UN resolution recognises women human rights defenders

It may have been a long time coming, but on 27 November 2013 the United Nations General Assembly Third Committee adopted its first ever resolution on women human rights defenders.

The resolution is entitled: ‘Promotion of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: Protecting Women Human Rights Defenders’.

Introduced by Norway, and co-sponsored by 35 countries, the resolution recognises the specific risks, discrimination and violence women human rights defenders face, and calls for gender-sensitive policies and programmes for their protection from State and non-State actors. It also highlights the need to protect women human rights defenders from intimidation or reprisals as result of cooperating or communicating with international institutions and human rights mechanisms on a regional level.

Although the resolution has been generally welcomed by human rights campaigners, there remain concerns that the original were watered down by later amendments, including from the African Group, China, Russia, Qatar, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

For example a paragraph calling on States to refrain from citing customs, tradition or religious consideration to avoid obligations related to the elimination of violence against women was reportedly omitted from the final draft. Also left out was text on the protection of women working on issues of sexual and reproductive health, reproductive rights and matters related to sexuality. Some States argued that referring to these issues was out of context and irrelevant to discussions.

‘Women human rights defenders working on sexual and reproductive rights and matters related to sexuality are often targeted for attack due to the continued legalized discrimination in many countries across the globe,’ said Cristina Hardaga of feminist organisation JASS (Just Associates). ‘States must recognize that women human rights defenders are diverse,’ she continued.

According to the Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID), the conservative resistance to the resolution was partly influenced by the Holy See (the episcopal jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome) as a UN observer.

During negotiations leading up to the final resolution, human rights and feminist organisations around the world put pressure on their States to commit to women human rights defenders. A group of civil society groups in Africa wrote an open letter calling on African States to support the resolution and highlighted the positive work some African member states have done on ending female genital mutilation and improving the situation of young girls.

Photo: A human rights demonstration in 2011. By tolkien1914, under a CC License.