Maverick Citizen


‘Protect human rights defenders working against corruption’, says UN Special Rapporteur

‘Protect human rights defenders working against corruption’, says UN Special Rapporteur

In light of the challenges, dangers and even threats to life that are faced by human rights defenders working against corruption, UN Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor says those working peacefully against corruption should be recognised as such and applicable protection frameworks must apply to them.

‘Corruption is a human rights issue, which ought to be recognised as such by states, the business community and civil society. Those who peacefully work for the rights of others against corruption should be recognised, celebrated and protected as human rights defenders.”  

These were the concluding remarks of Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, in her latest report to the Human Rights Council, which was centred on the work of human rights defenders working against corruption. Read the Special Rapporteur’s report here

On March 16 as part of continuing the discussion with key civil society actors and human rights defenders from across the globe who work tirelessly to combat corruption and demand accountability, a side-event was co-hosted by Lawlor with Transparency International, Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network (Southern Defenders) and Global Citizen.  

In her opening remarks, Lawlor identified human rights defenders (HRDs) working against corruption as a priority of her work, culminating in her recent report to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 49th session. She emphasised that corruption did not solely fall within the jurisdiction of criminal law, but that it was also a human rights issue, pointing out how it often prevented the realisation of human rights and hurt HRDs even if it was not an issue that they might be directly working on. 

In light of the challenges, dangers and even threats to life that are faced by HRDs working against corruption, the Special Rapporteur highlighted the importance of HRDs maintaining visibility and legitimacy, stating that those working peacefully against corruption were human rights defenders and had to be recognised as such and that protection frameworks applicable to HRDs had to apply to them. 

Lawlor stressed the importance of using a human rights-based approach to tackling corruption and, most importantly, of applying a human rights law-based framework to the activities of those fighting corruption, including anti-corruption human rights defenders, whistle-blowers, journalists, judges and lawyers. She said a human rights perspective on the acts of corruption by state and non-state actors was a reminder that the state bore the ultimate responsibility for protecting human rights defenders working on anti-corruption. 

Lawlor encouraged governments to publicly acknowledge HRDs and the importance of the work that they carried out and to pass legislation to enhance the operation of civic spaces that would allow HRDs to conduct their work. 

The side-event included human rights defenders among its speakers, namely Roberto Rubio of the Fundacion Nacional para el Desarrollo, Rozina Islam who is a special correspondent with the newspaper Prothom Alo in Bangladesh, Professor Adriano Nuvunga of the Centre for Democracy and Development Mozambique, Kevin Malunga, a former deputy Public Protector of South Africa, Sara Naseem from Transparency Maldives and Andrea Rocca of Transparency International, who moderated the event. 

These speakers examined the threats they faced, as well as the systemic and structural challenges faced by HRDs who sought to hold those in power accountable for corruption. 

Nuvunga emphasised the human rights consequences of the $2-billion scandal in Mozambique that he is fighting against, which saw the embezzlement of money amounting to about 10% of the country’s GDP. As a result of fighting for accountability and transparency, HRDs in Mozambique are increasingly targeted and abducted while others have been killed.

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Reflecting on the reluctance of states at regional level to uphold the rule of law and fight against the abuse of power, Nuvunga spoke about how the disbandment of the SADC Tribunal and the inability to approach the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights demonstrated the limited mechanisms available for HRDs to fight against corruption.  

Nonetheless, Nuvunga expressed his confidence in the South African judicial system and his hope that former minister Manuel Chang would be held accountable for his actions in the $2-billion scandal.  

Malunga shared some insights on the challenges faced by public officials and institutions in fighting against corruption. He voiced concern at how principled officials were often viewed as problematic and consequently saw their professional careers in government stifled, whereas malleable people were deliberately placed in positions to weaken institutions meant to fight corruption. 

Malunga also pointed out how corruption had become endemic not just in the government but also in other institutions such as the police. He said one positive aspect of the State Capture inquiry was that it brought the office of the Public Protector into public view. 

Speaking on the situation of HRDs in El Salvador, Rubio highlighted the barriers that HRDs faced in their work, such as the imposition of laws that taxed up to 40% of funding meant for NGOs to carry out their work in defending civic space and protecting human rights. This often limited the ability of civil society actors and HRDs to fight for matters of public interest. 

Rubio said constant break-ins at their offices, explicit threats to HRDs and unlawful cyber-surveillance through the use of Pegasus spyware against HRDs and journalists were some of the major hindrances for those fighting against corruption in El Salvador. 

Naseem highlighted the attacks and discrimination faced by female HRDs working against corruption. Women defenders faced discrimination and sexist stereotyping about their role and participation in defending civic space and protecting human rights. This often resulted in women being at a high risk of experiencing gender-based violence, rape and other forms of sexual violence, harassment and verbal abuse as well as attacks on their reputation online and offline.  

In protecting women defenders in online spaces, Naseem emphasised that social media companies must establish clear and enforceable policies on online rights and do away with abusive online behaviour.  

Lawlor also alluded to the fact that women defenders faced additional gender-specific obstacles, risks and violations based on not just their work, but their identity as women. In yet another example of the challenges faced by HRDs working against corruption, Islam highlighted an incident where she was targeted and jailed for exposing corruption. 

In closing, the Special Rapporteur encouraged journalists and HRDs to be polite, but firm. She encouraged HRDs to acknowledge the good in their engagements with both state and non-state actors to avoid a negative downward spiral that ultimately caused them to lose legitimacy and authority with those that they were engaging with in their work against corruption. DM/MC

Bongani Ngwenya holds a Bachelor of Laws degree (LLB Hons)  from the University of Kwazulu-Natal. He drafted the Legal Defence Fund Policy for Chapter One Foundation in Zambia and has done extensive research looking into the state of civic space in southern Africa. Simphiwe Sidu works as a regional legal adviser for the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network. She holds an LLB degree from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and an LLM in International Human Rights Law from the University of Notre Dame, US.


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