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Come clean about persecution of human rights defenders, UN expert tells governments

GENEVA (14 October 2021) – Governments around the world must stop jailing people for peacefully standing up for human rights, a practice that is widespread but too often denied, a UN expert said today.

"Around the globe, human rights defenders have been sentenced, or are at risk of being sentenced, to at least ten years in jail for peacefully advocating for the rights of others,” Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, told the General Assembly today. But States are in denial that they are targeting human rights defenders in this way, claiming instead that the defenders are criminals, and sometimes terrorists.”

From 1 January 2020 to 30 June 202, Mary Lawlor and her predecessor sent 28 official complaints to 22 Member States on the long-term detention of 148 human rights defenders. However, many more human rights defenders could be languishing in jails, their cases undocumented, she said.

Many are held in harsh conditions, suffer from ill health, and are deprived of adequate medical attention, Mary Lawlor said in presenting her latest reportStates in denial: the long-term detention of human rights defenders, which includes recommendations for ending imprisonment of human rights defenders. Some are also denied regular access to their families. Some are at risk of being sentenced to death, and some have died in jail while serving long sentences. 

“Unless States face the reality that defenders are being put in prison for long terms, and unless immediate action is taken to release those in detention, and to stop others being sentenced, more human rights defenders will be condemned to long years in prison,” Mary Lawlor said.

Among those jailed for their human rights work are labour leaders, lawyers and journalists, the report says. Others are targeted for peacefully advocating democratic reform, for exposing deficiencies in governance, or for peacefully defending human rights that States have pledged to safeguard. Some hav e even been jailed in reprisal for cooperating with UN bodies, she added.

Targeting human rights defenders with long jail terms destroys lives, families and communities,” said Mary Lawlor. “States should end this unjustifiable and indefensible practice immediately and forever.”

Ms. Mary Lawlor (Ireland) is the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. She is currently an Adjunct Professor of Business and Human Rights in Trinity College Dublin. She was the founder of Front Line Defenders - the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. As Executive Director from 2001-2016, she represented Front Line Defenders and had a key role in its development. Ms. Lawlor was previously Director of the Irish Office of Amnesty International from 1988 to 2000, after becoming a member of the Board of Directors 1975 and being elected its President from 1983 to 1987.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. 
For inquiries and media requests, please contact Orsolya Toth orsolya.toth@un.org  or write to OHCHR-defenders@un.org
 For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact: Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 22 917 7578 / jeremy.laurence@un.org).

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