Joint Statement from the IACHR and the OHCHR to Mark the International Human Rights Defenders Day

December 9, 2022

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Washington, D.C. – On the International Human Rights Defenders Day, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Latin American branches of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) call on States in the region to step up their efforts to protect and acknowledge the work done by people who advocate human rights, whether individually or collectively, and their essential role to strengthen democracies and the rule of law.

While the right to defend human rights is recognized in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which was approved on December 9, 1998, both the IACHR and the OHCHR have noted an increase in stigmatizing discourse aimed at delegitimizing and/or silencing the defense of human rights in various countries in the Americas. It is particularly worrying that, in some cases, this discourse comes from States' highest authorities.

These kinds of attacks have found in the digital sphere an amplifier to disseminate a negative narrative on who human rights defenders are and what they do. In particular, these messages target people who are critical of the authorities, denounce corruption and impunity, advocate women's sexual and reproductive rights, defend the environment, or denounce the lack of access to independent justice, including journalists and State officials who publicize and investigate corruption cases.

The authorities' and broader society's failure to acknowledge the importance of the work done by human rights defenders has made both individual defenders and organizations more vulnerable. Regarding women, the IACHR and the OHCHR have stressed the differentiated risks and the disproportionate effects of this discourse, given gender-based discrimination. These risks and impact are heightened, depending on the rights and causes these women advocate, using their sexual orientation and gender identity, their ethnic background, and their location as negative aspects.

The IACHR and the OHCHR call on States to ensure that their authorities and public officials, from the highest level and in all branches of government, refrain from officially acting or speaking in ways that undermine the legitimacy of efforts to defend and promote human rights, as well as to refrain from getting involved in smear or stigmatization campaigns targeting defenders and their work. States have a responsibility to also watch that private companies do not issue or disseminate messages of this kind and to investigate and punish anyone who engages in this type of discourse, particularly when they are State officials. In this context, impunity enables recurrence.

States must also refrain from adopting and implementing legislation that hampers the operations of organizations for the defense of human rights, with excuses like protecting States' own sovereignty or fighting organized crime and terrorism. States have an obligation not only to establish an effective legal framework to protect work to defend human rights, but also to ensure genuine access to justice that makes it possible to investigate attacks and threats against defenders and to punish anyone responsible for them.

The IACHR and the OHCHR call on States to publicly and unequivocally recognize the fundamental role that human rights defenders play in safeguarding democracy and the rule of law within society and to ensure that this commitment extends to all levels of the State—local, state, provincial, and national—and all branches of government—the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary—starting with the highest authorities of the State. It is only through solid government support for the individual and/or collective work of human rights defenders that States will be able to gradually eradicate the unwarranted stigmatization of defenders and to ensure a safe environment for the defense of human rights.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights belongs to the United Nations Secretariat and its mandate is held in General Assembly Resolution 48/141 of 1993. The OHCHR, led by its High Commissioner, has the mission to promote and protect the human rights of all people all over the world.

No. 271/22

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