High Commissioner asks the Third Committee: Would we have the courage to be defenders?


The High Commissioner for Human Rights has highlighted again the need to prevent reprisals and restrictions against civil society in their engagement with the UN.

Restrictions on and reprisals against civil society were put under the spotlight when the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights presented his report to the Third Committee - the General Assembly's committee which considers social, humanitarian & cultural issues.

The High Commissioner, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein,  highlighted the folly of such attacks - reminding the Committee that civil society can be of great support to States,  but only if they can fully exercise their fundamental freedoms. 

Furthermore, the implementation of UN's own policies such as Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development relies on such civil society support.  Mr Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein also emphasized the self-defeating nature of policies that quashed critical voices in a response to extremism. Criminalistaion of dissent will fuel extremism not quell it.

Whilst a few States spoke of the need to restrict the activities of defenders, most who spoke were supportive of the right to defend rights.

In a welcome move, Canada, on the other hand, expressed concern about reprisals. Australia welcomed the designation of the new Assistant Secretary General Andrew Gilmour to the role of leading UN wide efforts to put an end to that practice.     

The USA spoke of the clear pattern of restrictions on civil society participation at the UN, including through the practice of the 'gatekeeper' NGO Committee - which has a track record of hindering the accreditation of organisations expected to criticise certain States. Despite this opposition, the USA representative asked, how can we foster and encourage engagement from civil society organisations and the wider comunity? In response Mr Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein noted the need for continued engagement with States, adding  that there seemed to be a greater tolerance of the involvement of civil society in Geneva than New York. 

In concluding, the High Commissioner reflected upon the courage of human rights defenders.

‘How many of us would be willing to foreit our careers and lives for the sake of speaking out?’ he asked the Third Committee diplomats.

Other issues:

Several States expressed concern about persistent non-cooperation with the UN from particular States. Palestine spoke of ‘a culture of non-cooperation’. For Qatar, the demands of implementation of Agenda 2030 makes cooperation all the more important. What are States hiding if they don’t permit access?  Latvia called for the universalization of standing invitations for Special Procedures. 

The independence of OHCHR was questioned by several States – with China going as far as to accuse the Office of supporting ‘secessionist criminals’. Russia also adopted a highly critical line stating that OHCHR oversteps its mandate, places too much emphasis on monitoring rather than providing technical assistance. For Russia, ‘we need to be in a position where the High Commissioner is seen ‘as a partner and not prosecutor’’. The High Commissioner pushed back at China’s criticism emphasizing a willingness to have an open dialogue. He rejected the claim OHCHR was partial, emphasizing the 125 nationalities represented in the Office. 

The High Commissioner reflecting on ‘a basic flaw in our system’. Foreign Ministries are overly defensive and parochial, and interpret criticism as intervention. On the other hand, other ministries and quasi-governmental institutions tend to be far more straightforward and able to acknowledge when they need assistance. 

A couple of States noted that the human rights mechanisms were overloaded, or that States couldn’t keep up with the reporting the system demands.  Belarus said that treaty body reporting was overly onerous.

Egypt expressed concern at the human rights system being used to advance issues that they consider not to enjoy broad support, citing issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity  and the death penalty as examples. 


  • Human rights defenders
  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • Third Committee of the UN General Assembly