The Anniversary of the other Declaration: The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

While we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights on 10 December 2008, another important milestone passed a day earlier with little fanfare: the 10th anniversary of the UN Human Rights Defenders Declaration.  After ten years, it is an appropriate time to review the interesting history of the Declaration, as well as its shortcomings and vulnerabilities to attack from unsympathetic governments. After 13 years of negotiation, on 9 December 1998, the UN General Assembly adopted the groundbreaking Defenders Declaration by consensus.  For the first time it explicitly recognized the right to peacefully promote or protect human rights and entered the concept of human rights defenders into the lexicon of international law.  The Declaration reaffirms rights already contained in international treaties, such as the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, but articulates them in a way that is particularly relevant to the reality of defenders.  The Declaration also contains unique rights, not protected by other agreements, such as the right to receive and obtain funding for human rights activities.

The international community demonstrated the importance of the Declaration by proclaiming it on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the UDHR and by subsequently appointing a UN independent expert (Special Procedure) to support its implementation.  The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders is empowered to uphold the standards contained in the Declaration and to pressure governments to stop intimidating those who speak out for human rights.  I have worked with the current Special Rapporteur to promote greater coordination and cooperation with regional human rights mechanisms.  A joint press release from UN and regional human rights officials on the anniversary of the Declaration signals a growing commitment of international human rights mechanisms to work together to better protect human rights defenders.  A recent joint mission to Togo by the UN Special Rapporteur and her counterpart from the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights was another step forward.

Unfortunately, despite the many achievements of both the Special Rapporteur and the Declaration, on its 10th anniversary, activists around the world remain in peril.  In Australia we take for granted the ability to freely engage in human rights advocacy.  However, in many countries, promoting human rights is a dangerous occupation.  State and non-state actors frequently target human rights defenders with threats, killings, detention or other forms of harassment and intimidation.  For example, in Colombia, human rights activist Carmelo Agamez, who has spent his career exposing government ties to violent paramilitary death squads, has been speciously charged with membership of a paramilitary organization by corrupt prosecutors.  He is now at considerable risk because he is detained with the very paramilitary leaders he has denounced.

As cultural relativists try to undermine the universality of the UDHR, states such as Russia, Cuba and Iran also try to undermine the basis of the Declaration.  At recent Human Rights Council and General Assembly debates, those specious arguments have been plainly evident.  First, some states argue that international law does not have a clear enough definition of the term ‘human rights defenders’.  Yet the Declaration provides a comprehensive framework to deal with defenders and importantly defines them by virtue of their activity.  States that call for a clearer definition of the term actually want to restrict the definition such that already marginalized groups, like lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists, are not included.  Second, states such as Cuba argue that more attention is needed on the responsibilities of defenders rather than on their rights.

Instead of espousing spurious arguments that seek to undermine international law and the situation of human rights defenders, governments around the world should recognize the legitimacy of human rights work, remove obstacles to defenders’ work and proactively support them.  Defenders are, in fact, important partners for states, which must meet both their international obligations and the demands of their citizens for democratic development.  As the Secretary-General noted on 10 December 2008, the realisation of human rights for all, proclaimed in the UDHR, cannot occur without the dedication and commitment of individual human rights defenders.

Andrew Hudson, a Melbourne lawyer, is Senior Associate in the human rights defenders program at Human Rights First in New York