Director's Update - April 2014


Over the last few months I’ve been inspired by the courage of many human rights defenders with whom ISHR works in defying risks and dangers to protect the rights of others. I’ve also seen how international and regional human rights mechanisms are being used by these defenders to achieve human rights change and wanted to share some developments with you in this regard.

Dear friends of ISHR,

Defending human rights remains a dangerous activity in many regions of the world.

Over the last few months I’ve been inspired by the courage of many human rights defenders with whom ISHR works in defying these dangers to protect the rights of others. I’ve also seen how international and regional human rights mechanisms are being used by these defenders to achieve human rights change and wanted to share some developments with you in this regard.

Preventing intimidation and reprisals

Like many of you, I was saddened and appalled by the death of Chinese human rights defender and former ISHR-trainee Cao Shunli. Cao was detained, denied adequate medical treatment and ultimately died in connection with her efforts to promote democracy and expose corruption in China through the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review. 

With the encouragement of activists on the ground, such as Hu Jia (left) ISHR has sought to ensure that Cao’s voice continues to be heard and that, while nothing will atone for her death, it serves as an imperative for both the UN and States to strengthen the protection of human rights defenders against intimidation and reprisals.

Supporting freedom of expression

Shortly before Cao’s death, while she was still in a coma, I had the privilege of meeting with a number of Chinese human rights defenders. With their colleague in a critical condition, I asked whether traveling to Geneva and advocating at the UN is worth the risk. Their answers were both illuminating and inspiring. Yes, they said, not only do recommendations from the Human Rights Council sometimes directly influence laws and policies on the ground, but being able to speak at the UN is a powerful exercise of the fundamental right to freedom of expression, especially where that right is flagrantly denied at the national level.

Perhaps nowhere are the rights to freedom of expression and association more systematically denied than in North Korea. In this context, ISHR was delighted to provide Shin Dong Hyuk, the only known escapee of North Korea’s notorious political prison Camp 14, with a speaking platform at the Human Rights Council in March.

Shin’s powerful testimony, in which he spoke witnessing the public execution of his mother and brother, was one of the many contributors to the Council adopting a groundbreaking resolution on North Korea and taking an important step towards accountability for gross human rights violations in that country. I’d also like to take the opportunity to acknowledge the phenomenal contributions of Commission of Inquiry Chair, Michael Kirby, and Human Rights Watch’s Julie de Rivero to the development and adoption of this landmark resolution.

Protecting the right to assemble and protest

Closely related to the right to freedom of expression is the right to freedom of association and assembly. During the course of the 25th session of the Human Rights Council ISHR was therefore proud to be associated with successful advocacy efforts to address the severe and worsening crackdown on activists and journalists in Egypt and to secure an important resolution on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests.

More recently, we were pleased that, consistent with ISHR’s recommendations, the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights identified the need to ‘widen democratic space’ as a key global priority. As my colleague Michael Ineichen said at the launch of OHCHR’s new strategic plan, ‘the trend to restrict civil society space is not limited to repressive governments alone. Increasingly we see democratic governments using excessive force against protesters and justifying disproportionate restrictions on the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association by reference to economic or national security interests.’

Translating resolutions into actions

In addition to supporting grassroots human rights defenders to inform the development of resolutions at the UN and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, ISHR is increasingly working with those defenders to translate such resolutions into action on the ground.

In February, my colleagues Clement Voulé and Eleanor Openshaw completed a successful three year project with human rights defenders from Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The project assisted activists to work with government and other key stakeholders to implement UN recommendations on women’s rights and has already led to a range of positive developments in those countries, including the development of National Human Rights Action Plans by the Governments of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

In a similar vein, my colleagues Madeleine Sinclair and Michelle Evans are working with a coalition of organisations to ensure that a landmark General Assembly resolution adopted in December is used as a roadmap by States to develop specific policies and programs to protect women human rights defenders. Clement and Eleanor will be undertaking a similar process in Angola, working with African NGOs on a roadmap to implement the recommendations of a new African Commission report on WHRDs.

Looking ahead

The coming months are shaping as busy and exciting for the ISHR team.

Later this month Clement Voulé and Heather Collister will travel to Angola to advocate at the African Commission on issues such as the protection of women human rights defenders. At the same time our New York staff, fresh from the relative success of the treaty body strengthening process, will shift their attention to supporting a range of NGOs, especially those focused on LGBT and sexual and reproductive rights, to access the UN.

Looking further ahead to June, we’ll provide intensive training and advocacy support to twenty human rights defenders coming from all over the world to Geneva. We’ll also lobby at the Council for a new resolution on business and human rights to better protect defenders who work on issues of corporate accountability.

Thank you for your support for ISHR and your commitment to human rights defenders. As always, I’d be delighted to hear from you about ways in which we could further support their courageous and invaluable work.

Yours sincerely

Phil Lynch
International Service for Human Rights


  • Africa
  • Asia
  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • Women's rights and WHRD
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • Universal Periodic Review
  • China
  • Guinea
  • Ivory Coast
  • Liberia
  • Sierra Leone