Violations and restrictions of human rights take place every day. Pursuing human rights can be a dangerous undertaking. Human rights defenders fight with undaunted commitment for human rights. Frequently they encounter problems such as persecution and jail, or even risk paying for their commitment with their lives. This is some of the information that was presented during a lecture on current challenges of international human rights politics that took place in the Cambodian-German cultural centre Metahouse in Phnom Penh, hosted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation Cambodia. The speaker, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders Michel Forst, has been working in this position since 2014. Prior to his work for the UN he had worked as executive director for Amnesty International in France. He organized the first Human Rights Defenders Summit in Paris in 1998. Furthermore, he worked for UNESCO, the French NGO Cimade, he later was appointed as international expert for human rights in Haiti and is the co-founder of Front Line Defender.
In her introductory remark, Ms Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, blogger and political commentator, underlined that despite harassment the kingdom still has a strong civil society. However, human rights defenders are facing numerous risks when exercising their rights. Authorities try to silence the voices of the human rights defenders in the country: They have been for some time the subject of intimidation, harassment and detention in response to their work on the implementation of the international human rights obligations.
Michel Forst mentioned that human rights defenders worldwide are facing increasing pressure. In addition, he claims that governments often associate defenders with the political opposition or consider them as enemies of the state. Sometimes the state uses the law to target the defenders. For defenders, the environment is not safe in many countries. They encounter criminalization of their activities, torture or religious harassment, or even murder. Mr Forst reported from his own experience that human rights defenders had been harassed by the state and called by the police or army when trying to leave a country. However, there are also countries with positive trends, including in Asia. Generally during political instability or elections, Forst could see increasing aggression against human rights defenders. Also, human rights defenders face stronger attacks from non-state actors like companies from all over the world. The companies use private security forces which are often linked to local authorities.
According to Forst, promoting and protecting human rights is vital, but it is also essential to recognize those who were killed when defending and promoting human rights. Since the adoption of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998, over 4000 human rights defenders have been killed globally. It will always be important to remind the names of these human rights activists.