CSW63 | No peace without women human rights defenders


At all stages of conflict women human rights defenders seek to secure a sustainable peace.  Documenting violations, supporting victims, demanding solutions grounded in the respect of rights: women defenders are essential actors.  At a packed side event at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York, three defenders spoke of working in conflict and post-conflict contexts and demanded backing for their and colleagues’ work.  

What peace means and how women human rights defenders contribute to achieving it, was at the heart of the debate at a packed ISHR side event held this week at CSW 63.  Speakers reflected in particular on experiences in Colombia, Chechnya and Yemen - all countries that are or have been on the agenda of the UN Security Council.  The event garnered significant, cross-regional backing from Security Council members Cote d’Ivoire, Peru and the UK, as well as Norway and Tunisia.  NGOs Amnesty International and Limpal also co-sponsored.

Journalist Safa Al Ahmad, reflecting on her work in Yemen, spoke of who those defending rights are. 

‘In most situations where you are in conflict, there are no official organisations, but there are women who take a stand everyday’, she noted. ‘Women are generally much better in conflict resolution. They have better understanding of the long time impact of war and conflict in society.’

Defending rights in conflict situations carries risks, as Diana María Salcedo Lopez from LIMPAL made clear. She spoke of the many murders of defenders in Colombia, and how ensuring a sustainable peace involved holding accountable those responsible.  

The risks for defenders extend to participating in events at the UN.  Gistam Sakaeva, a defender working to protect women from violence in Chechnya, said, ‘I’m openly speaking on this issue even though I may receive threats when I return.’

All the civil society panelists spoke of being accused of being terrorists. As if to illustrate the point, such an accusation was later levelled at panelist Safa Al Ahmad by a State delegate from Yemen from the floor.   This was roundly condemned in the room. 

‘There is no excuse for confusing human rights defenders with terrorism,’ said UK Ambassador Karen Pierce. ‘You may deplore what someone says but you should defend to the death their right to say it.’

In her intervention, the representative of Cote d’Ivoire spoke movingly about the years of conflict in her country and of the importance of women pushing forward to demand access to key decision-making spaces. 

This spoke to a key objective of the gathering - to increase understanding of why women human rights defenders' work on peace and security is so critical and must be enabled.  Ambassador of the Permanent Mission of Peru, Gustavo Mezo-Cuadra added that, ‘(w)ithout understanding that the role of women human rights defenders is a key element in sustaining peace, it is difficult to enhance their protection and create spaces (so they can) do their work.’  

The responsibility – and interest – of UN Member States and bodies to promote and enable the work of defenders was also addressed by Ambassador Meza Cuadra.  He quoted the Secretary General when he said: 

‘When human rights defenders are threatened, the principles of the UN are under attack.  Human rights defenders are a great asset in enhancing our work in sustaining peace. Let us embrace and support human rights defenders everywhere so they can continue their essential work.’  

Specific recommendations for the Security Council on promoting the work of defenders are contained in an upcoming ISHR paper, ‘Is Peace and Security Possible without Women Human Rights Defenders?’.  

In addition, the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders Michel Forst - just arrived from presenting his report on women human rights defenders to the Human Rights Council - shared the news that one of his last reports as Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders will focus on the experience of defenders working in conflict and post-conflict situations. 

As the event wrapped up, Gistam Sakaeva thanked all those present and the international community more widely.  ‘Without your support, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. It is hope for thousands of people whose family members are jailed and separated,’ she said. 

The Norwegian Minister for International Development, Dag-Inge Ulstein, added to this, urging those present to keep working to promote defenders’ work.

‘We need to be tougher, stronger and never rest. It’s our duty so that we can provide security for the kids, girls and women human rights warriors.’

Missed the event?  Watch the webcast!  https://bit.ly/2VWJDFG


For more information contact: Eleanor Openshaw e.openshaw@ishr.ch


Photo credit: © UK Permanent Mission to the UN/Jaclyn Licht



  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • Human rights defenders
  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • United Nations
  • Women's rights and WHRD
  • Colombia
  • Russia
  • Yemen