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17.11.2014

Looking out for Human Rights Defenders: PBI Interview with Michel Forst, new Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR)

Paris, 2 July, 2014.

PBI: You have recently taken up the post of Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders (June, 2014). Have you identified priorities (geographic or thematic) for the next few months? Have you scheduled any field visits?

Michel Forst (MF): I've taken up the post as of June 2, 2014. I want to start by listening to the defenders. For that purpose I organized a preliminary meeting in Geneva with international organizations as well as HRDs that are present in Geneva. The principal aim of this meeting was to listen to what the defenders are saying from the ground: how they see this office, how I can help them, what can be said about the way HRDs are threatened in certain regions more than in others, if there are regional tendencies, if there are groups that have specific protection needs. There are defenders who work on new areas: the environment, the relationship with businesses, women human rights defenders. Before making decisions, I need to speak with the different sectors.

Apart from a second consultation held in Brussels with the European Union, I've decided to organize six continental field consultations in order to meet with those most exposed who don't usually participate in high level meetings. I will give priority to rural defenders, those who are isolated and at risk. In my next report for the UN, which I am finishing, I will undoubtedly speak about impunity. I refer not only to the impunity that states unfortunately enjoy, but also to non-state actors. There are new things to say in that area. Then there is a relevant topic on a global level, which is the lack of implementation of the directives and recommendations. Why are there so many communications, letters sent to governments that are left unanswered?

PBI: These six consultations are planned for the next few months?

MF: They will begin in September and continue in October and November 2014 and January-March 2015. I will depend on the support of non governmental organizations, particularly on regional networks in order to ask them what defenders, in their view, I should contact and should participate in these meetings. I think Amnesty International, FIDH, PBI, and others will be in a good position to inform on which people I should prioritize listening to.

PBI: Why is it important to protect HRDs?

MF: Defenders, who carry out concrete actions to promote and defend human rights, are often threatened. Those who promote human rights and public liberties in certain States are perceived as agitators, political opponents, disturbers of established order, both institutional order and order established by non-state agents. I think for example that businesses sometimes see their plans disrupted by HRDs. In these situations, States, secret services, armed forces or armed militias in the service of private corporations intervene to undermine the grassroots work that defenders carry out.

PBI: PBI works in Colombia, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and Kenya, what are the principle challenges confronting these countries in order to ensure the protection of HRDs?

MF: Colombia or Guatemala are countries in which political violence, especially against defenders, is very strong. They are countries in which, without any doubt, there is important work to be done. This is one of the reasons that the consultations will be of particular importance; and it's not a coincidence that Guatemala has been chosen to host a consultancy. And of corse PBI will be involved. The situation is similar in Africa. Not only Kenya, which you have mentioned, but you could make a long list of countries. Some countries would be included that might be considered peaceful, but in which HRDs face real danger, especially those that work on specific issues. I think specifically of the LGBTI community, which, for example, in Uganda, are discriminated against, repressed and frequently attacked.

PBI: This year is the 10th anniversary of the EU human rights guidelines concerning the protection of HRDs. At the end of 2013, Switzerland published their recommendations. What do you think of these tools? Could they be more widely used? Can they be improved?

MF: Apart from the European Union, several countries including Switzerland, Ireland and Mexico have developed guidelines. We had a meeting in Brussels organized by Ireland that was dedicated precisely to the anniversary of the guidelines. When have they been effective? What deficiencies have been identified in their implementation?

Again, I would like to congratulate the work that has been done: the good intentions to make these mechanisms more sophisticated, to give clear instructions to the ambassadors within implicated countries as far as the importance of protecting HRDs. Nevertheless, defenders have repeatedly told us that the guidelines are not well known and many do not understand how to use them. On the other hand, these recommendations are used differently by each embassy. For example, a defender won't get the same response from France, Germany, the Netherlands or Belgium when they invoke the EU guidelines.

This despite having decided that the guidelines should be applied to all EU countries and embassies in the same way: designate a specific civil servant as a contact, conduct local visits to defenders, participate in general assemblies, observe processes; don't stay in the capital city, park your car in front of the office of an organization in the provinces to manifest that appropriate importance is given to the case, etc. In practice, many embassies don't do this, so there is still work to be done to raise awareness on best practices for the application of the guidelines. In the consultations that I'm organizing there will be a designated space to speak about this. What can defenders in the field teach us about the use and potential of the guidelines?

PBI: We have regular contact with the Office of the UNHCHR in Geneva, especially when HRDs are visiting Switzerland. How can we make these exchanges more productive? In other words, how can the High Commissioner take advantage of meetings with HRDs and, inversely, how can the High Commissioner be useful to them?

MF: I have high esteem for the work done by the High Commissioner, which provides concrete support to HRDs. For example, it's interesting for the Asian team to receive defenders from Asia that are visiting Geneva. This enriches the content of their work and raises awareness among civil servants on the multifaceted nature and complexity of their reality in the field. Hearing someone relate how they have experienced a gravely violent situation has an incalculable value. I'm in favor of continuing these visits. I also directly receive many of these defenders that pass through Paris since I give a lot of importance to these accounts. They teach us many things about people, they allow us to better comprehend a variety of situations, they allow us to improve our response. But it's true that many times, from the outside, there is a sensation that these visits aren't useful because there are not concrete answers or follow up. It's similar to when PBI sends information to the UN and there is no answer. There needs to be a review of those procedures. My team in Geneva has a very sophisticated data base on HRDs, the cases are registered and documented. We also have a register of the responses from the States (or the absence of a response). But it will probably be necessary to better inform the authors of these communications and information we receive and classify. There's nothing worse than saying to yourself “I've written to the Special Rapporteur and I don't know if my e-mail has been received, if it's been opened, if it's been given a registration number, and at the end of the day, if any follow up will be done. I believe there are certain things, as far as accountability, where we will need to change the methodology of the work of the High Commissioner. It's something I'm going to propose. This implies some internal bureaucracy, but I think it's worth it. Ideally it's necessary that a defender that has sent us a complaint or testimony knows that their document has been registered. This will permit them to say to the possible aggressor “listen, a complaint has been registered with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, I have a registration number filed on this day...”

On the other hand, we must also communicate the good news! Exonerations, better treatment, the cease of torture, the cease of threats against families. There is work to be done giving feedback to demonstrate that this flow of information is useful. It's exasperating for HRDs and organizations to never see the positive effects of this work processing information. The High Commissioner must clearly show that this work, this collaboration, contributes to hope and change.

PBI: You are familiar with the work of PBI, can you make any statements about our work?

As director of Amnesty International, I met PBI field teams. One of my colleagues, the director of Amnesty International USA, was a former member of PBI. Because of this, I understood the utility of PBI's work based on concrete examples of the physical accompaniment of defenders threatened during public meetings, at their homes, etc. My point of view is that this work is irreplaceable. Other organizations have developed complementary activities, but this pioneering work that PBI has done is for me is something exemplary which has undoubtedly saved the lives of numerous HRDs, union organizers, political participants and others who were threatened and who, without the presence of PBI by their side, would have been disappeared or killed. I would like to continue the interviews that we have had in Paris in Geneva or in the field where PBI is present.

PBI thanks Michel Forst for this interview and wishes him success in his new post.

This interview was conducted by Manon Cabaup, PBI France. Read original interview (in French)

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