Women Human Rights Defenders

Fifth in a series for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence

I am always deeply inspired by each of the heroic women and men who have served as United Nations High Commissioners for Human Rights. The High Commissioner’s “To Do” list is horrific, dealing personally and skillfully with one brutal situation after another. (Many people confuse the High Commissioner with the Human Rights Council. They are quite distinct.)

Our newest High Commissioner is Michelle Bachelet – former President of Chile and the first director of UN Women. I first met Ms. Bachelet when she hosted “The World Women Want” at the Rio+20 Earth Summit in 2012 (my photo above). I found her to be immensely personable with everyone she encountered. She will need every ounce of that to make progress in our world!

Today, November 29, is International Women Human Rights Defenders Day. To mark this occasion, UN top experts issued this statement,  including in part: “The current global context of unchecked authoritarianism as well as the rise of populism, of corporate power and of fundamentalist groups are contributing towards closing the space for civil society. This is being done through the enactment of laws and practices that effectively impede human rights work…”

“In addition to the risks of threats, attacks and violence faced by all human rights defenders, women human rights defenders are exposed to specific risks such as sexual violence, defamation, intimidation, including against their family members, in order to deter them from continuing their valuable work. In 2017, Front Line Defenders recorded the killings of 44 women human rights defenders, an increase from 40 in 2016 and 30 in 2015.”

The group Front Line Defenders has been named winner of the 2018 United Nations Human Rights Prize. From regional offices around the world, it offers both long-term and emergency support for Human Rights Defenders.

In truth, though, each of us has the responsibility to defend human rights, and defend the defenders.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – which celebrates its 70th Anniversary on December 10th – puts this squarely in each of our courts. “Every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms.”

In his introduction to the 2015 printing of the UDHR, then-Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon wrote, “Let us ensure that those people who most need their rights protected (emphasis mine) are made aware that this Declaration exists — and that it exists for them. Let us each do our part to make these universal rights a living reality for every man, woman and child, everywhere.”

The victims of gender-based violence are clearly among those “who most need their rights protected” – in every community on earth. Indeed, it is at the community level where people must organize to demand and protect their rights. Our Movement for Community-led Development exists to develop the capacity of every community to succeed in this mission.