Just Access

Episode 23 - How can human rights defenders be supported?

October 30, 2023 Just Access Season 1 Episode 23
Episode 23 - How can human rights defenders be supported?
Just Access
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Just Access
Episode 23 - How can human rights defenders be supported?
Oct 30, 2023 Season 1 Episode 23
Just Access

In this episode, we continue the conversation with Phil Lynch, the Director of the International Service for Human Rights. Our discussion builds on our conversation in the last episode, when we discussed his career and explored some of the behind the scenes work of the organization. In this episode, we discuss institutional interactions and access to justice more broadly.

Enjoy listening!

Don't forget to rate us, recommend us and share on social media!

Support the Show.

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In this episode, we continue the conversation with Phil Lynch, the Director of the International Service for Human Rights. Our discussion builds on our conversation in the last episode, when we discussed his career and explored some of the behind the scenes work of the organization. In this episode, we discuss institutional interactions and access to justice more broadly.

Enjoy listening!

Don't forget to rate us, recommend us and share on social media!

Support the Show.

Interview with Phil Lynch - Part 2



[00:00:00] Hello and welcome to Just Access. Too many individuals and groups around the world today are denied access to justice. This access is vital for making human rights effective and securing human dignity, especially for those in situations of vulnerability such as women, children, minorities, migrants, or detainees.

[00:00:23] In this podcast, we speak to academics, international legal experts, and human rights advocates about hot topics in international law. Our goal is to expose and highlight situations of structural injustice, to creatively explore possible solutions to these issues, aiming to protect and enforce the rights contained in international treaties.

[00:00:42] My name is Dr. Miranda Melcher, and I'm a Senior Legal Fellow at Just Access. In this episode, I continue my conversation with Phil Lynch, the director of the International Service for Human Rights. Our discussion in this episode builds on our conversation in the last episode, when we discussed his career and explored some of the behind the scenes work of the organization.

[00:01:02] In this episode, we discuss institutional interactions and access to justice more broadly.

Interview - Part 2

[00:01:11] Dr. Miranda Melcher: I'd like to ask about one of your flagship projects, the Model National Law for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. A bit of a mouthful, but incredibly important.

[00:01:38] I understand that this was a, obviously, multi year, multi stakeholder project talking to I think something like over 500 individual human rights defenders, legal research in over 40 countries, created, drafted by committee, always a risk, especially, I believe in your case, over 25 experts that all contributed.

[00:01:58] Can you tell us about, how this all came about? How this all came together? And perhaps, I've alluded to it, that sounds like quite a challenging project to manage?

[00:02:09] Phil Lynch: Yeah, it was a very big and ambitious project, which was initiated in 2013, but is really ongoing. The need was identified because we have at the international level, a UN declaration on human rights defenders, but there are very few countries that have taken the step of giving full force and effect to that declaration in national law.

[00:02:34] And so this was really a project to provide technical support and advice to states to fully implement their international human rights obligations with respect to the recognition and protection of defenders and also provide a really powerful advocacy tool to human rights defenders wanting to push their governments to give full force and effect to the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders at the national level.

[00:02:59] And I'm very pleased to say that not only through that project, we develop a model national law on the recognition and protection of human rights defenders but that we've subsequently worked in deep partnership with coalitions at the national level in a diverse range of jurisdictions to actually secure the successful development and enactment of national laws. So we now have specific national laws on the protection of human rights defenders in states including Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mongolia, and fairly advanced processes in other jurisdictions.

[00:03:40] Dr. Miranda Melcher: No, that's absolutely brilliant. I wonder if, in fact, comparing that success, being able to put together this massive project and then follow it up with national law, how then do you reflect on the UN Declaration of Human Rights Defenders? It is 25 years and, 25 years old, so in some senses, yay, it's gotten to this point, but it has some limitations.

[00:04:05] Given the work you've done and especially the success you've had in the national level laws, what's your assessment with these 25 years of perspective on the UN Declaration?

[00:04:15] Phil Lynch: Yeah, it's a very good question. I think on the national laws, one thing that's important to emphasize is that a protective and enabling legal environment is a necessary element of an overall safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders, but it's not sufficient in and of itself. Even in those jurisdictions where we've been successful in securing the enactment of national laws on the protection of human rights defenders still face threats and risks.

[00:04:44] There is evidence that the development of laws, has reduced that threat and risk in a range of ways, such as through promoting public awareness and understanding of the value of the work and the value of the contribution of human rights defenders and public awareness, understanding and support is obviously a critical factor contributing to protection and contributing to prevention.

[00:05:13] But it's, yeah, I think it's important to say that laws in and of themselves are not enough. We also need, those laws need to be adequately resourced, there needs to be high level political support for the work of human rights defenders, there need to be effective mechanisms to investigate and ensure accountability for threats and attacks against human rights defenders among other factors.

[00:05:39] Dr. Miranda Melcher: So that list of things that we still need to work on, I think, is incredibly helpful. To clarify, are those things that are all at the national level? Are they at the international level? Is it a mix? How do we see that relationship going forward?

[00:05:53] Phil Lynch: I think there are frameworks and norms at the international level that can provide guidance. But at the end of the day, what matters most is national level enactment and implementation. It's at the national level that laws can be enforced and that perpetrators can be held accountable.

[00:06:16] Coming back to your question on the declaration, I think it is really important that we take the opportunity of the 25th anniversary to celebrate not only the declaration, obviously, but the vital contribution of human rights defenders to justice, to equality, to sustainability, to accountability. We are working on a project which will seek to not only celebrate the declaration on its 25th anniversary but actually strengthen the ways in which the declaration is interpreted and applied.

[00:06:49] There have been positive legal developments at the international level over the last 25 years with respect to the protection of defenders. The declaration says nothing, for example, about the obligations of non state actors of corporations the conduct of whom, of which have become so significant for human rights defenders.

[00:07:10] It says nothing about the extraterritorial obligations of states. Something which is particularly important as we see an increase in transnational repression of human rights defenders, we see states like China, exporting their oppression of human rights defenders and targeting human rights defenders living in exile.

[00:07:29] It says nothing about the issue of discrimination against human rights defenders and the fact that discrimination on the basis of one's identity or activities as a human rights defender is something that should be prohibited. We have a big project which we're calling the Declaration Plus 25, which seeks to not only affirm the Declaration, but further elaborate some of the international norms as they relate to the recognition and protection of human rights defenders.

[00:07:57] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Wow, that sounds very exciting. Thank you for informing us of that. Given the kind of range of things you've talked about already being improved, the areas that need to be improved I know this sounds really strange, but is there any piece of this, or maybe one we haven't mentioned yet, that you think would be, actually, that's a low hanging fruit? You know what? That one would be straightforward, that would be a piece of what could help this further. Is there anything like that in this space?

[00:08:26] Phil Lynch: I think that states developing national laws on the protection of human rights defenders is relatively low hanging fruit. When the declaration was adopted in 25 years ago, it was adopted by consensus. All states at that time, recognized the vital work of human rights defenders, recognized the right to defend rights, and recognized that they have duties and responsibilities to enable the exercise of those rights. And we in states where we have seen such laws enacted even often in the absence of adequate resources and adequate implementation, we do observe an increase in support for human rights defenders and a decrease in threats and attacks because law can have an important role in shaping narratives and if within law and policy, we explicitly recognize the importance and the value of work of human rights defenders that can in and of itself contribute significantly to their protection.

[00:09:31] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Thank you for clarifying that. It's good to have the perspective because from the outside it's there's so many things, which one is maybe more possible? 

[00:09:37] Phil Lynch: Yeah, and when you say low hanging fruit, the other kind of obvious answer to that is because it doesn't require anything other than stopping doing something is states and non state actors not violating the rights of human rights defenders not threatening and restricting their work but instead recognizing the vital contribution that they can make and do make to the attainment of shared values of justice, equality, dignity, accountability, good governance, and so on.

[00:10:15] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Yeah, it's not a, let's state the obvious. One thing that could be done is stop violating what these people are doing. Yeah, no, I think that's, yeah, that's a great thing to make sure we are very explicit about. Thinking about all these things together, the massive projects that you and your organization are working on, the day to day support with the different issues all around the world on so many different levels. You must, and your team must be working with some incredibly inspiring people, incredibly courageous people but also against some really depressing challenges, some really tragic circumstances. 

[00:10:51] How do you and your team balance between supporting these people in these circumstances as much as possible, but also making sure that you and your team aren't burnt out, are able to continue to provide support in these cases? How do you balance between sort of the drive to help and protecting physical and mental health?

[00:11:12] Thank you. Thank you.

[00:11:13] Phil Lynch: Yeah. It's a really good question. We have the privilege on the one hand of working in an organization where passion and vocation tend to align and where individual values and organizational values tend to align. And, that's very motivating and energizing and working with colleagues who share your values, share your passion for human rights working with human rights defenders striving for a better world is really energizing. It is also, of course, as you say, it can be very challenging and draining work. 

[00:11:56] A lot of the defenders that we work with or support face great risk. Many are or have been detained, subject to torture and other forms of ill treatment, and that, that work can obviously be very challenging and at times traumatizing. We have at an organizational level developed a policy around being and sustainability, which recognizes some of the things that we can do at the individual level, the collective level and the organizational level to ensure the sustainability of our work.

[00:12:30] We're very mindful at ISHR also, I think, of celebrating small successes, recognizing that that, very rarely is human rights progress linear and very rarely do we make great leaps. The journey tends to be much more multifactorial and incremental and it becomes really vital in that context, I think, to celebrate the small achievements on the way and really recognize the positive contributions of colleagues and partners in that regard.

[00:13:11] Dr. Miranda Melcher: Thank you. I think that's a really important question to grapple with, especially doing this sort of work. So I really appreciate you thinking about it and sharing how you deal with it. I only have two final questions, if I may. First off, before I ask about how people can get involved, is there anything you'd like to share with us about your work, about your organization? Maybe something I've not asked that you think I should have or something you want to make sure people are aware of?

[00:13:41] Phil Lynch: So I've talked a lot, obviously, about the solidarity and support that we provide to human rights defenders as well as the work we do at the national level to strengthen recognition and protection. The other key aspect of our organization's work is, or two other key aspects for organizations work: one to ensure that the international system itself is accessible and effective and responsive for human rights defenders. 

[00:14:08] So we do a lot of institutional advocacy to ensure that civil society actors, victims of violations and abuses and their representatives can actually meaningfully access and participate at the UN with the various human rights bodies. The other aspect of our work that I haven't really talked about is the role that ISHR plays in building and facilitating coalitions. So I think we have a distinctive place in the international human rights movement in terms of building and supporting a diverse range of coalitions.

[00:14:47] And that includes, for example, a an LGBTI rights coalition, which we co facilitate with ILGA. Which is focused on securing the mandate of the UN's independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity and supporting human rights defenders and other civil society actors in their effective engagement with that mandate.

[00:15:08] We coordinate, as I mentioned earlier, the UN anti racism coalition which supports black led organizations from across the world in their engagement with the UN, and particularly with the Human Rights Council mandated expert mechanism on racism in law enforcement. And we also coordinate a coalition called HRCnet, which is a coalition of 16, mainly national and regional level NGOs from the Global South strategizing and advocating at the UN Human Rights Council and ensuring that the Human Rights Council is accessible to human rights defenders and organizations from the Global South.

[00:15:49] Dr. Miranda Melcher: See, this is why I ask, so you can tell us even more about your work. As a final question, we often have students listening to this podcast, maybe undergraduate, maybe master's level students or other sort of people early on in their career looking to figure out ways to contribute to this kind of work.

[00:16:08] What would you maybe recommend to those sorts of students or newcomers? How can they help expand access to justice?

[00:16:17] Phil Lynch: I think, without wanting to project my own career journey on others, I think it makes a lot of sense to start at the local level. I'm really glad that my first experiences were volunteering with my local community legal center, then professionally working with a homeless person's legal service very much at the local community level, and then working with the human rights organization at the national level.

[00:16:46] And I think that enabled me to develop, a grounded view of human rights and the ways in which the human rights and the law can be used both of instruments of oppression, but also as instruments of liberation and the ways in which international human rights mechanisms can be accessed and leveraged for meaningful national level change.

[00:17:12] I think if you go straight to the international level, you can tend to miss some of that context and the engagement can become a little more academic rather than grounded in people's realities and needs. Yeah, I think there's a lot to be said for volunteering or working at the local level with community based organizations.

[00:17:40] Dr. Miranda Melcher: That's really helpful. Thank you so much! 

[00:17:51] Thank you so much, Phil, for speaking with us on these episodes. Stay tuned for future Just Access interviews, and do get in touch with us if you have any suggestions for people or topics we should cover.