“There is a global campaign of defamation and criminalization of human rights defenders”

The United Nations celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Considered as “human rights defenders”, women and men make them live on a daily basis: journalists, whistleblowers, bloggers, trade unionists, members of NGOs, judges, activists… They are now the target of a “real offensive” at the global level, according to UN Special Rapporteur Michel Forst. Not only within dictatorships, but also from some European, South American and multinational governments. Maintenance.

In photo: Tribute to the Brazilian feminist activist Marielle Franco, elected as a left-wing municipal representative in Rio, murdered on March 14, 2018 with her driver by armed men in Rio, with bullets from a batch of cartridges from the Federal Police / CC Midia Ninja.

Basta! Could you remind us of the rationale behind the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders – adopted in 1998 – and why your mandate as a “Special Rapporteur” was created two years later?

Michel Forst[1] : The rights enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights are proclaimed rights. They must then be made to live effectively. This is what human rights defenders do on the ground, whether they are defenders of the environment, individual rights and freedoms, or defenders of economic, social and cultural rights… Since the 1980s, a group of diplomats, NGOs and States, led by Norway, have sought to adopt a definition – via a declaration of the United Nations General Assembly – to protect these persons


In 1998, their work resulted in what is known as the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Two years later, these same countries wanted to create an instrument that was more binding than the text alone. A Special Rapporteur has been appointed by the Commission on Human Rights. Its mandate, on behalf of the United Nations, allows it to travel to countries to observe the situation, publish reports and intervene with governments on individual cases. The rapporteur can communicate publicly on certain important situations, but also trigger the implementation of protection measures for threatened defenders.

What kind of people is this about? Who are human rights defenders?

States have adopted a very broad, broad definition of what it means to be a human rights defender. Article 1 of the Declaration refers to any individual, group or organ of society – such as an NGO, trade union, association or social movements, in the broad sense. But an individual does not have to be a member of an organization to be recognized as an advocate. The definition also includes national institutions. In practice, I receive requests to intervene concerning journalists, whistleblowers, bloggers, trade unionists, members of NGOs, judges, activists – such as people who help migrants in France, Italy or other countries. All these people are considered by the United Nations as defenders, and therefore benefit from international protection.

However, at present this definition – which was initially adopted by consensus among all States – is being strongly attacked by a group of countries, about fifteen of which are led by Russia, among them Venezuela, Nicaragua, Burundi, Hungary, and others. They are trying to obtain a much narrower definition of defenders, including only officially registered and state-recognized organizations. The underlying idea, of course, is not to give this authorization to everyone, and certainly not to the most critical…

For the first time, last March, when I was presenting my report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Russia – which is not even a member of the Council – called for the abolition of my mandate. If the battle were won – but to date, I do not think it will be – it would be a serious blow to the mandate and protection of NGOs, and human rights defenders around the world.

But does this restrictive vision have a chance of winning?

At this stage, these States are fighting this fight for the principle. But there is still a large majority of governments that support the idea that the mandate of the Special Rapporteur should remain as it is, and that the broadest possible definition of human rights defenders is also the most appropriate one under international law.

What is your assessment, since the beginning of your mandate in 2014, of the situation of human rights defenders around the world? These are, you say, increasingly targeted….


Yes, the results are worrying, at least in the short term. There is an increase in the number of political killings of human rights defenders. It is estimated that about 3500 of them have been killed since 2000, including more than 1100 over the last three years, between 2015 and 2017. There is a very significant increase in the number of murders, particularly of environmental rights defenders, in countries such as Colombia, Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. As well as in some countries in Asia, but Central and Latin America are the most affected by the phenomenon. In these countries, the overall homicide rate is decreasing, yet the homicide rate of defenders is increasing.

There is a worldwide campaign of defamation and criminalization against defenders, including in some European countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland, but also to a lesser extent in Austria, Germany, France and Italy. Defenders are presented as impediments to going in circles, allies from abroad… This is a trend that concerns almost all countries, and which reveals the existence of a real, albeit uncoordinated, offensive against those women and men who are simply trying to bring to life the rights stemming from the Universal Declaration. As we have just celebrated our 70th anniversary, attacks against defenders are getting stronger and stronger.

You mention France: what is your assessment of the situation in France?

In France, the most worrying point concerns the situation of migrant rights defenders. In Ventimiglia, Calais, in the Alpes-Maritimes with the case of Cédric Herrou, and all the people who help migrants. In this case, it is mainly individuals, as individuals, who claim to be able to take independent, disinterested action to support migrants. But the authorities consider their action to be contrary to public order, or at least to their public order. For the rest, the general framework is rather satisfactory, at least on the specific issue of human rights defenders.

How do you explain this more general deterioration of the situation?

I don’t necessarily have a general explanation. Stigma campaigns are being conducted around the world. There is a rise in extremism in Europe, the coming to power of people like Trump in the United States, like Bolsonaro in Brazil… New leaders are emerging, who do not hesitate to attack the protectors of fundamental freedoms. Another particular feature of the context is the fight against terrorism, often invoked by States to directly or indirectly attack anyone who challenges public order, or the need for surveillance, which is increasingly expressed openly.

We see defenders being tapped, arrested preventively, ill-treated more or less seriously depending on the country. And this criminalization, which consists in attacking defenders by invoking the law, is indeed a phenomenon closely linked to the fight against terrorism. I was also struck by the number of reprisals against defenders who try to address me or the United Nations, and who in return are arrested, as in Egypt, the Philippines, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Burundi… These are all countries that are being singled out by the United Nations.

Finally, in addition to the repression carried out by States, new actors are emerging that are very dangerous for defenders. They probably have always been, in fact, but they may not have been sufficiently noted in the past. These include international firms. In particular the extractive industry, the agri-food industry or major dam projects. These companies sometimes attack indigenous populations or simple peasants, often with the complicity of the State and the support of private or public security forces. This involves threatening or even killing environmental activists or indigenous populations.

Would you say that you are isolated from this evolution? Or does it provoke reactions, and can you count on some allies?


Over the past two decades, a number of allies have emerged, including States that have created new mechanisms for the protection of defenders. The most advanced is the European Union, which now has a whole policy geared towards defenders, with a large budget that has enabled the creation of specialised NGOs. Europe also finances protection mechanisms in the field. For example, if a defender is in danger of death in Burundi, the EU can, within two hours, remove him or her from the country and take him or her to safety in Nairobi (Kenya’s capital) or Kampala (Uganda). This is a budget that makes it possible, as a matter of urgency, to relocate defenders in danger. Then, protection mechanisms were developed at the national level, sometimes with very heavy devices for the most dangerous countries. For example, Mexico, Colombia and Honduras have a national protection mechanism involving armoured cars, bullet-proof vests and bodyguards. All this costs these countries a fortune.

There are also many NGOs on the ground who work alongside defenders, who live with them and protect them. For example, the International Peace Brigades, which are people – often French, English or American – who go to live with the most threatened defenders, remain at their side…. The idea is that we will not dare attack a defender if he is physically accompanied by a Westerner, because we fear possible diplomatic problems with these countries. It works quite well. There is also a network that has been developed with the help of the EU and the United States, the “safe cities” network, in which entire families are sometimes relocated, for example with the schooling of children. Real support has therefore been established at the international level, particularly from a few States.

Which countries in particular provide the funding for these programmes? Who is playing the game on this point?

On the one hand, there is the European Union, with a budget of around 500 million euros over three years, and a group of states led by the United States, with Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, etc. Then individual states, such as Ireland, Finland and Canada, which devote quite substantial funds to supporting defenders. Ambassadors from these countries can also intervene in the field, by observing trials, or by displaying their support for certain defenders in the field. There is a whole network that is really supportive, and that also funds part of my activities.

The discourse that consists in saying, “In any case, today, no one respects human rights and their defenders”, is therefore to be taken with caution? Some states still play the game….

Yes, but the question for these countries is one of coherence. In other words, they must be as consistent internally as they can be externally. A country like France, for example, beyond the question of defenders alone, certainly has progress to make in other areas. But I find it interesting to see these countries not hesitate to speak publicly. Recently, on the Khashoggi case, Canada did not hesitate to speak out publicly in a strong enough way[2]. These practices play an interesting role in raising awareness of a State’s dissatisfaction when defenders are attacked.

Doesn’t coherence also sometimes lack on the external level? France has been more discreet towards Riyadh regarding the Khashoggi case or the imprisoned activists, just as it is towards the terrible repression of activists in Egypt….

That’s right. That’s right. There are diplomatic considerations involved, and we know that this diplomacy often gives a lot of importance to economic interests. In any case, that is what is happening with France. And of course, the states with which a country has strong economic relations are states that are probably less targeted by diplomacy than others. It is indeed all the easier to speak when you have no diplomatic relations with a given country, and when markets are not likely to escape you.

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