States must ensure designation of UN-wide focal point on reprisals, says Special Rapporteur to General Assembly


New Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Michel Forst, set out an innovative agenda for the mandate, as he presented his inaugural report to the UN General Assembly

(New York) - Presenting his inaugural report to the General Assembly, the new UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Michel Forst, provided Member States with a vision for the mandate and proposed new working methods to maximize his effectiveness. In reflecting upon the UN’s role in protecting defenders, Mr Forst noted that  ‘the UN depends entirely on free and safe cooperation with civil society for its effective functioning,‘ without which it loses legitimacy.  A coordinated and unified response to prevent and address reprisals would be a cornerstone in ensuring that cooperation. 

During the dialogue, Mr Forst emphasised that he would be focusing his efforts on supporting the vision of human rights defenders and ensuring implementation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. To this end he outlined a series of regional consultations he will hold over the coming months to assess the nature of, and context in which, violations against defenders occur, as well as the effectiveness of existing protection measures and mechanisms. 

Mr Forst spoke of seeking a balance between ‘rectifying the wrong and celebrating the right’, noting that his reports to the Human Rights Council and General Assembly would seek to expose human rights violations and share good practices in legislation and regulatory measures which could have a multiplying effect around the world.

‘The Special Rapporteur put an emphasis on developing and maintaining constructive dialogue, whilst ensuring consistent follow-up to his recommendations and those made by previous mandate holders holders Hina Jilani and Margaret Sekaggya’, said Ms Openshaw for ISHR. 

Mr Forst noted his intention to carry out missions to assess the level of implementation of previous recommendations made. Such an approach was warmly supported by the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, with Ireland adding that increased follow-up would have a positive effect on combatting impunity.  

The Special Rapporteur spoke of a general clampdown on freedoms of expression, association and assembly as a common context for violations against defenders. He noted his intention to work closely with relevant UN mandates – including country and thematic rapporteurs – and regional mechanisms to enhance effectiveness. He highlighted his upcoming visits to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, before the end of 2014.

Cuba and Russia challenged this approach, asking Mr Forst how he planned to fulfil the mandate without being more selective in his activities, particularly if he intended on increasing work with country mandates. However, the new approaches were welcomed by many other States.  Morocco encouraged the Special Rapporteur to consider the role that national human rights institutions might play to support his mandate. 

To increase the visibility and effectiveness of the mandate Mr Forst spoke of the need for innovative tools including websites and the use of social media, calling on States to support him in their development.

In the spirit of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, Mr Forst encouraged Member States to acknowledge the vital role of civil society and work to encourage others to protect rights and protect defenders. Belarus and Indonesia made comments to detract from the discussion on the rights of human rights defenders to be protected, but many other States, including the UK, thanked the Rapporteur for bringing welcome attention to the legitimacy of human rights defence and the need to prevent attacks against activists, including reprisals. 

Following the interactive dialogue with Michel Forst, the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Ms Gabriela Knaul presented her report to the General Assembly. During the dialogue, Ms Knaul referred to the case of UAE human rights defender, Osama Al Najjar who was arrested shortly after having met with the Rapporteur during her official visit to the country.   A description of his detention, interrogation and torture were included in the Secretary General’s 2014 report to the Human Rights Council on cooperation with the UN.  Ms Knaul added her voice to that of the High Commissioner and several Special Procedures, calling for consideration of Human Rights Council resolution 24/24 and the timely appointment of a UN system-side focal point for reprisals.

‘Osama and others around the world do not have the luxury of time’, she said, referring to Mr Al Najjar’s reported continued detention.


  • Human rights defenders
  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • United Nations
  • Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council
  • UN Special Rapporteur on HRDs
  • UN General Assembly
  • Third Committee of the UN General Assembly