“They are ‘Gandhis’ and ‘Mandelas’. They are ‘Rosa Parks’ and ‘Malalas’. They are also ordinary individuals, lawyers, women activists, community leaders, journalists, unionists and environmentalists who strive to re-claim our rights and promote our freedoms.”
So begins a powerful statement by Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, ahead of International Human Rights Day on 10 December. The statement emphasises the crucial role of human rights defenders in international law, calling on states to adopt concrete measures for their protection and parliamentarians to be vigilant against laws that restrict civil society space and criminalise human rights activities.
The statement comes in the wake of Mr Forst’s visit to the UK in early December, co-organised by PBI UK alongside the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group, Amnesty International UK, London Metropolitan University and the Human Rights and Social Justice Research Institute. During the visit, Mr Forst met with government officials and human rights organisations to discuss issues relating to his mandate as the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders.
"People don’t really understand what a defender is,” he explained in an interview with PBI UK Director Susi Bascon. “They don’t recognise defenders as defenders, they say they are political activists, they are terrorists.”
“[Defenders] are the people who are attracting the light of the international community to violations and abuses by states. They are also revealing corruption and misconduct by so many actors… They need to have someone at a high level within the UN, to draw the attention of the international community to their needs.”
As part of his visit, Mr Forst met with Foreign Office and DFID officials to discuss the role of the UK government in enabling and protecting human rights defenders (HRDs) within the framework of its revised human rights priorities. Attendees participated in three working groups to explore themes relating to the role of human rights in the international order, including a workshop on democratic values and rule of law led by PBI UK. The day culminated in a parliamentary panel discussion, with speakers including Mr Forst and Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU Special Representative for Human Rights.
Mr Forst also participated in a roundtable discussion featuring a range of 35 civil society organisations (CSOs) and HRDs, held the following day. Participants discussed good practices of UK CSOs working with HRDs in repressive environments, how to help HRDs strengthen their local support networks, flexible funding approaches, and ideas for future collaboration between the Special Rapporteur and UK CSOs.
Among other ideas, he expressed enthusiasm for PBI’s current project to develop tools to help women HRDs strengthen their capacities in areas crucial to their work. The project takes an ‘integrated approach to protection’ as best practice when working with WHRDs, resonating with many of the needs expressed to Mr Forst during his own consultations with WHRDs. This approach includes, in addition to physical accompaniment, attention to wellbeing, economic security, family security and support networks, as well as empowerment through capacity building. The Special Rapporteur committed to help in the dissemination of the tools.
“When I spoke with defenders, they told me that they very much rely on and trust the work done by civil society organisations like PBI, Frontline Defenders and others,” he said. “For me, it’s important to show to governments, embassies, and international organisations that what they have currently done to protect defenders is good, but it’s not sufficient… Currently I’m trying to find a way to disseminate good practices developed by defenders themselves.”
“Since I started to work with defenders I’ve been aware of the work done by PBI… When I spoke with defenders during my consultations, many of them were protected by PBI, and they said that without the presence of PBI in their daily life they would not dare to stay in their countries… PBI is one of the most useful organisations to protect defenders.”