Counterterrorism legislation must be consistent with international human rights law and cannot be misused to restrict the legitimate work and activities of human rights defenders, according to a resolution adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) on March 21, 2013.  Just days before, the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, presented her annual report to the HRC, saying, “The best guarantee for ensuring legislation complies with human rights is to have robust, independent and well-resourced national human rights institutions.”  She also promoted two UN produced resources:  the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and a related human rights defenders “Fact Sheet.”

Supported by nearly 70 countries, including the United States, the resolution states the HRC is “gravely concerned” that counterterrorism legislation and other measures, such as laws regulating civil society organizations, “have been misused to target human rights defenders or have hindered their work and endangered their safety in a manner contrary to international law.”

It calls upon governments to create a safe and enabling environment in which human rights activists can operate, and says any limitations on their activities must be proportionate.  This includes ensuring that laws to protect national security are not misused to impede the work of civil society, that reporting requirements are reasonable and do not inhibit the ability of organizations to function, that no law criminalizes or places discriminatory restrictions on funding sources, and protections exist for dissenting views in the political arena.  It also calls for “reviewing and, where necessary, amending relevant legislation and its implementation in order to ensure compliance with international human rights law.”

The unanimous support of this resolution “sends an important signal of support to all the courageous people who are fighting against human rights violations all over the world,” Geir Sjøberg, the Human Rights Counselor for the Norwegian Mission to the UN, said in an interview to ReliefWeb days after its passing. “We must now work to ensure that this resolution is translated into concrete results on the ground and leads to an improvement in the situation of human rights defenders.” Norway had introduced the resolution.

Earlier in the month, Margaret Sekaggya, the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, presented her report to HRC noting that national human rights institutions play a key role in advising governments about their human rights obligations and “mainstreaming international human rights principles and standards in public law and policymaking.”  But they are increasingly facing restrictions and other challenges that constrain or undermine the independence and efficiency of their work.  To remedy this, the Special Rapporteur called on governments to ensure the work and safety of civil society in accordance with standards found in international law, such as the Paris Principles.

“From anti-terrorism and other legislation relating to public security to legislation governing registration, functioning and funding of associations, from defamation and blasphemy legislation to legislation relating to public morals, States are using laws and administrative provisions to unduly restrict the work of human rights defenders,” Sekaggya said during her presentation.

“States should ensure proper consultation processes when new legislation is being discussed and should be open to assessing the impact of existing legislation,” she continued, adding “this requires close cooperation and frank engagement with the main stakeholders, in particular with civil society.”

Resources for Human Rights Defenders

Based on widely accepted human rights and principles found in international agreements and law, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Declaration of Human Rights Defenders says everyone has a responsibility to promote and protect human rights.  It outlines protections accorded to human rights defenders and the obligations of governments with regard to respecting human rights.

Rights of civil society include:

  • “To form associations and non-governmental organizations;

  • To make complaints about official policies and acts relating to human rights and to have such complaints reviewed;

  • To effective protection under national law in reacting against or opposing, through peaceful means, acts or omissions attributable to the State that result in violations of human rights; and

  • To solicit, receive and utilize resources for the purpose of protecting human rights (including the receipt of funds from abroad).”

Obligations for governments include:

  • “To protect, promote and implement all human rights;

  • To ensure that all persons under its jurisdiction are able to enjoy all social, economic, political and other rights and freedoms in practice;

  • To provide an effective remedy for persons who claim to have been victims of a human rights violation;

  • To conduct prompt and impartial investigations of alleged violations of human rights; and

  • To ensure and support the creation and development of independent national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights, such as ombudsmen or human rights commissions.”

Another UN resource, Protecting the Right to Defend Human Rights Fact Sheet, is designed to educate government staff, the private sector, journalists, and other key stakeholders about the role and work of human rights defenders.  It includes a section on the kind of work human rights defenders do, common violations of their rights, and ways that their work can be enabled. “State authorities are the most common perpetrators of violations against human rights defenders,” it says, “yet also bear the primary responsibility for assuring their protection.”