The Commonwealth has openly and repeatedly committed itself to the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, and the Declaration of Commonwealth Values agreed to in 1977 to respect human rights, said Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba.
She made this point at the opening of an expert panel discussion recently held at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, UK on 'Strengthened Protection for Human Rights Defenders in the Commonwealth'.
"Sustainable development and democracy cannot take place when human rights are not defended," said Ms Masire-Mwamba. "We will continue to strengthen national human rights protection systems, and work with human rights defenders in their interpretation and application of laws to further the interests of the people in democracy and development."
Ms Masire-Mwamba noted that while all human rights defenders are vulnerable to human rights violations as a result of their work, evidence illustrates that women human rights defenders are most at risk as a result of their gender.
She stated that the most common human rights violations facing these women include infringements on their freedom of expression, association and assembly, arbitrary arrest and detention, rape and other forms of sexual abuse, harassment and intimidation, and detention and criminalisation.
She acknowledged the contributions of women human rights defenders to the protection of human rights across the Commonwealth and the impact of their work on the advancement of peace, security and development.
The Deputy Secretary-General said the Secretariat has done considerable work to develop the capacity of human rights defenders and to share best practices with member countries.
Human rights defenders in many Commonwealth countries still do not have the protected space within which to raise their voices without state reproach, said Karen McKenzie, Head of Human Rights at the Commonwealth Secretariat.
She said human rights defenders who are particularly targeted include people working on issues related to land and natural resources; the rights of women; the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people; abuses against migrants, as well as those working to ensure justice for human rights abuses, journalists, bloggers and trade unionists.
Ms McKenzie said the Secretariat aims to advocate for and encourage the opening up of safe spaces within which human rights defenders are able to operate with the necessary protections. Towards this end, she said the Commonwealth will be deepening its assistance to member countries to prepare for the Universal Periodic Review and implement accepted outcomes.
Hina Jilani, a human rights lawyer in Pakistan and former UN Secretary-General's Special Representative on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, said efforts to establish, promote and sustain democracy; maintain international peace and security; and provide or advance a people-oriented agenda for development cannot be accomplished without the contributions that human rights defenders make.
"Defenders bring to the fore information on the realities of situations to be addressed without which national and international efforts would be ineffective.
They are not only a part of the democratic process, but their presence and activity in a state is in itself both an indicator of democratisation and a motor for its further development.
They contribute to poverty alleviation, humanitarian assistance, post-conflict reconstruction and to improving individual indicators of development such as access to health care and adult literacy, among many other activities."
She pointed out that in situations of crisis, defenders can monitor an overall situation, rapidly investigate allegations of possible violations and report their conclusions, providing a measure of accountability.
They also provide the international community with some independent verification of what is actually happening within an emergency situation, informing the process of decision-making. She stated that their presence is known to have calmed situations and, at times, to prevent human rights violations from being committed.
Ms Jilani said the work of human rights defenders can help to bring human rights violations to an end and ensure a measure of justice for those who suffered violations.
"In post-conflict situations, defenders have played a critical role in sustaining peace and strengthening the prospects for promotion and protection of human rights in post-conflict societies. While support for human rights and democracy in structures of the state is slow to emerge, or may even have suffered a reversal in some cases, civil society has demonstrated a strong resolve to resist authoritarianism and oppression.
Civil society actors have played a significant role in inducing recognition by the state of the concepts of participatory democracy, transparency and accountability," said Ms Jilani.
Other speakers included the Oak Foundation's Director of International Human Rights Programme, Adrian Arena, who spoke about the importance of civil society's support for human rights defenders and the provision of tools to facilitate their advocacy work; and Mozambique's High Commissioner to the UK, Carlos Dos Santos, who shared his country's initiatives to advance human rights through leadership and legislation, and translating these into effective implementation of programmes to strengthen mechanisms for the promotion and protection of human rights.
Mr Dos Santos stressed the importance of consultation and collaboration among all interested parties, including the government, to work collectively for the benefit of citizens.