Home> Newsroom> Speeches

Opening Address by the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Hon John Jeffery, MP, at 39th International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Congress and International Forum, Johannesburg, 23 August 2016

Good morning to you all and, as a member of the government of the hosting country, let me bid you all a very warm welcome. Bienvenue, bem vinda, bienvenida, dobro požalovat.  I know that you will experience true South African hospitality and we are honoured to host this event in our country.

As you know, it is the third time, after Dakar in 1997 and Casablanca in 2001 that the FIDH has decided to hold its Congress in Africa. And as the President of the FIDH, Mr Karim Lahidji, has said, South Africa wasn’t chosen by chance.

He stated that, I quote,

Organising our Congress in Johannesburg means paying tribute to the South African civil society which, in a country marked by decades of apartheid, showed the courage and perseverance to restore the rule of law and which is still fighting to consolidate its achievements”.

The year 2016 is also the African Year of Human Rights and an important year for South Africa. It is the 20th anniversary of our 1996 Constitution and it’s been 40 years since the June 16th 1976 Soweto uprising.
It’s been 60 years since the women march when, on the 9th of August 1956, Lilian Ngoyi – together with Rahima Moosa, Helen Joseph and Sophie Williams - led the women's anti-pass march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

There is no denying that civil society organisations, community activists and human rights defenders were paramount in the struggle for the freedom of our people.

For example, Lawyers for Human Rights - which have been instrumental in the hosting of this event - has an impressive history of human rights activism and public interest litigation in South Africa.

Globally, human rights defenders' ability to operate without fear of reprisals is essential for advancing fundamental rights and freedoms. 

The full recognition and justiciability of economic, social and cultural rights, corporate accountability; the fight against impunity for human rights violations and the repeal of discriminatory laws and practices, are but some of the challenges that require a strong mobilisation from human rights defenders.

A human rights defender is someone who, individually or with others, acts to promote or protect human rights.

Very often human rights defenders are quite literally the last line of defence or the only avenue of recourse for those facing human rights violations.

Human rights defenders are often the only ones who speak out, because others may be afraid to.

One is inevitably reminded of the quote by Martin Niemöller, the German pastor who emerged as an outspoken critic of Hitler and the Nazis and spent seven years in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps, who said -

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Some people are human rights defenders from a very early age, others become human rights defenders when some event or injustice triggers that initial spark of activism, that little voice that tells you that you should be doing something to right the wrong.

Of course Niemöller himself was not born a human rights defender. In fact, he was a decorated German soldier in the 1st World War and even initially backed Hitler's run for power. But by 1933, Niemöller started to realize what was happening under Hitler’s rule and knew that it was wrong. Niemöller then formed a group opposed to the Nazis and became a fierce opponent of Hitler.

All over the world more and more people are uniting and mobilizing themselves to fight the injustices we see happening all over the world.

Recognition of the vital role of human rights defenders and the violations that many of them face convinced the United Nations that special efforts were needed to protect both defenders and their activities.

The first major step was formally to define the “defence” of human rights as a right in itself and to recognize persons who undertake human rights work as “human rights defenders”. In December 1998, by its resolution 53/144, the General Assembly of the UN adopted the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

The second step was taken in April 2000, when the United Nations Commission on Human Rights asked the Secretary-General to appoint a special representative on human rights defenders to monitor and support the implementation of the Declaration.

Earlier this morning we heard the message from one of our own most well-known human rights defenders, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Archbishop Tutu once said something very true about human rights defenders, when he said that “It means a great deal to those who are oppressed to know that they are not alone. Never let anyone tell you that what you are doing is insignificant."

Sadly though, it seems that the space for activism and civic engagement is closing in many countries in different parts of the world.  Although civil society and social activists have contributed to increasing respect for human rights throughout the world, they have faced attacks.

Human rights defenders will say that they have experienced repression in some form or another  - such as the form of restrictive laws and practices regarding freedom of association, expression and peaceful assembly, smear campaigns, abuse, death threats, arbitrary arrests and detention, forced disappearance, torture and assassination.

So what can we do to strengthen the role of human rights defenders?

Firstly, the existence of strong independent national human rights’ institutions is key. Secondly, the development of regional human rights monitoring mechanisms that can provide additional oversight and protection to defenders is key. Thirdly, human rights defenders must benefit from the full protection of the law and violations committed against them must be promptly and fully investigated and prosecuted.

The media can fulfil a vital role in support of human rights defenders by providing information on the work being done by defenders, by reporting on violations committed against defenders and nurturing public support for defenders’ work.

For us, speaking from the point of view of the State, in February this year the Special Rapporteur proposed seven principles that should underpin good practices by States in the protection of human rights defenders.

These provide that States should -

• adopt a rights-based approach to protection, empowering defenders to know and claim their rights and increasing the ability and accountability of those responsible for respecting, protecting and fulfilling rights;
• recognize that defenders are diverse; they come from different backgrounds, cultures and belief systems; 
• recognize the significance of gender in the protection of defenders and apply an intersectionality approach to the assessment of risks and to the design of protection initiatives. They should also recognize that some defenders are at greater risk than others because of who they are and what they do;
• focus on the “holistic security” of defenders, in particular their physical safety, digital security and psychosocial well-being;
• acknowledge that defenders are interconnected. They should not focus on the rights and security of individual defenders alone, but also include the groups, organizations, communities and family members who share their risks;
• involve defenders in the development, choice, implementation and evaluation of strategies and tactics for their protection. The participation of defenders is a key factor in their security, and
• They should be flexible, adaptable and tailored to the specific needs and circumstances of defenders.

I am pleased to say that we are incorporating these principles, more and more, in the work we do. We try to create structures where there are open doors and open lines of communication between government and civil society; where we work with each other and not against each other.

I would also like to highlight two recent examples of where we are working closely with civil society and human rights defenders to great effect.

On our National Task Team on the protection of LGBTI persons we’ve seen significant progress. The NTT’s Rapid Response Team was established in 2013 with the purpose to urgently attend to pending and reported cases on hate crimes perpetrated against LGBTI persons. Cases are received from civil society organisations for fast tracking.

We also consulting the public, civil society and human rights defenders in the finalisation of our National Action Plan to combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

Programme Director,

In 1997, in partnership with the World Organisation Against Torture, FIDH pioneered the safeguarding human rights defenders by creating a unique programme called the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.  The FIDH’s mission, through the work of the Observatory, is to take action in support of individuals, whatever their status, title or function, who are exposed to reprisals as a result of their human rights activities.

The objective of FIDH is to ensure that the voices of non-profit organisations, campaigners, lawyers, journalists, trade unionists, rural and community leaders and ordinary citizens are heard.

The FIDH has 178 member organizations from 120 countries. And we are pleased to note that over 100 representatives of NGOs from Southern Africa have been invited to participate in this Forum.  The purpose of this Forum will be to provide an opportunity for civil society representatives from around the world to meet and discuss matters of mutual interest.

I want to extend our best wishes for a very successful event. Let us use our freedom to further the freedom of others.

I thank you.