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FOCUS June 1999 Volume 16

Human Rights Defenders: Two Documents

The United Nations "Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups, and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms" is complemented by another declaration on the same issue. This document, entitled "Paris Declaration," was drafted during the Human Rights Defenders' Summit held in Paris on December 10, 1998 a day after the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution approving its declaration.

The two declarations are similar in many respects. But the NGO declaration states much more clearly the factors that restrict the effective promotion and protection of human rights.

While the UN declaration mainly restates rights that individuals, groups and other organs of society should enjoy in the promotion and protection of human rights, the NGO declaration enumerates the rights that have frequently been violated in the course of doing human rights work. The UN declaration in its preambular section states that it is

"[A]cknowledging the important role of international cooperation for, and the valuable work of individuals, groups and associations in contributing to the effective elimination of all violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms of peoples and individuals, including in relation to mass, flagrant or systematic violations such as those resulting from apartheid, all forms of discrimination, colonialism, foreign domination and occupation, aggression or threats to national sovereignty, national unity or territorial integrity and from the refusal to recognize the rights of peoples to self-determination and the right of every people to exercise full sovereignty over its wealth and natural resources."

The NGO declaration on the other hand states:

"We denounce in particular the fact that human rights defenders are a target of those whose regimes and practices they condemn; and that, because of their commitment, they are among the victims of summary executions, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention, violations of the right to a fair trial, freedom of opinion, expression, association, assembly, demonstration, movement, the right to privacy, the right to employment and employment rights, the right to housing, health, education and culture and that they are increasingly forced into exile or enforced displacement, or to live in inhuman or degrading conditions;

We condemn the proliferation of systematic measures and practices used by States to prevent or impede the legitimate work of human rights defenders, including censorship and seizure of publications, defamation, administrative and police harassment, intimidation, implication in criminal cases, their identification with 'terrorist' groups, restrictions imposed on the creation or registration of associations, the legal and administrative obstacles to the right of access to and dissemination of information, the surveillance and control of access to funding and the use made of such funds, the creation by the authorities of State-controlled non-governmental organizations, reliance on a state of emergency or public order requirements, impunity for the perpetrators of such acts against human rights defenders..."

This provides the difference in perspective of the two documents. The UN declaration looks at the general human rights context affecting states, groups, communities and individuals while the NGO declaration focuses on the acts or omissions of states in relation to the rights of human rights defenders.

The UN declaration fails to mention clearly the suffering being experienced by those who work for human rights within the jurisdiction of the states which approved the document.

While the UN declaration rightly states that "[E]veryone has the right, individually and in association with others, to solicit, receive and utilize resources for the express purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms through peaceful means, in accordance with article 3 of the present Declaration," the NGO declaration condemns the cases of government surveillance and control of access to, and use of, funds by human rights defenders.

The UN declaration therefore failed to properly emphasize the problems of human rights defenders, which affects to a large extent the protection, promotion and realization of human rights the world over. The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that the "disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind..." This is an obvious reference to the experience of the second world war. In the same fashion, the UN declaration could have stated in its preamble the repression suffered by human rights defenders, which certainly outrages the conscience of humankind.

On another issue, the UN declaration restates Article 29 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the following manner: Article 18

"1. Everyone has duties towards and within the community, in which alone the free and full development of his and her personality is possible.

2. Individuals, groups, institutions and non-governmental organizations have an important role to play and a responsibility in safeguarding democracy, promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms and contributing to the promotion and advancement of democratic societies, institutions and processes.

3. Individuals, groups, institutions and non-governmental organizations also have an important role and a responsibility in contributing, as appropriate, to the promotion of the right of everyone to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights can be fully realized."

The NGO declaration on the other hand states in articles 21-22 that:

"We reaffirm the fact that the realization of all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the responsibility of everyone, and we call upon private business, multinational companies and international financial institutions to ensure that their strategies and projects contribute to the implementation of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, and do not obstruct the freedom of action of human rights defenders;

*** *** ***

Finally, we urge men and women of all ages and all organs of society to engage in their daily lives in their communities to respect and promote all rights for all people everywhere, and to join us to make of the high aspirations proclaimed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a reality for present and future generations."

What is distinctly different in the two documents on the issue of duty to the community is the mention of institutions related to business and finance which have important role in ensuring a better environment for realizing all human rights. This particular point finds relevance to the current situation in Asia where the financial crisis still wreaks havoc to the lives of many people especially the poor.

Now more than ever, the impact of business on human rights is felt. The role of business institutions in the harassment of human rights defenders forms part of this problem. The NGO declaration is exhorting business and financial institutions to play a role in solving the problems rather than be a part of them.

There is a clearer statement of the current human rights situation around the world in the NGO declaration. It identifies institutions, groups and other entities in society whose activities affect human rights. It points out forms of repression, perpetrated by state machineries, suffered not only by human rights defenders but also by other people.

Some of the major provisions in support of the human rights defenders that can be drawn from the two documents are the following:

a. Working for human rights is a right and a responsibility;

b. The state has the primary obligation to protect people who do human rights work;

c. National and international mechanisms are needed to ensure protection of the rights of those who do human rights work.

Asia-Pacific has its own share of disappearances, torture, illegal arrest and detention, extra-judicial killing and other forms of human rights violations inflicted upon people who work for human rights. Many human rights defenders are still being subjected to human rights violations up to the present.

The 1993 Bangkok NGO Declaration on Human Rights asserts that since human rights defenders "voice the interests of the people and work for their advancement, it is imperative that they be permitted to work freely; their right to participate in community life and to enjoy the totality of human rights must be respected." The Asian Human Rights Charter on the other hand states that there is a "clear and legitimate role for NGOs in raising consciousness of rights, formulating standards, and ensuring their protection by governments and other groups. Professional groups such as lawyers and doctors have special responsibilities connected with the nature of their work to promote the enforcement of rights and prevent abuse of power. "

It is high time that governments in the region expressly recognize the legitimate role of human rights defenders in line with both the UN declaration and the Paris Declaration of the NGOs.


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