States must assume responsibility to combat impunity and ensure accountability for reprisals


Investigations, prosecutions and accountability for attacks against human rights defenders are crucial to ensuring an enabling environment for their work, says a high-level panel convened jointly by ISHR, FIDH and OMCT.

(Geneva) - Alongside the 29th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, an event focusing on reprisals and attacks against human rights defenders (HRDs) took place on 16 June. The panellists urged for impunity to be dealt with beyond regional and territorial boundaries and the establishment of minimum standards on addressing attacks on HRDs.

The event was organised by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) with civil society partners - ISHR, OMCT and FIDH.

Opening the event, Antoine Madelin, Director of International Advocacy at FIDH, talked about the numerous risks and threats HRDs face in their work. Including threats to the lives of their families. He further emphasised that ‘there has been a systematic collective failure of the international community to address attacks against HRDs.’

Michel Forst, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of HRDs, mentioned that ‘there is a climate of impunity and no accountability. National states do not assume their responsibilities’. He mentioned his efforts, in collaboration with the Council of Europe, to draw the attention of the international community to the present situation in Abidjan. He also emphasised his desire for victims of reprisals to be able to testify in court.

Jose Orozco, Rapporteur on the rights of HRDs of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, talked about an increase in attacks against HRDs by companies, criminal groups and state agents. Restriction in funding is also a persistent issue. ‘There is increasing undue use of penal laws to restrict the work of HRDs, with them sometimes being held in preventative detention whilst accused of light violations with bail amounts that are too high to pay’, he said.

Reine Alapini Gansou, African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights Special Rapporteur on HRDs talked about the steps taken in the African Commission to combat reprisals and impunity. ‘As the focal point for reprisals I need to report about reprisals at every session of the Commission. We have put in place a strategy, along with civil society and other partners to deal with the situation’, she emphasised.

Salvatore Saguès, from the International Organisation of the Francophonie, reiterated that ‘the issue of reprisals is crucial as it brings about the issue of impunity’.

Katarzyna Jarosiewiz, Head of the Human Rights department at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe, mentioned that the OSCE regularly conducts country visits, meets with authorities and brings issues to mainstream attention. ‘We can monitor trials and provide recommendations as to the quality of judicial proceedings. In most cases, we are also able to visit detained HRDs’, she said.

Christine Mardirossian, from the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, mentioned the fact that thematic meetings are an important part of their work. ‘The Commissioner has been engaged with an inter-mechanism process since 2008 with regard to the issue of reprisals and impunity.’

Gerald Staberock, Secretary-General of the World Organisation against Torture, recognised the immense role that HRDs play across the globe. He talked about several challenges being faced including, ‘a double-sense of impunity, firstly for the defender him or herself and secondly with regard to the culture that already exists in the country, making mandates already created more effective by making follow-up mandatory’. He talked about the way forward to regain space for HRDs globally. ‘HRDs need to be seen as actors for change, rather than objects. HRDs are for a state, not against a state and thus a mind-set change needs to occur with regard to the way we view HRDs.’ 


  • Human rights defenders
  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights
  • Inter-American Commission on Human Rights