Challenges faced by human rights defenders and civil society – Remarks

Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI)


1 July 2021, 16:30-18:00 (Zoom)

Remarks by the EU Special Representative for Human Rights

Eamon Gilmore 


Good afternoon or good morning to all, wherever you are connecting from.

Dear moderator [Peggy Hicks, OHCHR], dear Assistant Secretary General [llze Brands Kehris], dear Chair of the Global Alliance [Ali Bin Samikh Al-Marri], dear UNDP Administrator [Achim Steiner], dear all.

I thank the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) for their invitation. I am glad to be here at this event presenting the new Global Action Plan on human rights defenders and civic space and exchanging on the current challenges civil society and civic activists face around the globe.

This is a timely initiative. We have witnessed increasing attacks against civil society as well as individuals who defend their rights or rights of others. Attacks exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic but also, for example, by the abuse of new technologies. Women human rights defenders, as identified also by Global Alliance members, are the most at-risk defenders. Therefore, gender-sensitive support strategies are not a mere example of good practice, they are vital.

I am happy that the Global Alliance has put this issue at the forefront of its efforts. Indeed, national human rights institutions and their staff are themselves defenders requiring protection from attacks, intimidation and reprisals. They do need protection and support. And they need independence. National human rights institutions are essential actors in promoting and protecting human rights worldwide and pushing back against the crackdown on human rights. They also have an important bridge building role between governments, civil society and private sector on the one hand, and between national, regional and international human rights mechanisms on the other.

The European Union has long supported civil society and human rights defenders as well as independent national human rights institutions and commissions, ombudspersons and equality bodies. Let me give you a snapshot of our efforts.

Seventeen years – in June 2004 – the EU adopted its Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders. These guidelines define our action and are a very concrete example of our long-lasting commitment to all those who defend human rights, often at a high personal cost. is our flagship mechanism providing flexible assistance to embattled activists worldwide, including a 24/7 hotline for defenders who face immediate risk. Since 2015, the mechanism has provided multifaceted support to over 46,000 human rights defenders at risk and their families. Around 11,000 defenders have been supported over the last 17 months.

The EU pays particular attention to the situation of human rights defenders in crisis situations, for instance in Belarus and Myanmar. For example, we have delivered, through, 25 emergency grants in the past several months to Belarusian defenders at risk, to facilitate their temporary and urgent relocation; physical and digital security; access to legal support; or family support, among other measures. In Myanmar, the EU delivered urgent support to over 30 human rights defenders since the military coup until end of May, mostly in the form of urgent temporary relocations.

The European Union has established Human Rights Dialogues or other formal bilateral consultations with more than 60 countries. I chair about a dozen of them. In all of these dialogues, we raise individual cases of human rights defenders – cases of brave people killed, imprisoned or harassed in their countries. Civil society organizations and individual defenders are consulted ahead of every Human Rights Dialogue and subsequently informed about its outcome.

Protecting and empowering individuals and supporting human rights defenders and civil society are priorities of the Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy that the EU adopted last year. This Action Plan will be guiding our human rights foreign policy until 2024. It also recognizes the role of independent national human rights institutions. As a force for human rights and as our partners with invaluable local insight.

In my capacity as EU Special Representative for Human Rights, I have reached out to a number of high-level interlocutor across the world to secure the release of detained defenders and prisoners of conscience particularly threatened by the spread of COVID-19. This outreach is ongoing.

I also regularly meet with human rights defenders and civil society organizations. I have great respect for their work and I am very conscious that it is impossible to build a world where human rights prevail without them. In February, for example, I participated in a roundtable with over 600 beneficiaries from 100 countries of the programme. Civil society and human rights defenders remain one of the priorities of my mandate.

In closing, I congratulate the Global Alliance for their work and for the resolve to step up its action in support of defenders and civil society space. I am looking forward to the discussion today and I am looking forward to our future exchange on the implementation of our respective roadmaps to support human rights defenders and civic space.

Thank you.