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55th Session of the Human Rights Council: Human Rights Defenders

Photo Source: Amnesty International

55th Session of the Human Rights Council: Human Rights Defenders


Haneen Alawawdeh

Team UN Geneva Researcher,

Global Human Rights Defence.

Amidst the bustling halls of the Palais des Nations in Geneva, the 55th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council convened on March 12th, 2024. At the heart of this session was a pivotal discussion centered on the plight of human rights defenders worldwide. Spearheaded by Ms. Mary Lawlor, the esteemed Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, the gathering delved into the formidable challenges confronting child and youth defenders. With delegations from various nations and civil society organizations in attendance, Ms. Lawlor’s impassioned report, titled “We Are Not Just the Future,” shed light on the indispensable role played by young activists in shaping the trajectory of human rights advocacy [1]. Drawing from extensive consultations, including a significant conference in Vienna, the rapporteur underscored the pressing need for concerted action to safeguard the safety, well-being, and active involvement of human rights defenders from diverse backgrounds and generations.

The interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders served as a microcosm of the global discourse surrounding the protection and empowerment of these essential advocates. Within this arena of negotiation, a tapestry of contrasting perspectives emerged, reflecting the intricate web of challenges and priorities faced by countries and organisations in the realm of human rights.

At one end of the spectrum, voices such as Lithuania, Norway, and the European Union resonated with a resolute call for robust legal frameworks and proactive measures to safeguard human rights defenders, particularly the vulnerable demographic of children and youth activists. Their interventions reflected a deep understanding of the interconnectedness between digital privacy rights, education, and human rights advocacy, signaling a commitment to fostering an environment conducive to defender protection and meaningful engagement [2].

Conversely, countries like China, Russia, and Iran approached the dialogue with a more cautious stance, prioritizing sovereignty and internal affairs over universal human rights standards. Their interventions underscored a reluctance to fully engage with international mechanisms, revealing a tension between defender protection and national interests. This contrast illuminated the complex balance between safeguarding human rights defenders and navigating political realities within sovereign states [3].

Within this rich tapestry of negotiations, inquiries and comments from countries like Pakistan, the State of Palestine, and Iraq delved into the specific challenges faced by defenders in conflict zones. These voices shed light on the acute risks and obstacles encountered by activists operating amidst turmoil, emphasising the urgency of addressing the heightened vulnerabilities faced by defenders in such contexts. Their interventions underscored the imperative of tailored approaches to protection and accountability in conflict-affected regions.

Additionally, countries like France and the United States exhibited differing approaches to supporting human rights defenders. France showcased proactive measures such as the “Marianne” program and streamlined visa processes[4], while the United States emphasised targeted support for women and youth defenders. Conversely, Iraq prioritised embedding human rights values in education. Their focus on the role of parents in safeguarding children’s rights underscored a holistic approach to human rights promotion. Egypt’s intervention centered on accountability, transparency, and legal reforms to protect human rights defenders, highlighting their welcoming of the release of imprisoned defenders.

Furthermore, UN Women’s attention to the specific challenges confronting child and youth human rights defenders, including digital threats and academic sanctions, underscored the evolving nature of risks faced by young activists. Their call for tangible actions to prevent unjust expulsions from educational institutions emphasised the critical intersection between education and human rights advocacy. UN Women’s intervention underscored the imperative of targeted measures to protect and support young activists, particularly amidst evolving threats in the digital realm [5].

During the interactive dialogue, Ms. Mary Lawlor responded to inquiries and comments, expressing a nuanced perspective on the state of human rights defenders’ protection. She emphasised the need for concrete actions, stating, “When I come here and I sit in this room and everybody is around and I listen to how wonderful you are and I see this great big dome above, it is like a halo shining on you all because you are all protecting human rights defenders. But when I dig a bit deeper, I really can not come up with any state who can put their hand on their heart and say, yes, we protect human rights defenders absolutely.”

Ms. Lawlor’s remarks underscored the critical role of safeguarding young people as human rights defenders, highlighting the imperative of their active involvement in decision-making processes. It is emphasised that providing them with adequate legal support and protection is paramount to ensure their safety and well-being. While efforts have been initiated to protect young human rights defenders, acknowledging the existing challenges and working diligently to address them effectively is deemed essential.

In the realm of the European Union, despite existing agreements and commitments to protect human rights defenders, there remains a gap in achieving full implementation across all member states. Therefore, continuous advocacy for the implementation of these commitments and holding governments accountable for their obligations is crucial. Ultimately, prioritising the protection of young people and furnishing them with the necessary support and legal frameworks to execute their vital work as human rights defenders is highlighted as pivotal.

In conclusion, the interactive dialogue underscored the imperative for concerted action at both national and international levels to bolster protections for human rights defenders. By addressing legislative gaps, enhancing law enforcement mechanisms, and fostering cross-border cooperation, stakeholders can fortify the resilience of defenders and uphold the fundamental principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Sources and further readings: 

[1] United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. (2024, January 17). We are not just the future: Challenges faced by children and youth in human rights. <> Accessed 20th March, 2024.

[2] Siagian, R., Siahaan, L., & Hamzah, M.I. (2023). Human Rights in The Digital Era: Online Privacy, Freedom Of Speech, and Personal Data Protection. JOURNAL OF DIGITAL LEARNING AND DISTANCE EDUCATION. 

[3] Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). (2014, June 10). Current initiatives of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office. Retrieved from 

[4] Initiative Marianne. (n.d.). The Marianne Initiative for Human Rights Defenders. Retrieved from 

[5] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). (2021, May). Civic Participation of Youth in the Digital Word [PDF file]. Retrieved from

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