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An advocate for women and a voice for human rights

An advocate for women and a voice for human rights


Hina Jilani, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on human rights defenders, raises her arms with Canadian Ambassador Donica Pottie and other diplomats and activists who gathered at Olympic Stadium on December 10 to celebrate International Human Rights Day.

S he was appointed as the first Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on human rights defenders in 2000. A lawyer by profession, Hina Jilani is an Advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and founded Pakistan's first all-women law firm and first legal aid center in the 1980s. Jilani's legal career has been defined by challenging violations of women's rights and establishing legal precedents for women in notoriously repressive Pakistan. In Phnom Penh on an unofficial visit for International Human Rights Day on December 10, Jilani spoke to Cat Barton about her work, the UN and the most important global trends in human rights.

Why are your reports important?
The United Nations human rights system functions on the sensitivity of governments towards their international image and reputation. Governments like to look good and that has worked for us: despite the scepticism expressed regarding the UN, I have noticed in many situations governments have stepped back when they are aware their actions have not gone unobserved. They may still go back to harassing the same people, but, if we know human rights defenders have been arrested and we send a communication, we have seen releases.

Have you seen any improvements in the global human rights situation?
There has been progress, steps taken by governments to protect human rights defenders. But the situation has not changed enough for me to say that in the past six years a lot has been achieved in the implementation of the declaration [on human rights defenders]. We still witness killings of human rights defenders; we still see disappearances, and arbitrary detentions.

[They use] administrative arrangements [to hamper their activities], for example requiring that they ask permission for rallies, or earmarking special places where demonstrations have to be held.

These are wrong strategies. Everyone has the right to draw attention to human rights violations - not just in a quiet corner, but in public places; they have the right to call attention to human rights issues. [Curtailing these rights is] not happening inadvertently: I don't think that governments are unaware of their obligations under international law.

So why do governments continue to behave this way?
There are several economic and social factors that determine the will of the government to protect human rights and enforce international human rights treaties.

For example, the influence of powerful social actors where a feudal system still exists and local elites are using their power and influence with the government who are themselves part of that elite and are thus called upon to protect the status quo.

Adopting laws or implementing the principles of the declaration would upset the status quo. There is often a tension between people's rights and the economic policies adopted by governments.

Human rights defenders are often harmed by non-state actors who make use of the apparatus of the state - for example, a corporate entity using a country's police or military. We have seen in places such as Nigeria that corporate entities can influence government policy and hinder the ability of rights defenders to monitor rights violations.

Over the course of your tenure, have you seen increasing grass-roots activism?
Human rights documents become alive when people are prepared to assert their rights. I have seen increasing grass-roots activism, especially in Latin America and Asia. This is one of the most distinct and visible trends. Also, collective action and social movements are now being shaped by international human rights frameworks.

There has been a deliberate linkage between social movements and human rights grounds which leads to less social violence. Social activists increasingly recognize themselves as human rights defenders and they have realized that there is protection within the international and national human rights framework - that their work is included in this. This also forces them to accept human rights norms for the action they take.

What are the specific problems facing female human rights defenders?
All over the world - from Asia to Latin America - there are certain social values that mean women who work as human rights defender are looked down on. The same [kind of treatment of women] happens across cultures: there are many differences in culture, but for women it is the same everywhere.

For example, in some places, when the widows of assassinated human rights workers take on that work they are labelled prostitutes by their communities. There is a need for more than just laws and state actions, the state also needs a very strong social policy to protect female human rights defenders, especially those working for women's rights - they are challenging very powerful social institutions.


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