The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders: the historical and universal protection mechanism

On December 9, 1998, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the “Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”, also known as the “UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders”.

This instrument constitutes today the document of reference for all international and regional mechanisms in terms of promotion and protection of human rights defenders. In particular it:
- codifies the international standards that protect the activity of human rights defenders around the world;
- recognises the legitimacy of human rights activity and the need for this activity and those who carry it out to be protected;
- contains principles and rights based on human rights standards protected in other international instruments, such as the right to freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and the right to freedom of movement;
- outlines some specific duties of States and the responsibilities of everyone with regard to defending human rights, in addition to explaining its relationship with national law.

A specific mandate: the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

In April 2000, the Commission on Human Rights asked the Secretary-General to establish a mandate on human rights defenders. The Commission’s intention was to give support to the implementation of the Declaration on human rights defenders and also to gather information on the actual situation of human rights defenders around the world (see Resolution 2000/61).

In August 2000, Ms. Hina Jilani (Pakistan) was named by the Secretary General as Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights defenders. The mandate was renewed by the Commission in 2003 (Resolution 2003/64) and by the Human Rights Council in 2007 (Resolution 5/1).

In March 2008, the Human Rights Council, with Resolution 7/8, decided to directly appoint the mandate-holder on human rights defenders. The President of the Human Rights Council thus decided to appoint Ms. Margaret Sekaggya (Uganda) as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders for a period of three years.

The mandate on human rights defenders stipulates that the mandate-holder’s main roles are:

- to seek, receive, examine and respond to information submitted on the situation of human rights defenders;
- to establish cooperation and conduct dialogue with governments and other interested actors on the promotion and effective implementation of the Declaration;
- to recommend effective strategies better to protect human rights defenders and follow up on these recommendations;
- to integrate a gender perspective throughout her work

In its resolution, the Human Rights Council urges all governments to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur and to provide all information requested. The governments are also urged to implement and follow-up on her recommendations.

In the fulfilment of its mandate, the mandate holder:

- presents annual reports to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly on particular topics or situations of special importance regarding the promotion and protection of the rights of human rights defenders;
- undertakes country visits;
- take up individual cases of concern with Governments.

Country visits

The Special Rapporteur is mandated to conduct official visits to States. These visits provide an opportunity to examine in detail the role and situation of human rights defenders in the country, to identify particular problems and to make recommendations on how these could be resolved. The Special Rapporteur is required to look critically at the situation of human rights defenders in a country. The process is intended to provide an independent and impartial assessment, which will be of use to all actors in strengthening both the contribution of defenders to human rights and their protection.

Country visits usually take place over a period of 5 to 10 days, during which the Special Rapporteur meets with heads of State and government, relevant government ministers, independent human rights institutions, United Nations agencies, the media and human rights defenders themselves, among others.

The Special Rapporteur issues press releases after the visits, which conclusions are later presented in mission reports.

Individual cases

By sending allegation letters or urgent action letters, the Special Rapporteur asks the government concerned to take all appropriate action to investigate and address the alleged events and to communicate the results of its investigation and actions.

Allegation letters focus primarily on asking the State authorities to investigate the events and to conduct criminal prosecutions of those responsible.

Urgent action letters, sent when the violation is about to occur or is ongoing, request the government to take action to prevent or put to end the violation. The letters sent to Governments are confidential and remain so until the end of the reporting year, when the Special Rapporteur submits the annual report to the Human Rights Council.

The Special Rapporteur constantly consults with other UN Special Rapporteurs whose own mandates are involved in a particular case and frequently sends joint letters of concern with these mandate holders.

Read more