On Tuesday, 14 March, Human Rights at Sea took part in the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) side event for the pre-launch of Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor's report to the Human Rights Council on human rights defenders.

Sponsored by the Norwegian and Irish Missions and held at the Restaurant Vieux-Bois outside the Palais des Nations, the event drew a significant attendance of diplomats, CSOs, NGOs and human rights defenders the day before the Special Rapporteur's presentation of the report to the Human Rights Council.

The report will demonstrate how the work of defenders is crucial in helping achieve more just and equitable societies. 

"Human rights defender" is a term used to describe people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights in a peaceful manner. 

Expert Panel

Alongside the Special Rapporteur and moderated by Imogen Foulkes, the BBC Correspondent in Geneva, the panel included H.E.Gustavo Gallon, Permanent Representative of Colombia to the United Nations Office at Geneva who outlined how the State collaborated with defenders to bring about human rights gains. 

The panel also included two leading defenders who spoke about the successes they had respectively achieved as well as ongoing challenges to be heard. They were Tara Houska, a US-based citizen of Couchiching First Nation, Environmental & Indigenous rights defender and Daniel Goinic, Human Rights Program Director at the Legal Resources Centre in Moldova.

Over 90 minutes, the ongoing risks to defender's rights, freedoms and health were discussed as we celebrate 25 years of the recognition of the right to be a human rights defender and 75 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The success of the role of defenders was in providing a defence for all person's fundamental rights as a force for good that itself is protected, professionally engaged with and who, in turn, provide demonstrable value for society in calling out abuse. 

'In solidarity and hope'

With the report's slogan of 'In solidarity and hope', the Special Rapporteur stated that human rights and associated measures to support defenders must be backed by the consistent political will to do so.

Public recognition, protective laws and policies are needed, not a deliberately selective approach of who can and will be heard and who will be ignored and isolated.

She specifically noted that she, herself, was "Sold on human rights defenders."

It was, nonetheless, identified that many States were failing in their obligations to protect defenders, with some governments actively smearing individuals and organisations. 

This approach also includes the complicity of corporates and membership entities in attacking and actively undermining the work of independent defenders.

Meanwhile, ongoing repression, interference and active targeting were seen as a measure of success in achieving positive change in drawing attention to systemic abuses. But success takes time, and NGOs require time to build allies, assure funding sources and expand robust networks that are able to survive such attacks.

Without Fear or Favour

Attending for HRAS, CEO David Hammond had the privilege of speaking with the Special Rapporteur to outline the work of our NGO and our own challenges, including the direct and indirect pressures and interferences applied not to expose abuse within the maritime sector. 

David noted, "In many civil society leadership teams, there is an underlying fear of speaking out led by a fear of interference of overbearing and often conflicted Board members, of the jeopardising of core funding sources, or of just being seen to rock the boat in the sector. 

"That is precisely what human rights defenders cannot and must not allow to occur or be concerned about; otherwise, organisations risk becoming paralysed by others interfering in their mission. It is up to us to call out those conflicts and refine our delivery models to speak truth to power.

He added, "Often quiet diplomacy requires a door kick or two throughout the process. If that makes you nervous, you are in the wrong job as an effective defender of fundamental human rights. Today's event and those preceding during the 52nd Session have reinforced our approach on this issue."

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Photo credit: International Service for Human Rights

Ms Mary Lawlor Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders with HRAS CEO, David Hammond