“I have been looking forward to this meeting. It is a great pleasure to embark on what I hope will be close working relationships with people and organisations that are so important to the work of our Office.
As our partners, our allies and constructive and insightful critics, many of you may be more aware of the work that has been done by the Office than I am, after just a few days in this post. I know I will need your help and advice, and I thank you for the many useful letters which I have already received.
Because all of us know, 70 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we are facing very tough times for human rights. The broadest possible democratic and civic space is indispensable to address all contemporary challenges of every society – be it climate change, new forms of conflict, digital challenges or deepening inequalities in economic, social and political spheres. Civil society plays a crucial role in advancing all human rights, defending diversity, developing better and more effective policies and ensuring State accountability. But the civil society space is not just being eroded: in many countries it is being shut down.
New technologies are being misused to erect digital walls and surveillance. Restrictions on the registration, funding and work you do are growing tighter: in many cases, legitimate activism and criticism is being criminalised, as treason or terrorism. Activists are insufficiently protected by their governments; many are the object of smear campaigns, threats or violence – even murder. I am conscious that many women human rights defenders are at heightened risk, particularly those who struggle for sexual and reproductive rights, and women’s equality more generally – topics that I believe to be absolutely vital.
In addition, acts of reprisals and intimidation are on the rise in many countries against victims of violations and human rights defenders who cooperate with us, or who engage with the UN, its mechanisms and representatives in the field of human rights.
One of the challenges that many of you, many human rights defenders across the world, raise with us is lack of recognition of your work– and even worse, public stigmatization of what you do.
We need to build public support. We need to draw the public’s attention to the relevance of your work and the need to resist measures and pressures that shut down the civil society space.
And I believe we will need to work together – that both my Office, and your organisations, need to support each others’ participation and contributions.
“Whether you’re working on indigenous issues, women’s issues, climate, cyberspace, discrimination, land rights, workers’ rights, migrants or the rights of people deprived of their liberty, the fundamental freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are vital to each of you.”
I am mindful of the very high cost which many activists pay for their efforts. To call them heroes is not too strong a word. We need to make their struggle worth the effort and the price they pay. Building societies that are fair and inclusive – based on respect for every individual’s freedoms and rights – is the only path to genuine development and peace. And change will come: I truly believe this. In the darkest days of dictatorship, in Chile, it took profound courage to work for human rights, and cost much pain. But that struggle succeeded.
We can resist: your work proves this. And you will succeed. The role of my Office is to support you. To speak out when you cannot; to amplify your voices; to build your capacity; and to monitor and document violations and abuses.
The Office can also play a role in anchoring your priorities within the work of all UN bodies. With civil society at the table, our efforts on development, and on peace and security, are far more likely to be effective and sustainable. From the UN Country Teams to intergovernmental organisations at the highest level, we need to broaden the space for civil society actors to raise their voices much more consistently and powerfully – not as an act of charity to you, but because your contributions will expand the impact of all the UN’s work.
I place great importance on partnership between us– guided always by the international laws and treaties which lay down the commitments made by States, and by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which lays down the measures which can lead societies away from destruction.
It is vital that all of us work to uphold the rights of civil society actors and human rights defenders to raise their voices and stand up for rights in every society across the world. Impartial rule of law, and respect for the fundamental freedoms which are the pillars of civil society space – the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and the principle of public participation in decisions – are the essential basis of healthy societies.
These are the goals which guide me: preventing human rights violations, and protecting and promoting rights, through impartial monitoring; carefully targeted assistance; and advocacy.
We face vast challenges. But it is those who stand up to defend the dignity of those left behind, and who hold the perpetrators of injustice to account, who bring the Universal Declaration to life. As I embark on this journey as High Commissioner, I hope you will offer me your advice. I am confident you will bring your support to our work. I look forward to extending our partnerships. And now I would like to hear your voices.
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