Reprisals and the UN: What now?


States must confront the reality that people who have the courage to engage with the UN are suffering reprisals and intimidation. In calling on States to take six key steps to address this deplorable situation, Madeleine Sinclair of ISHR calls on the Secretary-General to appoint a focal point on the issue of reprisals. 

By Madeleine Sinclair

This autumn marks 70 years since the UN was founded and an important opportunity for the global community to take stock of progress made towards achieving its stated goal of a more peaceful, secure, developed and rights-respecting world. As we celebrate 70 years of a Charter that begins with ‘We the peoples’, it is more relevant than ever to also take stock of the relationship with those who stand at the very heart of the UN’s everyday work in pursuance of those goals.

Unfortunately the picture is not all rosy—in particular when it comes to the UN’s work to promote and protect human rights. As the Secretary-General states in his most recent report on reprisals 'acts of intimidation and reprisals against individuals and groups seeking to cooperate, cooperating or having cooperated with the UN in the field of human rights continue'. In addition, the Secretary-General has concluded that 'the types of acts reported seem to have become more varied and severe over time, targeting not only the individuals or groups concerned but also their families, legal representatives, NGOs and anyone linked to them'.  

It is difficult to overstate how crucial the engagement of civil society is to the work of the UN human rights system. Simply put, without the engagement of civil society there would be no UN human rights system, and while impunity for intimidation and reprisals continues, the integrity of the system as a whole suffers and its work is undermined.

From the torture in Tajikistan of a prisoner who cooperated with a UN human rights expert, to the serious threats against a defender and his family in Burundi following his briefing to the Committee against Torture, the Secretary-General’s report exposes the horrific human cost of cooperating with the UN.

According to the Secretary-General, ‘the cases included in the report are not exhaustive. They are examples of a larger number of mostly invisible cases.’

Whether in their home countries or in Geneva, the Secretary-General’s report reveals that for many, interacting with the UN is something that cannot be done safely and without fear. The report documents cases of activists from Bahrain, China, the Gambia, Iran, and Viet Nam, among others, being subject to surveillance, harassment, threats, censorship, stigmatisation, and intimidation from State officials and State-controlled media and organisations in the course of their work.

This autumn, the UN Human Rights Council, General Assembly, and Secretary-General will again have an opportunity to consider and take action regarding these worrisome developments. 

States must confront the reality that people who have the courage to engage with the UN are suffering reprisals and intimidation as a result. Furthermore, those who stand idly by while the UN’s response continues to be inadequate, are tolerating impunity and complicit in perpetuating this untenable situation. States should take the following six key steps in this regard.

First, States should support a core group of Member States at the HRC—Ghana, Hungary, Ireland, Tunisia, and Uruguay—in speaking jointly to condemn all acts of intimidation and reprisal and call for the Secretary-General to appoint a focal point on reprisals.

Second, the HRC should heed the Secretary-General’s recommendation that it “devote sufficient time to the discussion of” his report by scheduling a stand-alone interactive dialogue.

Third, the HRC should seek information concerning action taken by States cited in the report to prevent and ensure accountability for reprisals and call on States to take further action where they fall short of meeting international human rights obligations in this regard.

Fourth, the HRC should ensure that States mentioned in the Secretary-General’s report inform the HRC regularly and in a timely manner of steps taken to investigate cases of reprisals, prosecute perpetrators, and provide remedies to victims.

Fifth, the General Assembly should, in its upcoming resolution on human rights defenders, call on Member States to consider adopting laws and policies to protect human rights defenders from reprisals and ensure accountability for violations. Good models are the Constitution of Montenegro, which enshrines the right of recourse to international human rights bodies, and Austria's Ombudsman Act, which explicitly prohibits any reprisal against a person who provides information to the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture.

Finally, the Secretary-General should proceed with appointing the focal point on the issue of reprisals, as requested in HRC resolution 24/24. This would allow the UN to begin systematically addressing the need for a unified, coordinated and effective response that ensures that individuals can engage with the UN human rights system without fear of intimidation or attack. 

As the world celebrates 70 years of achievements, governments must reaffirm their commitment to working with civil society in a constructive meaningful partnership. Adequately addressing reprisals and intimidation is a key aspect of this. 

Madeleine Sinclair is Legal Counsel with the International Service for Human Rights