Header image for news printout

International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) - General Assembly: “Safe Not Silent”

Malmö, Sweden, 2 May 2018

Statement by Birgit Van Hout Regional Representative for Europe UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR)

Tahir Elci was a prominent Kurdish lawyer in Diyarbakir, Turkey. He was calling for an end to violence between the Turkish state and the Kurdish rebel group. He said: “We do not want guns, clashes and operations here,” only moments before he was shot and killed.

Gukiya Ngbekusa was investigating illegal gold mining in the vast Okapi wildlife reserve of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo when she was savagely killed.

Ruth Alicia López Guisao was a community leader working with the indigenous people of Medio San Juan in Colombia for food security, health and education. She was shot and killed by paramilitary groups while visiting her family.

Xulhaz Mannan was the editor of an LGBTI magazine in Bangladesh. He was organizing the annual Rainbow Rally since 2014. He had been receiving death threats before attackers broke into his house and hacked him to death.

Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

What brings us here today is a very serious matter. It is the persecution of individuals for exercising a basic human right: the right to freedom of expression – a right that all States must guarantee under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This persecution is sad, and it is wrong.

These are challenging, tense and sometimes unsafe times for speaking one’s mind. In recent years, around the world, we have witnessed a growing trend to restrict public liberties and curtail civil society in the broadest sense of the term: journalists, activists, academics, and artists. Civil society actors are increasingly subjected to threats, intimidation and reprisals. If you are here today, you may even have experienced this in person.

In some countries, the tactics are straightforward and ruthless: women and men expressing their views are cornered by oppressive regimes and their flight is often a matter of life or death.

Sometimes, national security concerns lead to the adoption of laws and policies that intimidate and even silence human rights defenders. According to independent experts of the United Nations, in some countries overly broad definitions of terrorism have been misused to target civil society, human rights defenders, bloggers and activists.

Intimidation and reprisals manifest themselves in a variety of ways, but frequently the tactics deployed are of a subtle nature: they consist of bureaucratic obstacles, denials of permits and licenses, or a lack of access to public opinion in countries where the media is controlled by the State. An activity which depended on government support is suddenly “de-funded.” A person finds herself fired for no specific reason. Sometimes, circumstances are created for marginalization, or death by invisibility, as opportunities to showcase one’s work are systematically granted to others reading from a more convenient script. Or, excessive administrative and transparency requirements are introduced which make work practically impossible. In the ambit of legal harassment, foreign funding laws that penalize organizations for receiving funding from abroad occupy a privileged place. Cynically, this measure is frequently applied by governments who themselves receive significant amounts of foreign funding.

Special attention should be paid to the situation of women, who confront multiple challenges, including sometimes sexual and gender-based violence. Whatever the field to which they apply their talent, female artists and professionals continue to face discrimination in many countries, including sometimes by peers and colleagues. I have never liked the term ‘vulnerable group’ as a reference to women usually followed by ‘children and persons with disabilities.’ Women are not vulnerable per se. On the contrary, the female human rights defenders I have met are so strong that their leadership inspires and empowers everyone else.

The State must ensure the safety and protection of all human rights defenders. States must take threats and intimidation seriously. When crimes are committed, States must ensure prompt and impartial investigations.

Sadly, it is not only States who can violate the right to freedom of expression. One non-State actor that comes to mind are “GONGOs” or “governmental NGOs.” Increasingly, we are witnessing the emergence of an army of well-organized and well-funded “quasi-NGOs” whose sole purpose is to breed chaos, confusion and mistrust in the NGO sector and to impede genuine discussions about human rights in international fora.

Armed groups, the private sector, and extremists of all brands can also pose serious threats to freedom of expression. From cases of kidnapping over character assassination to unrelenting online troll attacks and bullying create a very hostile climate for self-expression and often lead to self-censorship which is a tragedy in itself.

In this context, I would like to say a few words about hate speech. Since freedom of expression is a fundamental right, any limitations to freedom of expression must be interpreted narrowly. Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulates that “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” This sentence should never be misused to curtail freedom of expression. Therefore, following two years of consultations and deliberations, a group of UN experts came up with several criteria that set a very high threshold for the criminalization of hate speech.

Below this threshold, it is our individual judgment that serves as arbitrator of what is acceptable and what is not. Regrettably, in today’s day and age, hate mongering, racist and sexist speech have become rather acceptable. Political correctness is no longer fashionable, and those who pay the price for the banalization of hate speech, including vile jokes and stereotyping, are often women and minorities.

We are also witnessing with concern the resurgence of cultural relativism theories in contemporary discourse, as if dignity is something only people living in the West would be entitled to. Having worked around the world, I have yet to meet the first victim of torture who claims that human rights should not apply to her or his culture. And for those who might still harbor doubts, I would like to add that, from a legal standpoint, by ratifying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all countries have made this set of moral values their own.

Some argue that human rights are no longer relevant or useful or that they are a constraint on effective governance or policy-making. We hear this a lot in the context of migration here in Europe. Isn’t it incongruent to advocate for the protection of civilians in war-torn countries and for decent wages in developing countries, but to close our eyes to aberrations like the administrative detention of migrant children or the use of force to take their fingerprints in the European Union? Both practices are prohibited under the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. Moreover, how can we call on governments around the world to uphold the International Convention on the Rights of the Child if we do not uphold it here in Europe, or if we apply a different standard for migrant children than we would for our own children?

A third school of thought relegates human rights to the past – “done with this, let’s move on to the next thing,” like climate change or combating terrorism, as if not all these phenomena were linked to human rights.

My experience has taught me that four things characterize a favorable human rights environment: robust human rights education for all as of a young age, political will, an independent judiciary and a vibrant civil society, including independent media. In the absence of any one of these, human rights treaties risk remaining a beautiful, but empty shell.

I would like to address myself to the artists and journalists in this room: you are gifted. As artists and writers your voices are respected and listened to by many. You have a talent and with talent comes responsibility. As artists living outside your countries of origin you are also cultural brokers. You are uniquely placed to illustrate, cherish and promote our common humanity. I call on you to build bridges between peoples and cultures.

I would be remiss if I did not seize this opportunity to pay tribute to the wonderful work of organizations like PEN International, Article 19, Reporters Without Borders, and the organizer of this assembly ICORN. We need more speech to counter hate speech and prejudice. Let us work together to tackle the hateful speech that pollutes our environment, both offline and online.

I would like to commend the dignitaries, cities and local authorities that shelter artists and human rights defenders at risk. States have an obligation to provide refuge to persons facing persecution, but not all do. Yours is true leadership. Often the leaders of the cities that offer a safe haven are the same who promote social cohesion, instead of polarizing or stacking communities against one another for electoral gain. Often these are also the same cities that are intentional about tackling poverty, inequality, exclusion and homelessness.

To the politicians and decision-makers in the room, I would like to say: people look to you for guidance. We need you to stand up for human rights. We also need you to spread the important message of the 1993 Vienna Conference on Human Rights, namely that civil and political rights on the one hand and economic, social and cultural rights on the other are indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. Fostering inclusion is the key to many of the ills that plague our societies.

As the Regional Representative for Europe of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, I encourage all public figures to take a public stance against the shrinking space for civil society in several European countries. Historically, the European Union has been a prominent ally of the human rights movement and a powerful voice for human rights on the international scene. This engagement for human rights in the world must be matched by an equal level of adherence and commitment to human rights inside the European Union.

In this respect, we look forward to the creation by the European Union of a Values Fund which would facilitate access for human rights organizations to EU funding – a mechanism that already exists for third countries. This will make human rights advocates less dependent on government funding and less vulnerable to the defunding threat.

Also, as the discussions on the EU budget (after 2020) are gathering pace, we call for EU funding to be better linked to respect for human rights and the rule of law – both outside and inside the Union. EU expenditure, regardless of its source, should be systematically monitored, assessed and evaluated for human rights compliance and impact. To be a credible advocate for human rights in other parts of the world, the EU and its member States must intensify efforts to reclaim the moral high ground at home.

Protecting and promoting and protecting human rights is not only the responsibility of authorities. It is up to each one of us, as individuals and as communities, to stand up for human rights. We all have the power to carry the torch of human rights. I would like to invite you to visit the Stand Up for Human Rights website of the UN Human Rights Office to check what you can do.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights envisages a world in which all persons enjoy freedom from fear and freedom from want. As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the adoption of this landmark document, I would like to challenge all of you, as creators, activists and policy-makers, to develop new and innovative approaches to promote human rights. For only if people know their rights, can they claim their rights, and can those who have the duty to respect, protect and fulfill human rights be held accountable. We need you all to reinforce the message of the continued relevance of human rights as a universal standard.

Together, we are a formidable force for progress worldwide. Thank you.