27 Apr

NGOs and human rights defenders have until the end of May to submit cases of reprisals to the UN Secretary-General's report, covering the period June 2016 to May 2017.

19 Apr

In a positive development, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) today passed a resolution to webcast open sessions of the NGO Committee, unopposed. This victory for civil society participation at the UN was offset however, by an ECOSOC decision to close the door on a handful of NGOs from Turkey, or until recently based there. ECOSOC’s failure to reject Committee recommendations in these cases - which flouted established procedures - may have been unlawful. 

18 Apr

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) may act unlawfully if it accepts NGO Committee recommendations related to the accreditation of a group of Turkish NGOs and NGOs until recently based in Turkey. ECOSOC will consider these recommendations during its Coordination and Management Meeting on Wednesday morning, New York time.  

15 Apr

Webcasting the open sessions of the NGO Committee is on the agenda of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) next week.  A draft resolution for webcasting was tabled on Thursday, in name of 32 States.  This step comes after many years of calls by States and civil society to make the process for getting accreditation to the UN more transparent and accessible to NGOs.  

12 Apr

Following a series of shocks to the constitutional order in Venezuela, CIVICUS and ISHR have urged the Venezuelan government to ensure that fundamental freedoms, including that of peaceful assembly, be guaranteed.  


The integrity of the human rights system is at risk, warns Human Rights Council President

(New York) The Human Rights Council President, Ambassador CHOI Kyonglim, has made a forceful appeal to the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee not to re-open decisions made by the Human Rights Council.

This came on the day that the African Group tabled a resolution seeking to halt the work of the Human Rights Council’s LGBT Independent Expert. Such a step would set a dangerous precedent, said the President, and ‘undermine the credibility of the Human Rights Council and of the UN system’.

This year's dialogue between the Human Rights Council President and the Third Committee was overwhelmingly focused on the question of whether the Independent Expert, created by the Human Rights Council, should continue its work. Underlying this are questions about institutional relationship between the Human Rights Council, and the Third Committee and General Assembly.  

'The Human Rights Council President was absolutely correct in representing this challenge to the Independent Expert for what it is - a serious challenge to the international rights system: a challenge that must be resisted', said ISHR's Eleanor Openshaw.

Many States spoke energetically about the legality of the Independent Expert’s mandate, the authority of the Human Rights Council, and the dangerous precedent set by seeking to defer on a Special Procedures – most particularly one that is already up and running.

The African Group resolution calls for the suspension of the activities of the Special Rapporteur ‘in order to allow time for further consultations to determine the legal basis upon which the mandate of the special procedure’.

During the debate with the Human Rights Council President, Botswana delivered a statement in name of the African Group noting that they were ‘strongly concerned by attempts to introduce and impose new notions and concepts that were not internationally agreed upon’ and that these attempts ‘seriously jeopardize the entire international human rights framework as they create divisions.’ They call for States ‘to refrain from attempting to give priority to the rights of certain individuals’.

‘The creation of this mandate came after two Council resolutions and OHCHR reports that persuaded the Council that there is a need for particular attention on the situation of violence and discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity,’ said ISHR’s Pooja Patel. ‘That’s what thematic rapporteurs do - focus on issues and groups that the Council considers need particular attention.’

Denmark rejected the idea that an Independent Expert’s mandate created by a voted resolution was illegitimate, noting that several current Special Rapporteurships were created on that basis. The Human Rights President pushed back on the notion that politicisation and selectivity informs the establishment of Special Procedures. The Procedures are diverse in terms of the countries and themes they focus on, he said.

States such as Algeria and Ethiopia made spirited interventions in defence of the need to respect the decisions of the Human Rights Council.

‘It has to be seen if these States are courageous enough to defend the human rights system against other pressures and interests,’ said Ms Openshaw.

The other issue that received considerable attention during the dialogue with the President, was the importance of civil society’s contribution to the UN, and the urgent need to ensure their protection from intimidation and reprisals. The Human Rights Council President noted that civil society is ‘not just nice to have’ but ‘at the core of our work’. He said he looked to ASG Gilmour to ‘raise the profile of reprisals within the system’.

The President's dialogue with the Third Committee was run at the same time as a discussion held by the UNGA on the President’s report. Algeria expressed frustration at the scheduling of meetings, something the Chair promised to address with the President of the UNGA.

Article year: 

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

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. 

Article year: 

New Secretary General should put promotion and protection of human rights defenders at heart of UN’s agenda


ISHR offers a warm welcome to Antonio Guterres as the ninth Secretary General of the United Nations.

Earlier this year 80 civil society organisations from across the world called on the next Secretary General to place the promotion and protection of human rights defenders at the heart of the UN's priorities.

ISHR’s Madeleine Sinclair said now that a new Secretary-General has been formally recommended by the Security Council the open letter is as relevant as ever, and said ISHR staff were looking forward to working with Mr Guterres in the pursuit of stronger protections for human rights defenders.

'The work of human rights defenders to promote the three pillars of the UN is widely acknowledged, but sadly remains under threat at so many levels,’ said Ms Sinclair.

The priorities civil society organisations highlight include:

  • Speaking out strongly and consistently against attacks on defenders and restrictions on civil society space and in support of vibrant, independent civil society at the UN and at the national level.

  • Ensuring UN staff are aware of the importance of the work of HRDs and take action to prevent and address attacks against them. 

  • Designating a civil society liaison at the most senior level at the UN.

  • Recognising that the work of human rights defenders is essential to international peace and security. Taking steps to promote prevention of systemic attacks and restrictions against HRDs which may be an early warning sign of more widespread gross and systematic violations.

The announcement earlier this week that the Assistant Secretary General, Andrew Gilmour, will be appointed to a new role to help combat reprisals against human rights defenders was a very positive initiative, but Ms Sinclair said there was plenty more the UN could do to promote the protection of human rights defenders around the world. 

A copy of the open letter can be found here.


Article year: 

Briefing Paper Uganda



Human rights defenders play a key role in advancing the rule of law, yet they are often at risk because of their work. Sierra Leone has the potential to show international leadership by becoming the first anglophone country in West Africa to enact a specific human rights defender protection law, writes Irish Ambassador to Sierra Leone, Her Excellency Catherine Campbell.

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