In 1215, in a riverside meadow just outside London, King John of England applied his seal to the Magna Carta. An historic moment that marked the first step on the United Kingdom’s journey towards parliamentary democracy and respect for individual rights. It was the foundation for our values and for many of the rights and freedoms UK citizens enjoy today.
Although the Magna Carta is now over 800 years old, its core principles – concern about unrestricted power of the executive, the state’s ability to curtail individual rights and lack of due process in convicting individuals of crimes against the Crown – remain just as relevant today. Arbitrary detention, torture, and state-sponsored harassment of those who disagree with the government of the day continue to be a reality in many countries around the world.
This is particularly true when it comes to those who work to promote or protect the fundamental human rights of others – human rights defenders. As guardians of our human rights, human rights defenders deserve our support and respect. They work on all human rights priority issues, often risking their lives and liberty to do so. They come from all backgrounds and walks of life – it is what they do, not who they are, that defines them as human rights defenders.
Unfortunately, around the world, governments are failing in their responsibilities to protect human rights defenders as they go about their work. Sadly some are increasingly taking action against human rights defenders and civil society.
In 2017, the international NGO, Front Line Defenders, reported that 312 human rights defenders were killed because of their actions, and many more faced criminal punishments and harassment sometimes as a direct result of government actions.
Even where governments are not directly involved in actions against human rights defenders, the perpetrators often get away with their crimes. Front Line Defenders estimate that only 12 percent of the cases they followed resulted in the arrest of a suspect for a crime against a human rights defender. A shockingly low figure.
We must not allow a creeping culture of impunity across the globe.
Challenging these practices, and advocating respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, is in the interest of everybody. Democracy, human rights and the rule of law are essential to peaceful, resilient and prosperous societies. Where human rights abuses go unchecked, we see the seeds of conflict sown, often with devastating consequences for communities and nations. Over the long-term, the absence of democratic freedoms, good governance and the rule of law corrodes a country’s institutions and reduces opportunities for current and future generations.
Civil society is an important check on overbearing state power. When strong enough, civil society holds governments to account, strengthening institutions apart from government (such as the Judiciary), and the balance between them (the rule of law). As history has shown, repressed societies can easily become unstable. Most international crises are linked to human rights violations. For the good of all the world’s citizens, we must help build civil society wherever we can. The United Kingdom aims to do this in many ways; from taking action to highlight issues with the international community, to funding projects to bolster civil society in countries where their freedom is stifled.
This December marks the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The adoption of Declaration was an historic moment. Countries from around the world came together to agree on the importance and legitimacy of human rights work, and agreed to protect those working to uphold the basic principles of fundamental human rights. As we go forward all countries of the world need to redouble our efforts to ensure that the human rights defenders of today and tomorrow can go about their work unhindered and in safety – and continue to make their vital contribution to all our societies.
(Daniel Pruce is the British Ambassador to the Philippines. Twitter @DanielPruce)
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