GENEVA (5 March 2012) – United Nations Special Rapporteur Margaret Sekaggya said today the ‘Arab Spring’ helped focus international attention on the extraordinary risks rights defenders face while promoting and protecting human rights in all regions of the world. She also expressed deep concern that State actors, including Government officials, State security forces and the judiciary, are reportedly the perpetrators of many of the violations committed against these defenders.

“Journalists, environmental, student and youth rights defenders and those working on land issues are in significant need of protection,” Ms. Sekaggya said at the UN Human Rights Council during the presentation of her report* on the situation of rights defenders who are at high risk due to their work. “Most of these risks directly affect their physical integrity and that of their family members, but also involve the abusive use of legal frameworks against them and the criminalization of their work.”

The UN independent expert noted that recent world events have shown that journalists and media workers reporting on human rights issues are particularly vulnerable. “Their work is of extreme importance in holding Governments accountable. However, those same Governments often crack down on them, including through threats, harassment, arrests, detentions, and in the worst of cases killings,” she said.

The ‘Arab Spring’ has also shed light on the situation of defenders of youth and student rights. “History shows us that youth and students have played a key role in the promotion of human rights and in placing new ideas on the human rights agenda. However, members of youth and student movements are in many cases seen as trouble-makers rather than serious actors who can fruitfully contribute to public debate,” Ms. Sekaggya said. “Their voices deserve to be heard, and they should not be threatened as a result of their engagement.”

“There is a delicate balance between economic development and respect for the human rights of local communities,” noted the Special Rapporteur, giving special attention to defenders working on land and environmental issues, such as the impact of extractive industries. “Their work is crucial in this context but unfortunately it comes with many risks.” In her report, the expert notes that both State and non-State actors are involved in violations against this group of defenders, and underlines the disturbing number of killings and physical attacks reported to her.

“Human rights defenders have the right to protection, and it is the State’s responsibility to ensure this protection, so that defenders can carry out their important and legitimate work in an enabling environment,” she underscored.

Margaret Sekaggya, a lawyer from Uganda, was appointed Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders in March 2008 by the UN Human Rights Council. She is independent from any Government and serves in her individual capacity. Learn more about the mandate and work of the Special Rapporteur:

http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/SRHRDefenders/Pages/SRHRDefendersIndex.aspx

(*) Check the full report: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session19/A-HRC-19-55_en.pdf

Check the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights:

http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/freedom.htm

For media requests please contact: Mr. Kim Smeby (Tel: +41 22 917 9172 / email: ksmeby@ohchr.org) or write to defenders@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:

Xabier Celaya, OHCHR Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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