by the United Nations Human Rights Office and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
Uruguay, 25 October 2017
Excellencies, Colleagues and friends,
I am extremely glad to be here, with you - the men and women of the Inter-American Commission, who uphold the human rights of the people of the Americas, as well as the human rights defenders present.
I want to say, first, that I honour your work, and the remarkable tradition of human rights that has long been a part of the Americas. In a few weeks, when we launch a year-long commemoration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and celebrate its 70 years, we will also be commemorating the American Declaration of the Rights of Man, which preceeded the UDHR by eight months and in many ways paved its way. Many leaders of countries, and thinkers from across the Americas played essential roles in insisting on the existence and the clear and unequivocal language of the UDHR, and I believe the world's peoples can be grateful.
We are here to launch, together, a new and deeper programme of joint action on behalf of human rights defenders, and this is a topic of the utmost importance. In recent years, human rights defenders in this region have increasingly been targeted by attacks – by killings, above all. In 2016, three-quarters of the homicides of human rights defenders around the world took place in the Americas – a shocking statistic. Moreover, as the Inter-American Commission pointed out in February, 41% of those killed were men and women standing up against extractive or development projects, people were defending the right to land and natural resources of indigenous communities.
The widespread impunity for these crimes makes this tragic situation even more deplorable. These were ordinary men and women standing up to defend their rights – fighting illegal logging, mining projects, defending ancestral land.
Human rights defenders in the Americas region also facegthreats, smear campaigns, and misuse of judicial systems to coerce them into silence or to punish them with lengthy sentences. The IACHR has noted groundless allegations or complaints, extended criminal proceedings, "manipulation of criminal law" and the criminalisation of people who defend rights to the "environment or land; campesino,, indigenous, and Afro-descendent leaders; the defense of labor rights by union leaders; the defense of sexual and reproductive rights; and the defense of the rights of LGBT persons".
Hundreds of men and women have been subjected to arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention, ill-treatment and even torture. Many more run the risk of violent attacks by private individuals involved with business interests or powerful criminal gangs. In a growing number of cases, people have been subjected to reprisals because of their work with my Office, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and other international human rights mechanisms.
It has become absolutely essential to protect the voices, the work and even the lives of human rights defenders across the Americas.
Above all, this is the task of Governments. States have the duty to protect the democratic space, to ensure the safety of human rights defenders at particular risk, and to ensure the widest possible freedoms for civil society. And they are obligated to undertake swift, thorough, and impartial investigations to bring the perpetrators of these killings – and those who ordered them – to justice. These are commitments they made 70 years ago – commitments they wrote, and bound themselves to uphold. Why?
Because we need them. Our societies need activists for women’s rights, journalists, those who speak up for the rights of LGBTI people, for land rights, for racial and religious minorities and indigenous peoples. People who stand for the rights of workers, and people living in urban slums.
We need their voices for our survival. To solve our shared problems. To denounce what is unfair about society. We need their dissent to help invent. To guarantee a better democracy, and a better rule of law; to participate in making policy that is better formulated. We need them to uphold the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights which, all of them, building on each other, construct societies that are stronger and more peaceful, because they are more equal and more fair.
We need their voices because the rights of every individual are inalienable, and no government has a license to take those rights away.
And we need them because human rights defenders risk their lives and liberty to work for the rights of others. These are people who benefit all of society.
In recent years, my Office and the Inter-American Commission have been working more and more closely to try to protect human rights defenders. We regularly exchange information about specific cases, share analysis of legislation and other issues of concern, and frequently coordinate our advocacy and actions. We have jointly identified the protection of human rights defenders as one of the region’s most pressing problems, and one where our closer and more systematic action could have the greatest impact. By creating stronger connections between our staff in the field, our national and regional capacities, and international bodies such as the Treaty Body Committees and the Special Procedures, we can make our work more effective. The joint mechanism will be an important step forward.
This work is a priority for my Office. It saddens me greatly that in the Americas, where so much work has been done to uphold human rights, standing up for those rights has become so perilous. I am glad to be working together with the Inter-American Commission on this programme to ensure the rights of the human rights defenders who are the honour of their countries.
I take this opportunity to thank the represenatives of Government who are present here today, and to encourage them to take further measures to protect and promote the work of human rights defenders. I look forward to my meetings with the Government here in Uruguay, a country which despite many challenges has succeeded in sustaining broadly inclusive, democratic institutions and public services.