Strong civil society can push back against 'major attack' on human rights, says senior UN rights official

19 October 2017

A senior United Nations human rights official has praised civil society for its role in standing up to the “backlash” against human rights.

Speaking at a conference in Ireland, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, said that following a period of “enormous progress” on human rights issues, leaders and other influential people are lashing out due to intolerance and their own insecurities.

'We are seeing a backlash, or the pendulum swinging in the other direction, with many influential people questioning, and trends going against the values of human rights, freedoms and tolerance” Mr. Gilmour told the 2017 Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders, hosted by Front Line Defenders.

He stressed that what is needed to push back against this backlash – whose many forms range from intimidation, to murder, rape, cutting off budgets or bans against non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – is a strong civil society “in the form of courageous NGOs and human rights defenders.”

Mr. Gilmour praised such human rights defenders for playing “a fundamental role in consistently standing up for human rights, tolerance and justice. You open space for debate, and help shape opinion. You are key in driving local decision-making processes for reform.”

Praising civil society actors for being at the frontline of progress delivered in the past few decades, he offered the support of the UN, particularly that of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Prioritized support for civil society includes legal advice, sharing lessons learned, and supporting legal frameworks and access to justice.

Last October, Secretary-General António Guterres asked Mr. Gilmour to lead efforts to strengthen UN-wide action for prevention of, protection against, investigation into and accountability for reprisals.

Referring to the response he has received since, Mr. Gilmour said many Governments were “very supportive” but cautioned also that more support is needed, particularly more information about what is happened and where.

Recounting a phrase from his speech to the UN Human Rights Council last month, Mr. Gilmour said human rights defenders should be seen “as the canary in the coalmine, bravely singing until they are silenced by this toxic backlash against people, rights and dignity – as a dark warning to us all.”


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