In Quest for More Equal Societies, Those Who Defend Human Rights Are Key Agents of Change
Alice Mogwe, FIDH President
(Paris) 10 December 2019 – Popular uprisings are occurring in all regions of our world. Although seemingly disparate and unconnected, these movements are united in their rejection of an elitist socio-economic model which enables inequalities, corruption, discrimination, abuses of power and violations of human rights. In response, these movements call for building societies which are more resilient, inclusive, respectful, and equitable, so that communities and people may thrive. This ambitious vision strives to prevail in a world marred by racism, hate speech, bullying and the existential threat of climate change.
These popular uprisings are expressions born of lived experiences of exclusion. Generally not structured around an ideology or political party, they transcend existing political movements. They provide a voice for those who have felt silenced and excluded by systems of governance. We must pay tribute here to the courage of the women, men and others, both young and old, who have taken to the streets, in many cases, in countries where the right to demonstrate or the right to claim rights are contested and suppressed.
On 10 December, the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, we reaffirm its significance as a benchmark against which we measure our achievements and challenges in our civil, political, economic, social, cultural and developmental spheres.
The UDHR also provides the necessary guidance for the resolution of these crises, through the respect and protection of particularly, the right to demonstrate; the right to freedom of expression; the right to equal protection of the law; the right to life, liberty and security of the person; the right to education, health care, food, housing and social security; equality between women, men and others; the right to be free from all forms of discrimination; the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the right to due process and a fair trial; and the right not to be subjected to torture or to unlawful or arbitrary arrest or detention.
Human rights organisations around the world, are today, actively engaged in challenging this status quo by using the courts and functioning institutions of democracy; by denouncing violations of human rights; by increasing public awareness through the media; by using regional and international mechanisms – all aimed at seeking redress, enforcing decisions, and encouraging states to guarantee the protection of their citizens.
However, human rights defenders are increasingly targeted because of their work, through threats, smear campaigns, intimidation, harassment and enforced disappearances. In 2018, at least 318 human rights defenders were killed for defending rights. Reliable information has indicated that there have been reprisals against human rights defenders in for example, Turkey, where human rights and humanitarian organisations were shut down and human rights defenders arrested and imprisoned. In Honduras, as of early this year, more than 200 human rights defenders had been attacked.
In December 2018, on behalf of hundreds of human rights defenders who had met at the Human Rights Defenders’ World Summit in Paris in October 2018, I presented the Declaration of the World Summit of Human Rights Defenders to the United Nations General Assembly. Through it, we denounced how, around the world, those who defend the rights for all are intimidated, harassed, attacked, imprisoned or even killed. We called upon States "to recognise the essential role of human rights defenders, protect those at risk, and take concrete measures to foster a safe and enabling environment, including through adoptions of national action plans on the protection of human rights defenders".
Over the past year, as popular uprisings have multiplied, repression against defenders has only increased, particularly in cases where human rights defenders have demanded social, economic or environmental justice. Yet, these defenders are the agents of change in and for our societies. They are the observers, the whistleblowers and the stewards of our collective well-being.
However, due to the state capture of independent regional and international investigative mechanisms and judicial institutions, the ability of defenders to protect human rights is curtailed. Bodies such as the International Criminal Court, the UN Special Procedures and Treaty Bodies, and regional human rights mechanisms, risk being compromised due to their budgetary dependence on member States. They also risk becoming powerless when their recommendations are not respected and not implemented by member States, on the basis of their sovereignty.
Populism and nationalism are on the rise — used as a rallying cry by political leaders who have failed to respond to the needs of their societies, which are consequently driven by fundamental socio-economic inequalities.
On the anniversaries of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (10 December 1948), and of the International Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (9 December 1998), let us work together – both citizens' movements and civil society organisations — to consolidate the three essential pillars of a global human rights-based public order: the defence of universal human rights standards; the protection of defenders; and the strengthening of independent institutions which monitor the implementation of human rights. This three-pronged approach comprises the compass which directs and keeps us on course to achieving thriving societies in which the dignity of everyone is respected and upheld.
Botswana activist Alice Mogwe was elected president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in October 2019. Ms. Mogwe, a staunch human rights advocate and civil society leader, will lead the Federation for the next three years, ushering in its 100th anniversary in 2022.
In December 2018 Ms. Mogwe was the first civil society leader to address the United Nations General Assembly on behalf of over 250 human rights defenders from around the world. As founder and director of DITSHWANELO – the Botswana Centre for Human Rights – she has spearheaded efforts to advance human rights in Botswana and its Southern African neighbours.