Address at Human Rights House Network's 20th Anniversary

Oslo, 9 September 2015

State Secretary Tone Skogen's address at the 20th anniversary for Human Rights House Network - celebrated in Oslo 9 September 2015.

It gives me great pleasure to take part in your 20th anniversary celebrations today.

And it is a privilege to address so many people who have shown such commitment to protecting human rights.

Kofi Annan once said:

'Humanity will not enjoy security without development, it will not enjoy development without security, and it will not enjoy either without respect for human rights.'

To this we could add that respect for human rights will not be achieved without the work of human rights defenders.

By tirelessly and courageously calling our attention to states' violations of human rights, you play a vital role.

Not only do you promote and protect the human rights of the citizens of your countries.

You also contribute to a more secure and prosperous world for us all.

Human rights under pressure

Regrettably, in many countries we see a growing gap between the state's formal commitment to human rights and the situation on the ground.

You know this all too well: human rights are coming under increasing pressure in many regions of the world.

In some cases, human rights obligations are not implemented because states are too weak and lack the means to do so.

But just as often, this is due to lack of political will.

Human rights are being actively undermined.

In some of the countries where you operate, developments are particularly worrying.

Let me mention a few examples:

In Azerbaijan, we have seen an unprecedented crackdown on civil society and human rights defenders.

The Human Rights House in Baku had scarcely opened before it had to close.

Sadly, there are only a few ways in which our Embassy in Baku can still support human rights defenders; observing trials against activists is one of them.

In Belarus, the situation remains precarious.

We welcome the recent release of political prisoners.

But arbitrary arrests and releases also illustrate the fact that civil society is subject not to the rule of law, but to the whims of the ruler.

In the Russian Federation, the laws on so-called 'foreign agents' and 'undesirable organisations' are seriously undermining the space for civil society.

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These are turbulent times. Conflicts and political crises are dominating the headlines.

Not since the Second World War have so many people been forced to flee their homes.

This is a humanitarian tragedy. But it is also a symptom of the deep challenges many countries face in safeguarding the rights of their citizens.

Indeed, if recent history has taught us anything, it is that political crises and human rights violations are part of the same story.

Where there is a political crisis, human rights come under pressure.

And where human rights are under pressure, a crisis is often brewing.

But conflicts and crises are never an excuse to ignore human rights violations.

On the contrary, they should be a call to the international community to step up its efforts to promote and defend human rights.

Human right defenders at risk

When pressure on human rights increases, so does the pressure on human rights defenders.

You are often the first target of repression.

The price you pay can be high.

Human rights defenders continue to be victims of assassinations, disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture, death threats and harassments.

In some cases, your families and friends also become targets.

How can we respond?

As State Secretary, one of the challenges I face is finding ways of influencing states in which the human rights situation is worsening.

It is crucial that change comes from within.

But we have an obligation to support and protect those who are working so hard to bring about change.

Norway remains committed to supporting human rights defenders.

You are key partners in our efforts to promote and protect human rights.

You make sure that human rights are always high on our agenda.

And you remind us of our duty to act, and the cost of inaction.

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In Norway, we are currently revising our guidelines for how we can best support human rights defenders.

Our aim is to protect and promote human rights more effectively without making the situation for human rights defenders even more difficult.

Sometimes we are concerned that our support might trigger reprisals and put human rights defenders at risk.

That is why it is so important for us to hear about your experience on the ground.

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Norway is also placing more emphasis on a rights-based approach in its development policy.

We will work harder to increase citizens' knowledge of their rights, and to hold governments accountable.

In the UN, Norway continues to be a strong advocate for the protection of human rights defenders.

Under our leadership, the UN General Assembly adopted the first ever resolution on protecting women human rights defenders in 2013.

This autumn we will present a new resolutionon the protection of human rights defenders to the General Assembly.

The main topic of this year's Trygve Lie Symposium is the importance of an active civil society for the protection of human rights and the rule of law.

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Norway is particularly worried about the increasing pressure on civil and political rights in many countries.

Freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are fundamental rights in themselves.

But they are also preconditions for your work as human rights defenders.

We must continue to work together to counter laws and practices that restrict human rights and the role of civil society organisations.

We must protect your right to be human rights defenders.

Closing remarks

We must never stop reminding ourselves and each other that human rights are fundamental and universal.

As universal as humanity itself.

I deeply admire your courage and your endurance in standing up for human rights in your respective countries.

Tonight's celebration is well-deserved.

Thank you.