ARTICLE 19 welcomes the adoption by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) of a resolution on human rights defenders addressing economic, social and cultural rights.
The resolution is timely, responding directly to the recent murder of human rights defenders working in the context of land and environmental issues, including indigenous leaders such as Berta Caceres. Among many crucial issues, it establishes clear language on access to information, emphasising that the link between economic, social, and cultural rights and the free flow of information is particularly crucial for human rights defenders.
Attempts to strip the resolution of its most significant aspects through 30 amendments, including some aimed at removing any reference to “human rights defenders”, were rejected in a series of defeating votes.
The resolution on “protecting human rights defenders, whether individuals, groups or organs of society, addressing economic, social and cultural rights” was led by Norway and was adopted by the HRC with the co-sponsorship of more than 60 States on 24 March 2016. 
“The UN Human Rights Council has again resolutely stood up for human rights defenders, stressing that all people should be free to engage in advocacy, report on, and seek information on human rights violations and abuses whether committed by States or non-State actors,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19. “It condemns reprisals and calls for accountability, protection and prevention mechanisms”, Hughes added.
This is the first time a resolution on human rights defenders has gone to a vote at the HRC, with all previous resolutions on this issue enjoying unanimous support. Although the break in consensus is regrettable, the initiative nevertheless received broad support: 33 out of 47 HRC Member States voted in favour of the resolution, while only 6 States voted against, and 8 abstained. 
The resolution follows the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders’ presentation to the HRC of his annual report. Previous reports of the UN expert have cited defenders of economic, social and cultural rights as among the most “at risk” of violence and other human rights violations.
“Following adoption of the resolution, States and businesses should heed its guidance to enhance the protection of human rights defenders, including those working to promote economic, social and cultural rights,” commented Hughes.
Protecting human rights defenders from attack: prevention and ending impunity
The resolution “deeply regrets” the assassination of human rights defenders addressing land and environmental issues, including indigenous leaders, as a direct reaction to the murder of Berta Caceres in Honduras in the opening week of the 31st Session.
More broadly, the resolution calls on all States to combat impunity for attacks and threats from both State and non-State actors against human rights defenders, as well as their family members, associates and legal representatives. Not only should such attacks be condemned, the resolution unequivocally demands investigations and accountability.
In terms of prevention, the resolution implores States to recognise the important and legitimate work of human rights defenders, including women human rights defenders, in public statements, laws, policies and programmes. It specifically recommends national protection programmes for human rights defenders, built on legal and policy frameworks developed in consultation with defenders themselves. Further, it calls on States to ensure that any law affecting the activities of human rights defenders to comply with international human rights law.
Right of access to information recognised
Importantly, the resolution connects access to information to the work of human rights defenders, in particular those working for the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights.
The resolution calls on States to ensure that information held by public authorities is proactively disclosed, and for the adoption of “transparent, clear and expedient laws and policies” that not only ensure proactive disclosure but provide a general right to request and receive information. It makes clear that refusals to disclose information should be on an exceptional basis and based on narrow, proportionate, necessary, and clearly defined grounds.
This language reinforces the recently adopted UN Sustainable Development Goals, in particular Goal 16, which focuses on the promotion of the rule of law and good governance at all levels to build transparent, effective and accountable institutions.
Relatedly, the resolution connects the free flow of information and participation for human rights defenders to preventing and tackling corruption.
This strengthens previous UN General Assembly and HRC language on access to information, and was also reflected in a cross-regional statement on the issue delivered by Mexico with the support of Norway and 45 other States at the 31st session. ARTICLE 19 looks forward to future HRC action on this issue.
The responsibilities of businesses to human rights defenders
In recognition that many of the dangers facing defenders of economic, social and cultural rights come from non-State actors as well as the States, the resolution devotes substantial attention to the responsibilities of businesses to respect human rights.
It encourages businesses to “avoid, identify and address any adverse human rights impacts related to their activities through meaningful consultation with potentially affected groups”, and for States to support such efforts in a manner consistent with the Ruggie Principles.
30 hostile amendments defeated
Not all States were in favour of the resolution: 30 hostile amendments were put forward by China, Cuba, Egypt, Pakistan and the Russian Federation to strip the resolution of its core purposes.
ARTICLE 19 and more than 150 organisations warned States in a joint letter led by ISHR that amendments would strip the most important elements from the resolution. This included proposals to remove references to “human rights defenders” entirely, to deny the legitimacy of their work, and to qualify language on States’ obligations and the need for accountability under international human rights law. If accepted, the amendments would have rolled back consensus commitments at the UN on the protection of human rights defenders by decades.
We were reassured that all 30 amendments were rejected in a series of defeating votes.
However, it took the HRC several hours to deal with each amendment in turn. The tabling of so many amendments appeared to be a deliberate tactic to frustrate and delay adoption of the resolution. The end result showed this to be counterproductive: it served only to prolong the period Russia and others placed themselves under the spotlight as opponents to economic, social and cultural rights defenders.
“The resolution is a significant accomplishment for the HRC in an increasingly hostile environment for human rights defenders and freedom of expression,” said Hughes. “The progress of UN human rights standards must not be held hostage by the threat of votes or amendments, especially as a tactic of a minority of States adamant to undermine the universality of human rights and the integrity of the HRC as an institution.”
ARTICLE 19 welcomes the adoption of this resolution as a significant step forwards in recognising that defenders of economic, social and cultural rights rely upon freedom of expression and access to information for their work, as well as rights to freedom of assembly, association, and public participation.
We call on all States to fully implement their human rights obligations in line with the resolution, and for businesses in all sectors to fulfil their responsibilities to defenders in line with the guidance of the resolution also.
 The cosponsors to the resolution, at the time of oral amendments, were: Albania, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Guinea, Haiti, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, Montenegro, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Tunisia, Ukraine, United States of America, and Uruguay.
 33 States voted in favour of the resolution (Albania, Algeria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Botswana, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ecuador, Ethiopia, France, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Maldives, Mexico, Mongolia, Morocco, Netherlands, Panama, Paraguay, Philippines, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Slovenia, South Africa, Switzerland, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Togo, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland); 6 voted against (Burundi, China, Cuba, Nigeria, Russian Federation, Venezuela); and 8 abstained (Bolivia; El Salvador; Kenya, Namibia; Qatar; Saudi Arabia; United Arab Emirates; Viet Nam).
 The following States cosponsored the oral statement: Argentina, Albania, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Panama, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Republic of Moldova, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, United States of America, Uruguay, Indonesia.