Reprisals: States and UN must act on Secretary General’s damning report


Alarming report shows that intimidation and reprisals against individuals and organisations seeking to cooperate with the UN to promote and protect human rights are worsening, with the UN Secretary-General calling on States, the UN Human Rights Council and the UN as a whole to adopt urgent measures to prevent and promote accountability for such attacks.

(Geneva) - An alarming new report by the UN Secretary-General documents a significant number of cases in which people have been threatened, stigmatised, censored, restricted from travelling, detained, beaten, held in solitary confinement, disappeared, and tortured for their work to expose and pursue accountability for human rights violations at the United Nations. In many of the cases the threats and attacks have not been properly investigated nor have perpetrators been held to account.

Key points
  • Damning new report shows that intimidation and reprisals against persons who seek to cooperate with or testify to the UN are becoming more ‘severe and varied’, ranging from travel bans to torture, with the attacks documented representing only the ‘tip of the iceberg’.
  • Increasingly, such attacks target ‘not only individuals or groups concerned but also their families, legal representatives, non-governmental organisations and anyone linked to them’.
  • A number of Member States of the UN Human Rights Council are explicitly cited by the Secretary-General as alleged perpetrators of reprisals, including China, Kazakhstan, the Maldives, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, and Viet Nam.
  • In the vast majority of cases, there has been no action or inadequate action to investigate and ensure accountability.
  • Secretary-General urges States to adopt laws and policies at national level to prevent and ensure accountability for reprisals and to work at the international level to prevent and ensure accountability for reprisals by other States, the continuation of which are ‘undermining the United Nations’.
  • States also urged to use Item 5 debate at Human Rights Council to demand an end to reprisals and answers to outstanding cases, says Secretary-General
  • Some positive developments as UN treaty bodies, Special Procedures and the President of the Human Rights Council implement ISHR recommendations to develop ‘more coherent and systematic’ responses to reprisals
Reprisals becoming more widespread and severe

‘The cases documented in this new report are truly disturbing,’ said ISHR Legal Counsel Madeleine Sinclair.

‘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, to the stigmatisation of defenders in Honduras who participated in the country’s Universal Periodic Review, this report exposes the horrific human cost of cooperating with the UN,’ Ms Sinclair said.

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. In accordance with the principle of do no harm, risk assessments were conducted on a case-by-case basis, resulting in the exclusion of those cases where the risk to the safety and well-being of the individuals concerned was deemed too high’.

‘Whether in their home countries or in Geneva, this report reveals that for many, interacting with the UN is something that cannot be done safely and without fear, with documented 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,’ said Ms Sinclair.

States and UN must develop stronger mechanisms to prevent reprisals and promote accountability, says Secretary-General

‘The primary responsibility to prevent and redress reprisals lies with the State. In that regard we strongly support the Secretary-General's calls for States to refrain from, prevent, investigate and ensure accountability for cases of alleged intimidation and reprisals, including by appointing a national focal point to follow up on cases and by providing information to the Human Rights Council on all measures taken,’ Ms Sinclair said.

The report, which will be presented to the Human Rights Council in Geneva next week, also reiterates calls for States to support the UN itself to mandate a high-level official to follow up on cases of reprisals.

‘The ongoing incidence of reprisals, many of which are perpetrated by State actors, together with the impunity and lack of accountability in most cases, unequivocally evidences the continued need for a stronger and more coordinated response from the UN,' said Ms Sinclair.

'I reiterate that any act of intimidation or reprisal against individuals or groups for their engagement with the United Nations, its mechanisms and representatives in the field of human rights is completely unacceptable and must be halted, immediately and unconditionally. Civil society representatives are indispensable partners for the United Nations. Any act of intimidation or reprisal against them undermines the effective functioning of the United Nations as a whole. We must therefore step up efforts and collectively condemn such acts and take all measures necessary to ensure that all individuals and groups, without exception, may cooperate freely and safely with the United Nations, its mechanisms and representatives in the field of human rights.' - UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Reprisals by Member States of the Human Rights Council are particularly disturbing

It is particularly disturbing that eight Member States of the Human Rights Council are cited as perpetrators in the report. Cases of threats and reprisals against defenders from China, Kazakhstan, the Maldives, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, and Viet Nam are cited by the Secretary-General.

‘The unwillingness of some Human Rights Council Member States to respect and support the important role played by civil society, non-governmental organisations and human rights defenders is deeply concerning,’ said Ms Sinclair. Beyond this, ‘the fact that many other Member States of the Human Rights Council tolerate this disturbing pattern of attacks, intimidation and violence by fellow Council Member States is outrageous,’ she added.

Some positive developments as UN human rights bodies implement ISHR recommendations

The report does note a range of positive developments aimed at preventing and promoting accountability for reprisals highlighting that, as recommended and advocated by ISHR, a number of treaty bodies have appointed reprisals rapporteurs or focal points, the treaty bodies as a whole have recently adopted a comprehensive set of guidelines on combatting intimidation and reprisals, and the President of the Human Rights Council has developed ‘ways of addressing the issue of reprisals in a more coherent and systematic manner’.

'While welcoming positive developments by some bodies, the fact remains that the UN system as a whole must develop a much stronger, more coordinated response to reprisals,' Ms Sinclair said.

Contact: Madeleine Sinclair, Legal Counsel, International Service for Human Rights, on

Photo: UN Photo / Eskinder Debebe


  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • United Nations
  • Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council
  • UN General Assembly
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • Bahrain
  • Burundi
  • China
  • Gambia
  • Iran
  • Kazakhstan
  • Maldives
  • Russia
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Tajikistan
  • United Arab Emirates
  • Venezuela
  • Vietnam