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Time to stand up for anti-corruption activists – defenders of human rights

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders examines the situation of anti-corruption activists, and invites contributions from civil society to inform her study

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Image: Ink Drop / Shutterstock

Photo of Mary Lawlor, she is looking away from the camera
Mary Lawlor

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders

The anti-corruption and human rights movements have historically been seen as fighting for two separate causes but now, there is more awareness and exploration of the links between the two. When I took up the mandate as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) in May 2020, I committed to making defenders working against corruption one of my key priorities.

I know from many years of working with HRDs all over the world how corruption damages lives and how it threatens the work of activists.

Who is a 'human rights defender'?

A human rights defender is a person who, individually or with others, acts peacefully to promote or protect human rights in accordance with the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

Human rights defenders (HRDs) are people who promote and protect the human rights of others. The mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders was established in recognition of the fact that those who defend human rights are harassed, attacked, imprisoned, disappeared, tortured, killed or suffer reprisals for the peaceful work they do.

I know that not everyone immediately sees corruption as a human rights issue, but corruption clearly undermines the realisation and enjoyment of human rights, as well as the functioning of public institutions and the rule of law.

Corruption often prevents the realisation of human rights, and those working peacefully against corruption are HRDs. Corruption also hurts HRDs even if it’s not an issue they work on directly.

Earlier this year, I presented a report to the UN Human Rights Council on the killings of HRDs. I highlighted how hundreds are killed every year for their peaceful defence of the rights of others. Very few perpetrators are ever brought to account for these murders, which only enables the cycle of killings to continue.

Corruption in criminal justice systems is one of the main reasons why justice isn’t done. Whether HRDs are killed because they’re working directly on corruption issues or not, they are often even victims of corruption in death, where those who killed them evade justice because of endemic corruption in police forces and other authorities.

My next report, to be delivered to the Human Rights Council in March 2022, will be on the issue of HRDs working directly on anti-corruption issues. My mandate is global, so this research won’t be limited to a few countries or continents. I am talking to defenders working on this issue in many places, including those who are in remote or isolated locations.

Over the last months, I have heard directly from many anti-corruption activists, often those who work in very dangerous contexts. We know that environmental human rights defenders exposing corruption in mega-business projects are often at real risk of physical attack, and that women HRDs working against corruption are attacked not only for what they do, but for who they are.

This issue of corruption comes up again and again in my conversations with HRDs, whether anti-corruption work is the main focus of what they do or not. For some HRDs, corruption is a relatively new issue to work on, and has surfaced since last year in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We know too that HRDs who work against corruption are often attacked for exposing or looking into abuses of power, graft, bribery, fraud and other malpractices. Despite often very dangerous circumstances, I continue to be impressed by the real success many have achieved in their work against corruption.

The things I can do as a UN Special Rapporteur are limited. This is a voluntary position, I am an independent expert appointed by the UN but not employed by it, and I have no formal power. But I can raise cases of attacks on HRDs with governments through official communication channels. Since I took this position, I have regularly raised cases of HRDs working against corruption this way. I also raise them in meetings with government and business officials.

My next report, focusing on difficulties and successes of anti-corruption HRDs, will also recommend to governments what they can do to protect and encourage their work.

Over the past few weeks, governments, businesses and civil society have been responding to a set of questions I have asked about anti-corruption HRDs to help me prepare the report.

For example, I’m asking governments to provide details of attacks on HRDs, and what they have done to bring those responsible to account. I am also asking them what they have done to publicise and celebrate the work of HRDs countering corruption in their country.

I am asking HRDs and those in civil society for examples of good practices that have been effective in protecting HRDs working on anti-corruption, and what more their government could do to protect HRDs working on these issues.

I will be working intensively with HRDs and civil society – including of course Transparency International – on these issues in the coming months, and I welcome your inputs and advice.

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