Mervat Rishmawi - Human Rights Consultant: Research, Training and Policy Analysis
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Human Rights Defenders: paying the price of bearing witness

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Human Rights Defenders: paying the price of bearing witness

The Human Rights Council of the UN is convening now. One of the main issues that is being pushed forward by a number of prominent NGOs and some states is the need for a serious discussion on protection of human rights defenders who cooperate with UN mechanisms. This is not a new issue! and despite repeated alarm by various UN expert bodies in the past, it continues to pop up in new forms.

 In the last session of the Council, and after the Universal Periodic Review of Bahrain, the Chairperson of the Council raised concern over reports of intimidation and smear campaigns against human rights defenders who participated in the review. Her statement resulted in a strong reactions by various Arab states claiming that the Council does not have procedures to discuss this issue within the periodic review. 

The fact that this has to be even discussed and that there is some resistance to such discussion is alarming in itself. What is then the meaning of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and the EU Guidelines on the same subject? Regional and international courts and tribunals have always stressed the need to protect victims and witnesses, including human rights defenders themselves, and they have elaborated rules and procedures for that. 

As was stated in the discussion of the Human Rights Council, human rights defenders often have to tell the unwanted truth. This is the mere nature of our role. If we are not able to do it freely, then how can a proper discussion on human rights promotion and protection take place. It is because of courageous defenders that the world today is able to witness and find ways to act on the situation in Syria. But this is not the only role of defenders: defenders and their organisations are carrying out services and roles which often should be carried out ye states but often they fail to do so (for example rehabilitation victims of torture; human rights education and awareness programs; etc). It seems that often this role is forgotten, when a state is not comfortable with eyes open to watch and report violations. It is therefore not surprising that such campaigns are also accompanied by campaigns of repression of freedom of expression. 

The commitment to human rights in reality and action, not in words, can be shown in one simple way: protection of human rights defenders. This means that agents of the state must seize to harass and intimidate defenders, and at the same time protect them from harassment by others. 

This must not even be a subject to debate. It must be done immediately.

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