Photo: ISHR


Defenders gather before the UN headquarters to call for better protection of their work

Activists from all regions of the world joined ISHR and a coalition of 17 civil society organisations to mark the 25th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and to call for an update of this landmark document.

On Monday 18 September, over 50 activists, members of civil society organisations and diplomatic partners gathered on Geneva’s Place des Nations, opposite the UN’s European headquarters, unfurling a giant banner celebrating the right to defend human rights, as enshrined in the foundational UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

Speaking to the crowd present at the celebration, defender and trade union coordinator April Dyan Gumanao, from the Philippines, recognised the value of the Declaration and the role it has played in ‘safeguarding democracy and promoting our universal rights’. Nonetheless, she noted, violations and abuses against defenders in her country and elsewhere are ‘persisting and increasing,’ pointing to the need for continued and increasing protection for civil society and insisting that ‘our fight is not over’.

Isela González Díaz, from Mexico’s National Network of Women Human Rights Defenders, said that much of the power of the Declaration stems from how it inspired the establishment of national human rights mechanisms in various countries. The major challenge of addressing the ‘structural causes’ of risks to the work of defenders remains, she said.

Mayan woman human rights defender Geraldina López, from Guatemala, called on all UN Member States to ‘redouble their efforts towards the protection of human rights defenders’. She stressed the increase in attacks against activists over the past 25 years and cited her country as a State that has ‘criminalised’ the work of defenders.

Strengthening defender protection 25 years on

The banner and gathering were meant to mark the 25th anniversary of the Declaration, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1998. The document explicitly laid out the rights of human rights defenders and the protection owed to them by governments and businesses, emphasising that everyone has the right to advocate and defend rights and fundamental freedoms.

Beyond the celebration, the event was also meant as an opportunity to highlight the need to ensure the Declaration remains as relevant as possible, despite the considerable changes in legal and political contexts that have affected human rights work over the past 25 years.

As part of this effort, ISHR and a coalition of 17 organisations are campaigning to bring more visibility to the Declaration and to gather the thoughts and aspirations of defenders and activists from all regions in order to develop an authoritative supplement to the Declaration that can aid its implementation and comprehensively set out the rights of defenders and the duties of states and non-state actors to respect and protect them.

This event was with the collaboration of the German Federal Foreign Office and the Ford Foundation. 

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