Addressing the “implementation gap” between the 1998 Declaration and the present realities facing human rights defenders must be at the centre of these activities. In particular, stakeholders should reflect upon the increase in digital threats facing defenders since the 1998 Declaration, and how defenders’ communications with UN mechanisms can be better secured, and their rights online better protected, in the 21st Century.

It is also crucial that human rights defenders’ voices are fully heard and listened to during activities to mark the anniversary of the Declaration, in particular at the high-level plenary meeting at the UN. Only with these critical perspectives will States receive a full picture of good practices as well as challenges in giving effect to the Declaration over the past two decades – providing a timely basis from which to renew efforts for implementation.