Director's Update - July 2014


In this update, ISHR Director Phil Lynch provides an overview of key developments in the protection of human rights defenders at the national and international levels, together with insights into ISHR's most recent activities and impacts.

Dear friends of ISHR,

In one of her final addresses to the UN Human Rights Council, outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay spoke of national level human rights defenders as ‘the heroes of our time’. ‘They are the promoters of change,’ she said, ‘the people who ring the alarm about abuse, poor legislation and creeping authoritarianism’.

It is this role, and the threats and risks that human rights defenders face because of it, that inspires ISHR in our work to protect defenders and support them to use international and regional human rights systems to achieve concrete national level change. In this update I’m delighted to share some key developments with you in this regard.

Enacting Africa's first ever national law on the protection of human rights defenders

In 1998, non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists and ISHR led the campaign for the adoption of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. More than fifteen years on, ISHR continues to be at the forefront of strengthening the legal protection of human rights defenders, having worked with local partners and parliamentarians in Côte d’Ivoire to secure the passage of the first-ever national law on human rights defenders in Africa.

Welcoming the adoption of the law, former ISHR trainee and Coordinator of the West African Human Rights Defenders Network, Diallo Abdoul Gadiry, said ‘This law will assist to create a safe and enabling environment in which human rights defenders can undertake their vital work.’

The enactment of the Côte D’Ivoire law responds to what the new UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders has described as the ‘crucial importance of incorporating the Declaration into national laws and policies’. Just as Amnesty and the ICJ should be remembered for their role in the passage of the Declaration, so too should the West African Network and the Côte d’Ivoire Coalition of Human Rights Defenders be acknowledged for their significant contribution to making it real at the national level.

Supporting the new Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders

Former ISHR Board member Michel Forst has certainly hit the ground running since his appointment as Special Rapporteur in June, embarking on a series of regional consultations to identify the key threats and challenges facing defenders, together with opportunities for change. ISHR was privileged to host the first of these consultations, which brought together over forty human rights advocates and activists. The investigation and prosecution of attacks against defenders – the vast majority of which are perpetrated with impunity – together with the recognition and protection of defenders in national laws and policies were identified as key priorities by participants.

Protecting defenders who work on issues of business and human rights

The Geneva consultation identified that defenders who work on issues of corporate accountability, or protest against extractive industries and major development projects, face particular and heightened risks. Lethal attacks against defenders who work on these issues are on the rise worldwide, and research suggests that less than one in ten are properly investigated and prosecuted. International recognition of the threats faced by defenders who work on issues of business and human rights, together with the responsibilities of States to support and protect them in this work, was one of ISHR’s key advocacy priorities at the June session of the UN Human Rights Council.

In this regard I’m pleased to report that, for the first time ever, the Council adopted two resolutions which recognise the positive and constructive role that defenders play in promoting corporate responsibility and working with business to identify, expose and remedy human rights risks. Regrettably, the resolutions did not recognise the worsening attacks that defenders who work on these issues face. Nor did they recognise the obligations of States to protect and support defenders in this work, or to investigate and ensure accountability for attacks where they occur. We will continue to push for concrete international and national level action in response.

Training and advising national level human rights defenders

Like the High Commissioner, ISHR is convinced that it is national human rights defenders who are the real drivers of human rights change. We also share the view of the High Commissioner, and many national level defenders with whom we work, that international advocacy can be a crucial contributor to such change.

In this context it was our privilege to host 20 frontline defenders to participate in our intensive Human Rights Defender Advocacy Programme in June. These defenders came from all regions and focused on issues from women’s rights, to LGBT rights, to corporate accountability for human rights violations. As well as providing in-depth training modules, ISHR facilitated meetings with diplomats, NGOs and UN experts in order for the participants to put the skills and knowledge learnt directly into practice. They join the literally thousands of human rights defenders that ISHR has trained over the last 30 years here in Geneva and in the field.

‘A big thank you to the ISHR team for putting together a wonderful workshop with an amazing set of human rights defenders from all over the world.’ – Pakistani women human rights defender

‘It was a wonderful training coupled with a strategic advocacy approach.’ – Alphonsus Gbanie, Sierra Leonean human rights defender

Bidding farewell to one High Commissioner and identifying priorities for the next

I started this update by quoting Navi Pillay and conclude by paying tribute to a High Commissioner who has worked tirelessly to protect defenders, expose violations, pursue accountability for perpetrators, and secure justice for victims. Earlier this week it was our honour to co-host a civil society reception to say farewell. I invite you to add your voice to those of activists from all over the world who have joined ISHR to say #ThanksNavi on Facebook and Twitter. Navi has set a truly outstanding example for the next High Commissioner, Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein, who is due to take office in September and for whom protecting and supporting human rights defenders should be a key priority.
On behalf of myself, the Board and all the dedicated staff here, thank you for your support for ISHR and the courageous human rights defenders with whom we work.

Yours sincerely

Phil Lynch

t: + 41 76 708 47 38

PS. This year ISHR celebrates its 30th birthday; if you’re so inclined feel free to give us a gift!


  • Africa
  • Corporate accountability
  • Human rights defenders
  • Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
  • Ivory Coast