Promoting protection of human rights defenders at global summit

Publish Date: 
Friday, December 14, 2018

On October 29-31, 2018, several ESCR-Net members participated in the Global Human Rights Defenders Summit in Paris. The Summit coincided with the 20th anniversary of the United Nations’ “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 Human Rights Defenders Declaration.

The purpose of the Summit was to celebrate the progress over the last 20 years, discuss challenges and explore new strategies for human rights defender (HRD) protection and security going forward.

The Summit brought together more than 150 HRDs from all over the world, among them were ESCR-Net members from Abahlali baseMjondolo, Al-Haq, Coordinadora Andina de Organizaciones Indigenas (CAOI), Comité Ambiental en Defensa de la Vida, Just Associates (JASS), National Fisheries Solidarity Organization (NAFSO), Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña (OFRANEH), Otros Mundos AC Chiapas as well as representatives from The International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (Front Line Defenders), World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Amnesty International

ESCR-Net had been invited to participate as member of the European Union’s Human Rights Defenders Mechanism, ProtectDefenders.eu, which co-organized the event.

The first day of the Summit started with an opening session which included a panel of HRDs and interventions from, among others, Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders and Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The panel highlighted some of the challenges faced by human rights defenders in the current context of attacks on civic space and authoritarianism, unaccountable governments and businesses, systemic corruption, inequality and discrimination, overexploitation of natural resources, religious and political extremism on the rise

After the opening session, the Summit participants broke into parallel sessions to discuss regional challenges for protecting HRDs in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Middle East and North Africa. The parallel sessions focused on the situation of HRDs in their regional contexts and the specific issues they face.

The first day ended with a plenary session to discuss the effectiveness of protection mechanisms for HRDs.

Day two started with a plenary session with a panel of HRDs discussing the progress over the last 20 years since the signing of the UN Human Rights Defenders Declaration and the challenges that HRDs still face in carrying out their human rights work.  

As on day one, participants then broke into parallel sessions, this time with thematic focus:

  • Killings and violent repression of HRDs in the context of land rights, environmental rights and indigenous peoples’ rights: Actual situation and main issues for the next 20 years. This session aimed to address the root causes behind killings and identify which issues need to be addressed in strategies.
  • Making our space great again: Addressing shrinking space, restrictive laws and restriction on funding: Actual situation and main issues for the next 20 years. HRDs were given the opportunity to present the main challenges regarding closing of civic space through restrictive legislation and policies, as well as discuss counter strategies.
  • Winning with hope: How to talk about human rights and change hearts and minds in the current context. During this session, participants discussed the need to develop new narratives around HRDs and which key messages to communicate.
  • Women Human Rights Defenders: Understanding our realities and imagining the future. The session created a space for women HRDs from different regions to share experiences and develop shared analysis of the challenges they face. The session also developed concrete demands to States and other stakeholders to ensure the protection of women HRDs.

On the second day, several ESCR-Net members met separately with the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. During the meeting, ESCR-Net members presented the challenges they face and the importance of connecting attacks on HRDs with the wider human rights work they carry out. The meeting touched upon the importance of promoting a positive human rights agenda as a strategy for HRD protection and the role of corporate capture in attacks on HRDs.

The second day closed with a plenary discussion on the role of networks in the protection of human rights defenders. Several participants confirmed the need for mutual solidarity between HRDs; an idea closely aligned to the model behind ESCR-Net’s System of Solidarity (SOS) where members stand in solidarity with fellow members and close allies when they are attacked for their human rights work.

The third day of the Summit was dedicated to the discussion and approval of a shared Action Plan, outlining what should be the leading priorities for creating a safe and enabling environment for HRDs in years to come.

The Human Rights Defenders Summit ended with a closing ceremony at the Palais de Chaillot where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed 70 years earlier. During the closing ceremony, participants engaged in a public action commemorating HRDs that have been killed for their work to promote human rights and social justice.