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Address at 7th Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders

Keynote Address by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Eamon Gilmore T.D. to Front Line Defenders' 7th Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders, Dublin Castle, 9 October 2013

Your Excellencies, distinguished human rights defenders, Mr. Chairman, Ms. Mary Lawlor, Mr. Maina Kiai, ladies and gentlemen.

I am delighted to have the honour of addressing you today on the occasion of Front Line Defenders’ Seventh Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders.

I look across this room this morning, and see you, the Human Rights Defenders, men and women, sitting shoulder to shoulder in common solidarity, and sharing a special bond of courage. You have been brought here together in your common struggle to promote and protect human rights; united by your work for a better world.   

Over the next couple of days I know that you will find immense comfort in this fellowship of peers, who will share both your energy and wisdom; your hardships and your victories.

I am very mindful that the places from where you have travelled, and those to which you will return, often do not provide such a supportive environment. I am aware that some of you, your families, your loved ones and those associated with you, face loss of employment, denigration, harassment, stigmatisation, physical violence, arrest, torture and even the threat of death on a daily basis.  I am reminded today speaking to you in the beautiful surroundings of Dublin Castle, that each of you has often worked alone, for long hours, in environments of hostility, fear and isolation in order to protect the human rights of others.  Outside this room and beyond our shores, others like you do the same.  To those present and absent: for your unseen and tireless work; for your refusal to give up; for having hope stronger than fear; we thank you.

The work of Front Line must also be commended. Since its inception in 2001, as well as advocating on behalf of Human Rights Defenders at risk and providing rest and respite through the Front Line Fellowship, the organisation has provided a total of €3,752,290 comprising 1488 security grants, helping as many as 2865 human rights defenders in 107 countries across the globe. When a Front Line grant is provided to protect and secure the life of even one human rights defender like you, it empowers a thousand others.

I would like to pay tribute to the work of Front Line and in particular to the Executive Director, Mary Lawlor. Mary’s express commitment that the organisation be “fast, flexible and furious” in its determination to protect human rights defenders is consistently met, and indeed, often exceeded. Her courage and commitment to this cause are exemplary, and I thank her and her colleagues most sincerely for this work.

The promotion and protection of human rights is a local, national and international imperative

No country can claim a perfect record when it comes to human rights within its own borders.  A fundamentally important element in respect of Ireland’s commitment to human rights is that we have issued a standing invitation to all UN Special Procedures. We welcome visits from all UN Special Rapporteurs and support their engagement with Irish civil society as a matter of principle.  I was delighted to welcome Ms. Margaret Sekaggya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, to Ireland in November 2012 when she met with a number of governmental and non-governmental representatives, including President Higgins, Mr. Alan Shatter, Minister for Justice and Equality, representatives of my Department (the Department of Foreign Affairs) Human Rights Unit and Irish Aid, as well as representatives from 12 national civil society organisations.

Ireland thanked the Special Rapporteur for her report and welcomed her conclusion that human rights defenders in Ireland work in a conducive and enabling environment. We look forward to continued engagement and cooperation with all Special Procedures at the UN.

Ladies and Gentlemen;

The space for civil society has been shrinking in many parts of the world, as a result of legal, administrative and other restrictive measures and practices. 

Ireland places immense value on the work of civil society in the promotion and protection of human rights and we recognize and applaud the enormous contribution which human rights defenders can make in this regard. I am very proud that just last month, at the 24th session of the UN Human Rights Council, Ireland took the lead in presenting and negotiating a resolution entitled “Civil society space: Creating and maintaining, in law and in practice, a safe and enabling environment” along with Chile, Japan, Sierra Leone and Tunisia. 

The resolution, which was adopted without a vote by the Human Rights Council, examines the issue of civil society space as a human rights concern.  As we know, the work of civil society goes far beyond the promotion and protection of human rights, embracing countless actors and activities which fulfil the purposes and principles of the United Nations. This is the first time that this issue has been addressed directly by the Council and the resolution provides for a formal debate in the Council in the form of a panel discussion. 

The panel will be convened at the March 2014 session of the Human Rights Council, to consider challenges facing States in their efforts to ensure space for civil society and lessons learnt and good practices in this regard.  We hope and expect that this will provide an unprecedented opportunity to examine this issue and strengthen and protect the environment in which civil society operates.

We need and value the independent voice of Human Rights Defenders at United Nations bodies. Ireland therefore robustly condemns the recent worrying trend of reprisals against HRDs.  Ireland was proud to strongly support the Hungarian-led resolution on Reprisals against individuals and groups who seek to cooperate with or have cooperated with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights.

We deplore the fact that intimidation and reprisals against those who cooperate with the UN system have become a widespread phenomenon. 

This threatens to undermine the credibility, integrity and proper functioning of the United Nations.  A proactive and coherent approach is needed. We greatly welcome the establishment of a UN-wide senior focal point to promote the prevention of, protection against and accountability for reprisals and intimidation related to cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms. 

A diverse and pluralistic civil society is crucial to the promotion of human rights and the protection of those who defend them. The defence of human rights requires a vibrant and free media as a cornerstone of a dynamic civil society, dedicated to the highest standards of professional integrity and with a commitment to report fairly and objectively, without fear of reprisal.  In particular, journalists can play an essential role in matters of public interest, including by raising awareness of human rights. They must be able to do this without fear of intimidation, harassment or violence.

Ladies and gentlemen;

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has developed a close working relationship with Front Line since its foundation and is proud to support the work they do. We have provided funding since its inception in 2001. In 2012, Front Line signed a four-year funding agreement with the Department, which will support the organisation’s Protection Programme and will see it receiving over half a million euro annually over the lifetime of the agreement.

The Protection Programme facilitates stronger international protection for you, the human rights defenders, to enable you to better manage your security and carry out your important and legitimate work. It is also aimed at contributing to the advancement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and  the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders; increased space and capacity for human rights defenders to carry out your activities; better implementation of the EU guidelines on Human Rights Defenders; and stronger international mechanisms for the protection of human rights defenders.

Since 2003, Front Line has been a valued member of the Department of Foreign Affairs-NGO Standing Committee on Human Rights. The Department maintains regular contact with Front Line on a number of individual cases of HRDs at risk, and uses our network of missions to raise these cases through diplomatic channels. Since 2005, the Irish Department of Justice and Equality has also run a scheme to facilitate the issuing of short term visas for HRDs

The aim of the scheme is to provide a quick-acting mechanism to facilitate recognised HRDs to travel to Ireland for short stays for the purpose of respite, and because of temporary safety issues.

Mary Lawlor has written in the past that “the extraordinary thing about human rights defenders is that despite the fear, the loneliness, the terrible suffering which they endure – often in isolation – they go on.”  Ireland is standing right behind you, continuing to press for international measures that protect human rights defenders and civil society space, both domestically and multilaterally, and is working to strengthen regional mechanisms for human rights protection.

Supporting human rights defenders was one of Ireland’s key commitments in our successful campaign for membership of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). One of our first actions on becoming members in January 2013 was to lead the negotiation for the EU on the first substantive resolution on Human Rights Defenders in three years which was adopted by consensus in March of this year.

The focus of the resolution was on challenging legislation, policies and practices which operated to hinder the work and endanger the safety of human rights defenders.  

The resolution calls on States not to impose discriminatory restrictions on potential sources of funding, nor to criminalise or de-legitimise activities in defence of human rights on account of funding received from abroad. It carried with it a clear message: that freedom of expression, opinion, association and peaceful assembly must be ensured. Among the honoured guests here today is Mr. Maina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association. In 2010, we were pleased to have co-sponsored the Human Rights Council resolution which established Mr. Kiai’s mandate and are delighted that his mandate was renewed at the September 2013 session of the Human Rights Council. 

Tomorrow you will also be joined by Mr. Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU Special Representative for Human Rights who will take part in the discussion on regional mechanisms for the protection of human rights defenders.  Ireland is proud that we have also consistently pushed for measures which support the work of Human Rights Defenders at European level. The EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders were adopted under Ireland’s Presidency of the EU in 2004 after close cooperation with Front Line. The Guidelines provide practical suggestions to support and strengthen ongoing efforts by the Union to promote and encourage respect for the right to defend human rights. 

Ladies and Gentlemen;

In the year in which Ireland lost one of our most treasured poets, Seamus Heaney, it is especially moving to recall that he attended and addressed the very first Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders at Risk in 2002, an event which also marked the international launch of Front Line itself.

Some years earlier, in 1985, at the invitation of Mary Lawlor (who was then the Irish Chair of Amnesty International) Heaney wrote a poem to celebrate UN Human Rights Day. It is called “From the Republic of Conscience”.  Heaney spoke of a Republic of Conscience whose embassies ‘were everywhere, but operated independently and no ambassador would ever be relieved”. Regarding his own poem and the work of human rights defenders Heaney said:

“We must not forget the call of conscience and we must endeavour to keep others awake to it”.

You have all answered the Call of Conscience. You have not wavered in your trust of the value of human rights and you have made clear that these values are non-negotiable. You have given the world a window through which we see human rights violations committed every day. But you have also given us a window into the best of human endeavours, the highest of values, the most determined of pursuits.

As Mahatma Ghandi once declared:

“a small body of determined spirits, fired by unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history”

The spirits of those before me have been tested and proven indomitable. Your work inspires and sustains mine in ensuring that Ireland plays its part in defending and supporting human rights defenders and in promoting and protecting human rights whenever we see injustice. I sincerely hope that the next few days offers you the opportunity to be both empowered and inspired by each other. I hope that you share your energy and wisdom and cement the bonds that already exist between you. When you return home, it should be with a renewed sense of energy and dynamism, as well as fresh hope for a better future, taking solace from the knowledge that your efforts are appreciated, echoed and amplified – your solitude is not endless.

Thank you.