As civil society space is shrinking and laws restricting freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly multiply, including under the guise of national security and counter-terrorism, state authorities legitimize the targeting of human rights defenders, sometimes by portraying them as “foreign agents” or “enemies of development.” As a result, human rights defenders suffer not only abuses of power but also attacks against their physical integrity. And some pay the ultimate price – torture, disappearance or assassination – for pursuing their activities.
As documented by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of FIDH and OMCT, the scale of attacks against economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) defenders, in particular land rights defenders, is worrying, as is the widespread impunity in relation to these attacks. For several years, the Observatory has made this matter a priority area for action. In 2014, it published “We Are Not Afraid,” a comprehensive survey of attacks against land rights defenders in order to raise the alarm on their situation and to call for concerted action as well as strengthened mechanisms to protect them at the national, regional and international levels.
As the 31st session of the Human Rights Council is about to open, FIDH and OMCT call on member and observer states of the Council to work towards the adoption of a strong resolution on economic, social and cultural rights defenders, which would inter alia:
Highlight the legitimate work carried out by human rights defenders, including those working to promote and protect economic, social and cultural rights, and the need to protect them from harassment, repression and attacks from state and non-state actors;
Condemn the impunity that prevails with regard to these attacks, and urge states to hold those responsible to account, provide victims with effective remedies, and create and maintain a safe and enabling environment for civil society and human rights defenders as well as human rights advocacy;
Enshrine the principle of consultation with affected populations prior to carrying out development projects, and their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), as well as the need to conduct a human rights impact assessment (HRIA) prior to the start of any business operation that is likely to have an effect on the enjoyment of any human right, and highlight the essential role of human rights defenders as interlocutors of their communities;
Urge states to adopt effective legal and policy frameworks to ensure the free exercise of the rights to information, meaningful participation and peaceful protest and the protection of human rights defenders from harassment and attacks;
Highlight the need to support human rights defenders, including ESCR defenders, including where necessary by providing them with specific technical and financial support; and
Work towards the establishment of a clear and strong agenda at the regional and international levels that guarantees greater protection and empowerment in an enabling environment, and strengthens domestic, regional and international protection mechanisms, including with regard to access to remedies.
The adoption of such a resolution by the Human Rights Council would be timely. Beyond the extreme relevance of the topic, as shown by the deteriorating situation of ESCR defenders, the promotion and protection of economic, social and cultural rights are intertwined with the UN’s new sustainable development goals (SDGs), as well as with the mounting pressure for a democratic governance of development, trade and investment relations, and with the business and human rights agenda.
The international community needs a paradigm shift. Human rights and human rights defenders must be placed at the center of discussions on development, trade, investment and business activities and relations. At HRC 31, the Human Rights Council should adopt a strong, substantial resolution to act as a sounding board for national, regional and global efforts to protect human rights defenders, including economic, social and cultural rights defenders.