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Ambassador Donahoe: Remarks at WFUNA Civil Society in Action for Human Rights Reception
September 17, 2013

Remarks by Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe
U.S. Representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council

Reception on the Occasion of the World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA)
program “Civil Society in Action for Human Rights”

September 16, 2013


Thank you all for joining us tonight for this reception on the occasion of the World Federation of United Nations Associations’ program “Civil Society in Action for Human Rights” which is working to enhance the capacity of UN Associations, civil society and NGOs to engage with, challenge, and strengthen the Human Rights Council. We welcome the delegates from ten countries who are with us here tonight – your goal is one that the United States fully embraces.  Let me also personally call out Ryan Kaminski, the delegate from the United Nations Association of the United States, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year.  We welcome Ryan back to Geneva and thank you for all you do.

Our guests this evening represent four pillars on which the successful promotion and protection of human rights around the world rests:  governments, civil society the media, the UN and international organization staff.

Tonight, we are especially pleased to welcome so many friends from civil society with whom we work on a regular basis and on whom we rely immensely for strategic advice at the Human Rights Council.

If there is one thing I have learned in my four years here in Geneva it is that civil society is the very heart of human rights.

Your engagement propels the work of the Council forward.  We benefit immensely because of the extent to which you share your expertise and guidance with us.  We literally could not do our work or generate the results we seek at the Council without you.  I think you already know this.  But I want you to know that we know it as well.  The US delegation is deeply appreciative of all you do to ensure the best possible outcomes at the Human Rights Council.  It has been a real pleasure to learn from you, to strategize with you, and to work together.

We also welcome the Ambassadors and diplomats from the many delegations in Geneva who provide leadership in supporting the work of NGOs, civil society, human rights advocates and defenders.  Notably, just at this current session, a resolution protecting space for civil society will be led by Ireland – with Chile, Japan, Sierra Leone and Tunisia.  In addition, we join with our co-sponsors from the Maldives, Indonesia, the Czech Republic, Mexico, Nigeria and Lithuania to renew the important mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom for Peaceful Assembly and Association. We thank all of these delegations for their leadership and for their partnership.

Next, we welcome the representatives from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – who perhaps have the most complex job of all in addressing the demands of governments and civil society from all over the globe, along with the responsibility to provide technical assistance and capacity building to those governments and societies.  We recognize that this is a complex balance.  The High Commissioner deserves great credit for steering OHCHR so effectively along this complex and difficult path and we applaud her for her thoughtful leadership.

Finally, we want to thank members of the media who provide the lens that focuses world attention on human rights.  Timely media accounts of the facts on the ground can galvanize governments and citizens to action.  As members of the Human Rights Council, we place a great deal of emphasis on freedom of expression as a linchpin for the promotion and protection of human rights globally.

Journalists, bloggers and citizen journalists who cover crisis situations and who work in conflict areas face enormous risks in order to report to the public and keep us informed.  Last year marked the most dramatic year on record regarding the attacks on journalists.  In 2012, more than 100 journalists were killed, 4 were kidnapped, 900 arrested and more than 2000 were threatened or physically attacked.  Here at the Council, we are working with partners to ensure the safety of journalists around the world, so that they can continue to do their important work.

Today we heard from the Syria Commission of Inquiry about the disturbing pattern of harassment, arrest, detention and kidnapping of journalists that has emerged in the last six weeks in Syria.  One of the primary themes that will be highlighted tomorrow by the Commission of Inquiry on the Democratic Republic of Korea is the impact of Pyongyang’s radical restrictions on the free flow of information.  The DPRK arguably has the most severe restrictions on freedom of expression of any nation, and this has a devastating impact on the ability of the public to enjoy any and all human rights.

Syria and DPRK are extreme examples.  But around the world in many contexts, we see a negative trend line with respect to the ability of journalists and the media to report and keep the public informed.  For all of us who work as advocates for human rights, this trend is deeply worrying.  The freedom and safety of journalists must remain a shared top priority for the human rights community.  Threats to journalists are threats to everyone’s freedom of expression and opinion.

Unfortunately threats to civil society are also on the rise and take many forms.  Crackdowns on civil society have included new laws impeding or preventing freedoms of expression, assembly, association and religion, as well as heightened restrictions on organizations receiving funding from abroad, and the killing, harassment and arrest of political, human rights and labor activists.

Every September the Human Rights Council receives an update from the Secretary General on the threats to those cooperating with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights.  Just last week, I participated in a panel hosted by the International Service for Human Rights with the Deputy High Commissioner, in which a Bahraini human rights defender spoke about one personal friend put on trial for tweeting and other colleagues who face severe sentences just for reporting allegations of human rights violations to the United Nations.

We also all have heard reports of reprisals against human rights defenders and civil society activists who spoke to the High Commissioner during her recent travel to Sri Lanka. These threats and human rights violations against those cooperating with the UN are deplorable on their own merit, but they also threaten the functioning of the UN human rights system as a whole.  When human rights defenders, journalists and others are unable to exercise their rights to freedom of speech, and freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the international human rights framework comes under direct assault.   We believe the Human Rights Council must defend the defenders and the UN must send a strong signal that reprisals against those cooperating with the UN are unacceptable.  We hope you will carry this message back to your UN associations and civil society in your home countries, as well.

In this vein, one of the Council’s most significant accomplishments during my tenure in Geneva was the establishment, three years ago, of a new Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, in a resolution that we led with a cross-regional core group. As mentioned earlier, the same core group will sponsor the renewal of this mandate at the current session. The timely work by Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai has been very impressive.  For example, his most recent report to the Council addressed the ability of associations to access financial resources – a crucial issue around the world today – and his report to the UN General Assembly in the fall will address these rights in the context of elections.

Those of you who have been on the front lines of work at the Human Rights Council know well that the thoughtful design and tenacious implementation of advocacy strategies are the keys to delivering results at the Human Rights Council.  As I look out into this audience, I can say without a doubt that some of the most creative and tenacious human rights strategists stand among you tonight.  It has been an honor to work with you and as I said, the US delegation is deeply indebted to you for so proactively sharing your wisdom and guidance with us.

Today, because of the work of all of you, the Council has become an essential platform from which the international community confronts human rights crises as they unfold, like Syria, and addresses egregious, chronic and systemic human rights cases like the DPRK.  The Council also serves as an important platform from which advocates advance and ensure progress on important thematic human rights issues including LGBT rights, Internet freedom, and the protection of journalists.

The results I have witnessed over the past four years here at the Human Rights Council far exceed most expectations. They underscore the importance of continued robust engagement – by governments, by NGOs and by individual activists around the world, and by all of you.  Going forward, the United States promises to stands with all of you, as we continue to work together to push for progress and ensure that civil society and human rights activists play a full role at the United Nations and most especially at the Human Rights Council.