Promoting and protecting civil society space, including by guaranteeing the safety and freedom of journalists and human rights defenders, is crucial to democracy and the rule of law, the International Service for Human Rights told the UN Human Rights Council today.

Speaking on behalf of a coalition of NGOs – including Amnesty International, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Human Rights House Foundation, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, the World Organisation Against Torture, and Peace Brigades International – ISHR said that activism and protest are essential to progress.

‘Accusations that activism hinders progress or threatens security should not be tolerated. Questioning motives or methods of protest cannot justify a loss of rights. Laws restricting freedom of assembly – as passed in Egypt and proposed in Spain – should be rescinded, whilst States must prevent and sanction the excessive use of force, of the kind seen recently in Venezuela and the Ukraine,’ said Ben Leather of ISHR.

ISHR also called on States such as Ethiopia to revoke laws which criminalise NGOs on the basis of their funding or activities, and promote laws which prohibit the State from doing just that, such as that enacted in Australia. ‘We commend Australia on the recent passage of it’s Not-for-Profit Sector Freedom to Advocate Act,’ Mr Leather said.

ISHR further urged the Council to condemn threatening legislation in countries including Nigeria, Uganda and Russia, which prohibit human rights advocacy relating to sexual orientation and gender identity. ‘The criminalisation of advocacy relating to LGBT rights and equality is manifestly incompatible with basic rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly,’ Mr Leather said.

ISHR’s intervention during the Human Rights Council’s high-level panel discussion on protecting civil society space also drew attention to the importance of States consulting civil society at the outset of policy development and engaging human rights defenders in the establishment of laws and mechanisms to protect their work.

‘Mexico has shown good practise of how States should legislate to protect human rights defenders, but has also shown that good laws cannot be implemented without strong political backing, and that civil society space cannot be consolidated without impartial investigations to bring perpetrators to justice,’ Mr Leather said.

The statement similarly praised Switzerland for its development of Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders, which are intended to provide instruction to Swiss missions and embassies abroad as to the steps and measures they should take to protect civil society space and support human rights defenders at risk.

Finally, the statement addressed the continuing incidence of reprisals against human rights defenders for the cooperation with the UN. ‘When States fail to guarantee civil society space, activists often turn to the UN. When that avenue too is closed by intimidation and violence, we must speak out. ISHR urges the Council, and the UN as a whole, to ensure a stronger, practical response to reprisals,and thus lead by example in protecting civil society space,’ Mr Leather said.

Contact: Michael Ineichen, ISHR Director of Human Rights Council Advocacy, on m.ineichen@ishr.ch

 

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