A Bangladeshi woman uses her cell phone as she holds a portrait of her missing sister, believed trapped in the rubble 60 hours after an eight-storey building collapsed in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, on April 26, 2013.

GENEVA, Switzerland — The global community must act to protect human rights defenders and civil society organizations from unprecedented restrictions and attacks.

The work of human rights defenders — including journalists, lawyers and advocates — is crucial to upholding human rights and the rule of law. Despite this, around the world we bear witness to an increase in attacks and reprisals against human rights defenders, together with an expansion of laws that restrict and impair the work of non-government organizations (NGOs).

The killing of independent journalists in Sri Lanka, the enactment of so-called homosexual propaganda laws in Russia and the Ukraine, and restrictions on access to foreign funding for NGOs in Russia, Ethiopia and Egypt are all examples of this trend. Selective appeals to culture, religion and “traditional values” in order to undermine the work of women, human rights defenders and those working on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity are another example.

With the UN Human Rights Council — the world's peak multilateral human rights body — meeting in Geneva in May, the protection of human rights defenders must be near the top of the agenda. Certainly that is the view of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.

In her opening statement she told the council that it is “particularly depressing to observe policy debates and legislative measures — in many countries, across all regions — which may severely undermine NGOs that are vital to the healthy functioning of democracy.”

Calling attention to the failure of many states in transition — including Egypt, Libya and Yemen — to adequately protect NGOs, Pillay told assembled diplomats that, “civil society remains vital to advancing the human rights agenda and I must speak out to warn you of the real setbacks to human rights protection that will follow if civil society is threatened or restricted.”

One group of human rights defenders likely to attract the council's attention is those working on issues of corporate accountability. A new report by the expert Working Group on Business and Human Rights documents increasing harassment and reprisals faced by human rights defenders for their work investigating, protesting and seeking redress for alleged corporate human rights abuses. This is despite the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights expressly providing that states and corporations must not obstruct or impair the legitimate and peaceful activities of human rights defenders.

The Working Group's recognition as to the important and legitimate role of civil society organizations, trade unions and human rights defenders in raising awareness and sounding the alarm on the human rights impacts and risks of business activities is particularly important. The recent building collapse and loss of more than 1,100 lives in Rana Plaza in Bangladesh tragically demonstrates the consequences that can flow from the failure of corporations to meaningfully consult with human rights defenders to identify, prevent and mitigate the adverse human rights impacts of their business operations.

In March this year, the Human Rights Council adopted a landmark resolution on protecting human rights defenders. It was co-sponsored by 77 States and adopted by consensus. The resolution urges states “to create a safe and enabling environment in which human rights defenders can operate free from hindrance and insecurity’”and calls on States to respect, protect and support their activities.

If the Council is to now fulfill its mandate of “promoting universal respect human rights,” and if member states are to meet the requirements of “upholding the highest standards in human rights” and “fully cooperating with the Council,” it is imperative that this resolution is observed and fully implemented at the national level.

In this regard, states should increase their protection and support for civil society organizations and human rights defenders that work on issues including corporate accountability, women's rights, and sexual orientation and gender identity. They should also urgently review and amend legislation affecting human rights defenders to ensure compliance with international human rights law.

It is imperative that we work to close the gap between what states commit to in Geneva and the reality of their laws and policies on the ground.

Phil Lynch is director of the International Service for Human Rights in Geneva (www.ishr.ch). He is on Twitter @PhilALynch.

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