Human Rights Defenders and Democratization, paper presented to the
Fifth International Conference Of New Or Restored Democracies
10-12 September 2003
by Ms. Hina Jilani,
Special Representative, of the United Nations Secretary General, on Human Rights Defenders
The activities of ‘human rights defenders’ are essential to democratization processes. They help to safeguard democracy once it has been attained. They ensure that the fruits of democracy are shared by all. The active presence of defenders, free from retribution, is one indicator of the health of a State’s democratic process. United Nations Member States recognized the importance of defenders when, in 1999, the General Assembly adopted by consensus the Declaration on human rights defenders . Defenders are fundamental partners in democratization and the Declaration provides a framework for their action, defining their rights and responsibilities and giving guidance on how their role should be supported and protected.
1) Human rights defenders’ contribution to democratisation
Human rights defenders are defined by the Declaration on human rights as “people who individually or with others act to promote or protect human rights”. They are active in many different areas of endeavour, as individuals, through non-governmental organizations, but also as state or government officials, civil servants or within national human rights institutions such as the office of ombudsperson. They work on civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights and address issues as varied as the fight against impunity, anti-corruption, non-discrimination, and the environment. They work on behalf of individuals, whole national populations, minorities disadvantaged groups and others. They work in times of peace and of conflict.
The Special Representative refers to democracy and democratization not only in its sense of popular participation in the selection of a Government, but also in terms of additional characteristics including full participation, the separation of powers, the accountability of government officials, the rule of law, the availability of effective redress through an independent judiciary and a State system that acts within, and in protection of, universal human rights .
Through many of their activities, directly or indirectly, human rights defenders act as agents in support of democratization, contributing to achieve respect for standards recognized as benchmarks of a democratic society.
Good governance is a core component of healthy and sustainable democracy – a component to which defenders contribute in numerous ways. They strengthen the accountability of public officials by publishing information on their actions and the consequent results. They combat corruption and impunity for the abuse of public office. Defenders contribute a human rights perspective during the formulation of Government policy, and then monitor policy implementation and its impact on human rights. By publishing their analyses they help to hold Governments accountable to the electorate for their human rights record. While elections are normally only held at periodic intervals of several years, the consistent monitoring of defenders helps provide reassuring transparency in the day to day process of government.
Democracy is founded on the rule of law. Defenders contribute to the development of domestic legislation, assessing that it’s compatibility with international human rights standards. They investigate and report on human rights violations, and sometimes take cases to court, thereby helping to prevent impunity. They monitor judicial proceedings for respect of due process human rights. Where needed, they offer human rights training for lawyers, judges, the police force and others implicated in the judicial process. They monitor and support the independence of judges and lawyers.
Participation is also a key component of democratisation. Defenders support the participation of voters in national and local elections, providing education programmes on the voting process and monitoring the conduct of elections themselves. Outside of formal elections, defenders also support the development of public debate on issues of common concern. They ensure that the views of minorities, indigenous groups and marginalized populations are heard and represented in decision making processes. Defenders provide alternative and independent views, broadening the information available to the public and thereby strengthening the quality of public participation. Some defenders provide forums for the expression of public concerns, helping to organize information and present it at the right moment.
2) Defenders as an actual indicator and component of democratization
The presence of human rights defenders and the opportunities available to safely conduct their human rights work are an indicator of democratization. The Declaration on human rights defenders defines rights covering the freedom of expression, freedom of association, access to information and, primarily, the right to defend human rights. The Declaration defined the right to discuss new human rights ideas and to submit, to governmental bodies, criticism and proposals for improving their functioning as well as the right to make complaints about official policies and acts concerning human rights. The Declaration imposes obligations upon States including to adopt legislative, administrative and other steps as may be necessary to ensure the Declaration’s implementation. It also imposes certain obligations upon defenders themselves. The respect of these rights, and the resulting freedom for defenders to actively support human rights, are all evidence of positive developments in a democratization process. Conversely, the absence of these freedoms is an indication of an absence also of democracy. The absence of defenders themselves can only harm genuine efforts to assure successful democratization.
3) Defenders as fundamental partners in the democratization movement
The Special Representative considers defenders to be fundamental partners in a democratization process – partners who will provide a support to all those committed to attaining the fruits of democracy for all. She has defined the following recommendations.
Implementation of the Declaration on human rights defenders should be a required component of democratisation programmes, including an implementation timetable, a monitoring and a reporting process.
Consideration should be given by States to adopting the Declaration as domestic legislation or adopting legislation to implement the Declaration’s provisions.
Respect for the Declaration, including with reference to the situation of individual defenders, should be used as a criteria in assessing progress made in democratization.
Democratisation programmes (including during their development) should include an implementing role for human rights defenders from a range of different sectors.
The reports of human rights defenders on specific human rights concerns, and Government response to their conclusions, should be included in assessments of progress made in democratization.
As a part of democratization processes, opportunities and spaces should be created through which civil society can meaningfully contribute to the development and implementation of Government policy.
United Nations bodies (including at Headquarters or in the field) that focus on democratization may wish to give special consideration to the multiple links that can be made between their work in this domain, the United Nations reform process, the mainstreaming of human rights within the work of the Organization and the work and situation of defenders .
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