Seminar on Human Rights Defenders and Peaceful Protest

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  • I would like to extend a very warm welcome to all of you who have come here to find ways of developing a more systematic approach to the protection of human rights defenders in the context of peaceful protest. 

 

  • This seminar is organized in close cooperation with the Swiss government and the International Service on Human Rights.

 

  • I would also like to thank Fritt Ord for hosting the event here in peaceful Oslo. A contrast to the film we just saw. Makes everybody reflect.

 

 

(The situation for human right defenders today)

 

  • “Something is happening in our world today. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee, the cry is always the same: “We want to be free."

 

  • These words spoken by Martin Luther King in April 1968 jr. are as relevant today as they were then.

 

  • This morning we talked to major general Robert Mood (Chief Military Observer and Head of Mission of the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria) on the phone.

 

  • The peace process in Syria sided by repression. The ones who took to the streets in the beginning are not the same who dominate the scene today – in a country threatened by civil war.   

 

  • Recent and ongoing events in the Middle East and North Africa as well as other parts of the world demonstrate the power of individual voices together. And they highlight the timeliness and importance of this seminar.

 

  • Protecting Human Rights defenders is a cornerstone in the Norwegian foreign policy.   

 

  • Regardless where they are born or what religion they practise, people take to the streets to demand the same things: dignity, freedom and human rights.

 

  • In many countries people have taken to the streets because they are excluded. Excluded from established areas of influence, from corporate power, from the media, from the electoral system or simply from the opportunity to work and earn their own living.

 

  • In far too many cases peaceful protesters and human rights defenders have been met with brutal repression. New laws have been implemented that brand peaceful protesters as terrorists. Journalists have been targeted. We are witnessing increasing obstacles to freedom of expression and seeing violent repression of peaceful dissent. New and restrictive laws are being justified by the authorities in the name of security.

 

  • Democracy is on the offense worldwide. But on the ground we often see another reality.

 

  • This critical situation compels us to search for new ways to protect these brave individuals and the vital role they play.

 

I would like to highlight three main points:

 

1) Human rights defenders play an invaluable role in peaceful protest.  

 

  • Either by leading civil society mobilisation and demanding justice, or by documenting and reporting on abuses and repression. The human rights defenders determine how fast human rights abuses can be reported.

 

  • Women and men who work tirelessly to uphold fundamental rights and convey messages from the people of their country. Despite censorship, death threats and imprisonment. They need our support.  

 

  • When I visited Egypt: A clear message that the international community needs to stand by and support human rights defenders and that we need to give them visibility and speak out against violence against them. In the “Arab spring, summer or fall or whatever you may call it” – they still ask for it.  

 

2) We need peaceful protest in all countries.

 

  • Some would perhaps argue that a perfect society would be a society where there was no need for peaceful protest. But even in well functioning democratic societies like in our country (Norway) where local and national elections take place on a regular basis, peaceful protests serve as a very important correction and a tool to highlight situations where human rights are violated or at risk.

 

  • Example: Norway. Alta in the 1980s. Increased awareness of indigenous rights, the right to rivers versus the development of electricity. The Sami protests paved the way for the establishment of the Sami parliament – the Sametinget.

 

  • Peaceful protests around the world impact Norwegian foreign policy. We are obliged to impress upon states to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters. And we are obliged to react when human rights defenders are denied their right to freedom of expression and assembly.

 

  • There seems to be a link between new anti-NGO legislation around the world. Looks like copied to new countries to avoid disrespect etc.     

  

3) The importance of social media and new information technology that has turned up-side down so much.

 

  • But it is a two-way street. The global protest movement has demonstrated the essential role played by the internet and social media in disseminating information and facilitating mass mobilisation.

 

  • The demonstrators have had a head start, but we see that governments are quickly catching up. They use the same tools to monitor protests and to identify and target critical voices.

 

  • Egypt. Liberalization and mobilization. But governments can strike back.  

 

***

 

  • Finally, I would like to pay tribute to all the organisations and individuals dedicated to this cause who are here today. We rely on your analyses and first-hand information.

 

  • We are dependent on your input and cooperation to improve our response. We know many of you – but not everybody.

 

  • Ahead of you, you have three intense days of work where you will share experiences, ideas and best practices.

 

  • As a concrete contribution to bringing the issue forward I am very pleased that the UN Special Rapporteurs of Human Rights Defenders, of Freedom of Expression and of Freedom of Assembly and Association, together with the regional mechanisms are preparing to issue a joint concluding statement.

 

  • I am hopeful that this "Oslo Statement” on Defending human rights in the context of peaceful protests that can be referred to when people go home.

 

  • Thank you.

 

 

*****

 

 

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