After two terms as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst left the post April 30. His tenure from 2014 to 2020 coincided with a quantum leap in the organization of women human rights defenders (WHRD) around the world. The unusually close partnership that developed between the defenders’ organizations and the UN office advanced a global understanding of the role of women defenders and the challenges and risks they face.
JASS and our partners in the national and regional WHRD networks, particularly in the Mesoamerica region, worked closely with Forst throughout his mission.
Orfe Castillo of JASS-Mexico called the dialogue between Forst and the women human rights defenders “really unusual, based on political trust and an understanding of the meaning of gender in protection as women defenders practice it.”
Forst’s departure offers an opportunity to reflect on the value of building strategic relationships with international rights organizations. How can women’s movements use the United Nations to advance their rights and collective power? What are the conditions necessary to do so? What are the opportunities and limitations?
The Mandate on Human Rights Defenders and Our Work
The mandate, or mission, on human rights defenders was created in 2000 to: *promote implementation of the 1998 UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, *study trends, developments and challenges,
*recommend concrete and effective strategies,
*seek, receive and examine information on cases,
*integrate gender mainstreaming, and
*work in coordination with other UN bodies.
Women’s and feminist grassroots organizations saw the Declaration and the Special Rapporteur’s office as useful tools to gain public recognition and protection for their work. The first two Rapporteurs, Hina Jilani and Margaret Sekaggya, began to define a specific focus on women human rights defenders and Sekaggya’s 2011 Report to on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders included emphasis on women defenders. But some states objected to the notion of specifically recognizing WHRD.
On Nov. 27, 2013, the UN General Assembly approved a Resolution on Protecting Women Human Rights Defenders. The resolution was the result of the work of a strong movement of WHRD that had gathered strength in many parts of the world. In the Americas, by 2010 JASS and women defenders from various human rights and feminist organizations had formed the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative (IMD, by its Spanish initials), and national networks in most countries in the region. They began documenting the number and types of aggressions against women human rights defenders, pressuring governments for laws and mechanisms of protection, and developing self-help practices and services.
The UN resolution marked a hard-fought victory, but even so, JASS, Amnesty International, AWID and the International Service for Human Rights pointed out that there was still a long ways to go. the final version removedlanguage supported by defenders “calling on States to condemn all forms of violence against women and women human rights defenders, and to refrain from invoking any customs, tradition or religious consideration to avoid obligations related to the elimination of violence against women.” States also rejected critical language protecting women’s sexual and reproductive rights.
Governments still balked at recognizing that women who defend rights across the spectrum face specific forms of risks, threats and attacks and need specific forms of protection. Many were openly hostile to the idea since women defend rights that the states violate or fail to guarantee.
With the arrival of Michel Forst as Special Rapporteur in 2014, women defenders’ organizations and their feminist allies found a sympathetic advocate within the bureaucracy that would provide much-needed leverage to compel governments to recognize and protect WHRD.
Combining Grassroots and Institutional Strategies
Advances in building an international framework for understanding and supporting the work of women human rights defenders have come from the pressure the defenders themselves have brought to bear–every step of the way. But within that strategy, the relationship with the Special Rapporteur brought essential national and international awareness, resources, research and political pressure.
JASS and other members of the network coordinating committee approached Forst early on and requested specific events for women defenders during his planned regional consultation. They explained that women faced different and additional risks and needed a secure space to discuss them, a space where, as Marusia Lopez of the IMD put it,” we could express our way of understanding and experiencing the sociopolitical violence where discrimination and violence against women’s bodies and lives is a powerful mechanism of social control and way of maintaining the system.” Forst granted the request.
As the relationship grew, the SR’s office sought out the women’s organizations to help define agendas, document cases, understand contexts and learn from their strategies of protection, resistance and social change.
As organized WHRDs developed their own power in autonomous organizations, they looked to the SR’s office to project their learning and demands onto an international stage. The relationship with Forst and his team opened up a period of intense dialogue, both face-to-face and through the fluid communication that developed with the feminist organizations.
A Growing Partnership
JASS Mesoamerica members met often with Forst at in-country official and academic visits. Shortly after taking office, on January, 26-27 of 2015, Forst met with WHRD in the context of the regional consultation in Guatemala. JASS members and partners met and hosted joint events with the SR in May 2016, January 2017 and Feburary 2018 in Mexico City. In his 2016 visit to Honduras, the Special Rapporteur held a special meeting with WHRD. Women defenders formed a cross-regional delegation of WHRD to Geneva in May of 2017 where they met with Forst and held an event together on developing special protection measures for women defenders. Participants in all these events discovered an accessible, receptive ally in the SR’s office.
Forst met twice with Honduran WHRD, the first visit coordinated by JASS members and partners. That visit demonstrated not only a commitment to WHRD, but also a willingness to cut through red tape to carry out his mandate. An official SR visit requires a formal invitation from the host government and since the 2009 coup, successive Honduran governments have ignored and persecuted human rights defenders. Forst went to Honduras on an “academic” visit to meet with the defenders, stating publicly, “It’s very difficult to really get to know defenders’ situation if some countries don’t invite the Rapporteur, however, if those governments won’t invite me, I’ll go myself– I’m not asking for permission from the government”.
Later, in his 2018 official mission to Honduras, Forst dedicated part of his declaration to women defenders, heralding “the role played by thousands of women defenders in promoting democracy justice and security in Honduras” at a time of social and political crisis.
Forst’s alliance with feminist organizations and his commitment to bringing a gender perspective to defending defenders led him to write the prologue to the 2015-2016 Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders report and dedicate his 2019 annual report to the issue of women who defend rights. Many networks used the report to highlight the gains of the movement, the importance of the work, and the risks and the demands within their countries.
The Value of Alliances
Women human rights defenders cite a number of gains made during the six years of working closely with Special Rapporteur Forst :
1) The networks were able to build a horizontal relationship that enabled them to consult on official agendas, participants and issues, share information, and develop strategies for the defense and protection of WHRD.
2) The Special Rapporteur’s office made the networks more visible, within their countries and internationally. This increased presence in the media, positively influenced public opinion toward the work of WHRD and provided encouragement to the defenders.
3) The Special Rapporteur documented the situation of WHRD, providing information that complemented the efforts of the networks and helped publicize the data they had compiled. He commissioned the seminal guide to protection “Our Rights, Our Safety” (2020) that distilled joint learnings over the years into a practical guide for WHRD protection.
4) The relationship with the Special Rapporteur was key to generating secure spaces for women defenders, where they could express the complexity and specificity of the threats and challenges they face.
5) The presence of and support from the SR increased pressure on national governments often reluctant or slow to respond to the demands of the WHRD.
6) Working with the SR, the networks were able to organize exchanges and share experiences among WHRD from different regions and also unite isolated defenders in the same country or region.
7) The SR facilitated contacts and the establishment of relationships with other offices in the United Nations system and international human rights organizations.
8) The SR helped raise awareness of the needs and demands of WHRD and place them on the international human rights agenda.
9) The specific work of the SR on defenders of land, environment, LGBT+, indigenous communities, persons with disabilities and migrants fortified the work of women defenders in these groups and emphasized the intersectionality.
All of this work contributes to protecting WHRD, building their movements and breaking down unfavorable power dynamics. None of it is permanent or guaranteed. In his parting, unofficial report and video, Forst lists the achievements and challenges. Among the latter, he mentions the establishment of states of emergency and laws that restrict rights under the pandemic, the lack of implementation and follow-up on recommendations by governments, impunity, lack of response from other UN agencies and insufficient resources. He leaves office with a solid base for defending rights and their defenders, but also renewed threats.
JASS takes this opportunity to thank the former Special Rapporteur for his commitment, for making our WHRD organizations stronger and our vision broader.
We look forward to working with the new Rapporteur, Mary Lawlor as we continue organizing to support, protect and empower women leaders who defend the rights of all living creatures and the planet we live on.
Videos from the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders:
- Video on environmental defenders: https://youtu.be/JVYZgraKBYE
- Video on women human rights defenders: https://youtu.be/FU5cXTCG5FI
- Video on human rights defenders (general): https://youtu.be/ek-rCkREHRY
- Video on defenders working in conflict and post-conflict situations: https://youtu.be/ZgClO_4G7Fs
More on JASS work on women human rights defenders:
“Our Rights, Our Safety: Resources for Women Human Right Defenders”