States’ Duty To Protect Human Rights Defenders

The work of human rights defenders is of crucial
importance. They play a central role in making state policies human rights compliant and
authorities accountable. They are also instrumental in defending victims of human rights violations
and ensuring their access to redress and remedy. They also help keep a spotlight on human rights
in the public discourse. For this reason I consider them as key partners for my work
as Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. Regrettably, In spite of international declarations
and clear standards protecting the work of human rights defenders, there remains a huge
gap between the principles and reality. I have observed a worrying retrogression in
the protection of human rights defenders and their ability to work in a growing number
of European countries. They face a variety of forms of reprisals,
including judicial harassment, prosecution, illegal deprivation of liberty, abusive checks
and surveillance, smear campaigns, threats and intimidation. Some have been physically attacked, subjected
to ill-treatment, abducted and even killed. Activists defending the rights of migrants,
LGBTI persons, or women, as well as human rights defenders working on sensitive issues,
such as accountability for serious human rights violations and environmental issues, have
been increasingly targeted by state and non-state actors. Restrictive legislation and harmful
political rhetoric is making the work of human rights NGOs increasingly difficult and unsafe. Democratic states cannot accept this situation.
Governments must value human rights defenders for their engagement and contributions towards
the peaceful and just functioning of society. State authorities should recognise that these
people are quite simply indispensable for the tangible improvement of everyone’s lives. I therefore call on all Council of Europe
Member states to recommit to the standards they agreed to and to ensure a political,
legal and cultural environment where human rights defenders can work freely and safely.

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