10 Oct

… Mohamed Zaree from Egypt. Zaree’s brave and dedicated work to promote and protect human rights was honoured with his recognition as the Laureate at the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in Geneva tonight.

03 Oct

The General Assembly's Third Committee is now in session. Below is our outline of what to look out for. 

06 Oct
Bagua Case protests

Defending human rights can be a tough and dangerous work in Peru, in particular for environmental and land defenders. ISHR, together with the National Coordinator for Human Rights (CNDDHH), urges the government of Peru to take all necessary measures to eradicate reprisals and acts of violence against human rights defenders.

03 Oct

Despite human rights defenders’ critical role as ‘justice enablers’ for the victims of corporate human rights abuses, it can be dangerous and even deadly work to defend human rights over ‘profits, privilege and prejudice,’ two new reports by UN experts conclude. 

02 Oct

The Human Rights Council will hold a dedicated dialogue to address acts of intimidation and reprisals following the adoption of a significant resolution at its 36th session. The Council has also affirmed the particular responsibilities of its Members, President and Vice-Presidents to investigate and promote accountability for such acts.

Supporting human rights defenders

The work of human rights defenders is essential to promote and protect human rights and the rule of law. Despite this, human rights defenders are increasingly subject to harassment, restrictions and reprisals for their work.

Our work to support human rights defenders builds their capacity and expertise, strengthens their recognition and protection under international law, and seeks to protect them from threats, risks and reprisals.

Our work focuses on some of the human rights defenders who are most marginalised or at risk. We provide these human rights defenders with a comprehensive range of tools and support, including access to high quality research and analysis, tailored training and capacity building services, legal advice and strategic litigation assistance, and advocacy and networking support.

Human Rights Council: panel discussion on promotion of tolerance sees less divisive debate


On 14 June 2011, the Human Rights Council (the Council), convened a panel discussion on strengthening international efforts to promote culture of tolerance and respect for human rights and diversity of religions and beliefs. In her opening statement, Navanethem Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, highlighted the panel’s aim to explore ways to enhance international efforts and promote global dialogue between States and civil society to combat intolerance, negative stereotyping and discrimination against persons based on religion or beliefs. The convening of the expert panel was initiated by Council resolution 16/18, which aimed at combating intolerance, and discrimination against religious beliefs, and promoting collaboration among States to take measures to eliminate incidents of religious intolerance. The resolution marked a move beyond an unconstructive series of resolutions on ‘defamation of religions’ (sponsored by Pakistan) and this panel was viewed as an opportunity to cement that move.

The opening statements of the panellists addressed the role of education, the media, and legislative tools in combating religious intolerance. In particular, Mr Ahmer Bilal Soofi, President of the Research Society of International Law in Pakistan, encouraged States to promote inter-faith debates, especially among scholars and jurists, rather than only among government officials. The other panellists strongly supported these proposals and also emphasised the need to deliver training and education on religious sensitivities to police officers enabling them to more effectively monitor and prevent the rise of religious intolerance.

Furthermore, the panel encouraged the international community to consider creating new joint media outlets with journalists from different cultural and religious backgrounds, as an important long-term approach in dealing with stereotyping and religious intolerance in the media. Mr Adil Akhmetov[1] also highlighted the crucial role that information mechanisms play in these debates, and the need for reliable statistical data about anti-Muslim hate crimes in order to devise robust action plans to combat hate crimes.

Overall the discussion was constructive, and revealed the important issues that need to be addressed by policy makers, government officials, civil society actors, and religious leaders. Many States taking the floor affirmed resolution 16/18 as an important stepping-stone in tackling religious intolerance and negative stereotyping.

The majority of States congratulated the panellists for their suggestions on how to combat intolerance and discrimination against individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs, and recognised the crucial role of the UN system in helping to achieve these aims. The major area of focus during the discussion was education and promotion of inter-faith forums at local, national and international levels. In particular, the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom (UK), Austria, Australia, and Azerbaijan presented their national and regional attempts to promote educational events, such as diversity or inter-faith weeks, in schools and universities. The representatives asserted that education is critical in promoting tolerance and awareness of religious differences, and is a necessary tool in creating a dialogue between various cultures.

Some States argued that the key is a continuing lack of dialogue between the Islamic and non-Islamic world. Cuba, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, the Maldives, and Iran stressed that Muslims often face individual and institutional discrimination, mainly due to weak government support and a lack of protection against such discrimination. These States urged the Council to devise strategic national plans to tackle xenophobia and religious intolerance. The representative from the Maldives also asserted that the ‘Islamic world’ should build more awareness of what Islam truly stands for to strengthen a dialogue with the non-Islamic world.

Despite the generally constructive tone, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba continued to suggest strong recommendations in terms of limiting freedom of expression where religion is concerned, and criminalising incidents of religious hatred, continuing describe these incidents as ‘defamation of religions’.  This contrasted with the US, which advocated measures that ‘would promote more effective actions to increase religious tolerance, instead of prohibiting potentially offensive expression’. As in previous debates around the balance between freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief, significant divergences emerged between States, revealing the difficulty of finding common approaches towards combating religious intolerance.

In their concluding statements, the panelists highlighted the crucial role of civil society in elaborating practical methods to combat intolerance. Additionally, the creation of local task forces to promote tolerance and understanding, and to build a dialogue between different religions was recognised as an important new approach.

Overall, the discussions were well informed and constructive and did on the whole move beyond the issue of ‘defamation of religions’ to focus on intolerance and negative stereotyping of individuals. While more work may need to be done to consolidate the rejection of ‘defamation of religions’, the panel was certainly a step in the right direction. However, it still remains to be seen if that positive momentum in the Council can be carried over to future sessions, and related discussions in the General Assembly later this year.

[1] Ambassador and Personal Representative of the Chairperson-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on combating intolerance and discrimination against Muslims.

Majority of States deny need to renew mandate of the Independent Expert on Burundi


On 16 June 2011, the Human Rights Council (the Council) held an interactive dialogue with the Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Burundi. The special procedure on Burundi comes to an end with the establishment of the Independent National Commission of Human Rights (INCHR) in Burundi, in accordance with Council resolution 9/19 which established the mandate. Mr Fatsah Ouguergouz, the Independent Expert on human rights in Burundi, presented a statement on the institutional improvements in the country, such as the establishment of an ombudsman’s office, along with the INCHR. A transitional justice mechanism has now been established, and the Independent Expert urged the wide participation of civil society actors in its operation. He also highlighted the remaining issues faced by Burundi and noted that they need to be tackled by collaborative efforts involving the UN, its agencies, and civil society. States strongly supported the progress made in Burundi in promoting human rights, and the role that the Independent Expert had played in this. However, the majority of States also emphasised problems with corruption, lack of good governance, and a weak justice system, and urged Burundi to build a dialogue with civil society as an essential means of addressing these problems.

The Independent Expert emphasised the progress made in the social sphere, especially the provision of free compulsory education for children in primary schools and free medical care for women, children and vulnerable groups. Moreover, Ms Immaculee Nahayo, Minister of Solidarity, Human Rights and Gender of Burundi, speaking as the concerned country, pointed to the increase in employment opportunities, and protection for internally displaced persons (IDPs). However, both speakers also drew attention to ongoing problems and the urgent need to fight impunity, corruption and promote good governance in Burundi.

Similar concerns were shared by States, in particular Switzerland and Canada who asserted that prison conditions need to be urgently improved, and a solution found to land disputes for returning refugees. Additionally, Norway recommended strengthening court systems in order to fight impunity because the current institutional arrangements are relatively weak. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of States agreed that there is no need to extend the mandate of the Independent Expert as it was felt that the mechanisms established by Burundi, including the INCHR, the ombudsman, and the transitional justice mechanism, are sufficient. 

On the other hand, NGOs argued strongly in favor of extending the mandate of the Independent Expert and ensuring ongoing monitoring of human rights. In particular, Human Rights Watch identified the lack of protection for civil society activists and journalists working in Burundi. Moreover, Amnesty International also urged Burundi to establish a special tribunal to investigate torture cases and violence against human rights defenders.

In his concluding remarks, Mr Ouguergouz agreed on the urgent need to re-structure the judicial system and review the membership of the transitional justice mechanism to ensure it included civil society actors.

In the same session, Michel Forst, Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Haiti, presented his report to the council. Mr Forst outlined the following priority areas of his mandate: strengthening the place of human rights within the response to the humanitarian crisis, in particular economic and social rights; and advising on the implementation of reforms in the area of the rule of law to ensure that public institutions work to enable the full realisation of economic and social rights for the Haitian people.

Although the humanitarian situation in the country has improved since the catastrophic earthquake in January 2010, Mr Forst pointed out that the crisis in Haiti remains, as many men, women, and children continue to live in destitute conditions. Further, Mr Forst noted that certain human rights violations have escalated since the earthquake. According to UNICEF, 173,000 restavek[1] children are victims of human trafficking which Mr Forst said was “comparable to modern slavery”. Other issues persist such as the problem of street children, limited access to sanitary drinking water, forced evictions, lynchings, forcible return of potential migrants, and one of the most worrisome concerns of all, the recent cholera outbreak in the country which has infected over 300,000 people, leaving 5,400 dead.

Mr Forst noted progress made in Haiti with regards to rule of law, one of the main priorities of newly elected Haitian President Mr Michel Martelly. Haiti’s decision to establish the appointment of a President of the Court of Cassation[2] was a welcome sign according to Mr Forst because it sends “the long-awaited signal of the separation of the power of the executive and the judiciary”, a step that may potentially reduce corruption and enhance the human rights situation in the country.

A call was made by Mr Forst for efforts to be made to help strengthen Haiti’s national human rights institution which is represented by the Office de la Protection du Citoyen (OPC)[3]. Additional help is needed to supplement the work already done by OHCHR, UNDP and the International Organisation of the Francophonie in promoting capacity building and the development program for the OPC with the hope of Haiti eventually being able to implement the full protection of its citizens itself in the near future.

Finally, Mr Forst reiterated his concern about Haiti’s reconstruction, particularly that the role of human rights in the reconstruction process has not been visible enough and that we must change the message being sent to the Haitian people so that they understand that “the construction of buildings, roads and bridges are not an end in themselves, but a means to contribute to the progressive realisation of rights”.

The Haitian delegation reiterated the enormity of the catastrophic impact of last year’s earthquake and highlighted a number of public safety concerns that continue to trouble the country’s citizens such as domestic violence, particularly against women. Most States focused their comments on Haiti’s humanitarian challenges and they generally agreed that Haiti required further international assistance to help rebuild the country. While the discussion did not focus much on improving the human rights situation in Haiti, several recommendations were passed along by States. The US called on Haiti to improve accessibility services for the disabled as well as improve the protection of LGBTI peoples, and women and children. Chile recommended that the new Haitian government promote a human rights based approach where rule of law was respected and human rights institutions and organisations were actively engaged. The European Union called for the strengthening of civil society engagement in the rebuilding process.

Several NGOs expressed concern over the cholera outbreak and over what appears to be a dire security situation in the country. High crime in the country has put vulnerable people, particularly women and children, in danger. In his closing remarks, Mr Forst said that the main priority at the moment should be on rebuilding Haiti with the ultimate goal being a developed country that respects civil, political and cultural rights. Mr Forst called on civil society to keep a close eye on the situation in order to monitor the implementation of his recommendations. 

[1] Haitian children sent by their parents to work as domestic servants for host families

[2] The highest court in Haiti; equivalent of Supreme Court


Speak up now on laws that limit the activities of human rights defenders


Now is the opportunity for human rights defenders to provide the United Nations with information on how States are using legislation, including criminal legislation, to regulate defenders' activities.

Human rights defenders and non-governmental organisations can submit feedback via a questionnaire, by 15 June 2012. Responses to the questionnaire will inform the annual report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Ms Margaret Sekaggya.

Member States, national human rights institutions and regional human rights mechanisms have also been asked to answer the questionnaire. The information provided will be used within the body of Ms Sekaggya’s report and will also be annexed to the report for illustrative purposes.

The report will be made public on Ms Sekaggya’s website before her presentation to the General Assembly in October 2012.

The questionnaire is currently available in English, French or Spanish. It is not yet known whether it will be made available in other UN languages. 

Responses to the questionnaire should be submitted to the Special Rapporteur at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, by email: or by fax: +41 22 917 90 06.   

To find out more click here.

Council Alert: Human Rights Council June 2012 session


The Human Rights Council (the Council) will hold its 20th session from 18 June to 6 July. For more information including the draft programme of work and the list of reports, use the link here. Note that the programme of work remains subject to change. Information concerning NGOs and how to participate within the Council can be found using the link here. The organisational meeting for the upcoming session, led by the Council President Ms Laura Dupuy Lasserre, was held on 4 June. During the meeting States discussed the programme of work for the Council’s 20th session and the various panel discussions being organised, as well as sharing initiatives for planned resolutions. 

At this session, 18 mandate holders will present their reports, in a series of clustered interactive dialogues. On 19 June the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression will present his latest report to the Council, while the next day Mr Maina Kiai, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association will present his first report to the Council. His report highlights best practices for promoting and protecting the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and association. This includes not only the right to participate in peaceful assemblies and be protected from undue interference whilst doing so, but also the rights of those monitoring peaceful assemblies. In addition, the Working Group on human rights and transnational corporations will present its first report to the Council, as will the Working Group on discrimination against women. For access to reports in langauges other than English, please see the full list of reports to be presented at the 20th session.

The interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights may be rescheduled. This follows concerns expressed by Senegal, on behalf of the African Group, that clustering the presentation of the report with those of two other special procedures will not allow enough time for discussion.

The Council will continue its efforts to follow-up on the situation in Syria. On 27 June it will hold an interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry (the Commission) on the situation in Syria. Following the special session on Syria, convened on 1 June, the Commission will include in its oral report a full briefing on its investigation into the massacre in El-Houleh. Also as a consequence of the resolution adopted at that special session, the Council will also be briefed by the Joint Special Envoy for the UN and the League of Arab States, Mr Kofi Annan. Finally, under Item 2, the Council will consider (along with other thematic reports from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Secretary-General) the report of the Secretary-General into the implementation of resolution 19/22 on the ‘situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic’.

In terms of other country situations, there will be an interactive dialogue on the report requested from the High Commissioner, under resolution17/24, into the situation of human rights in Belarus. The EU also announced plans to bring a resolution on Belarus at this session. In addition, at the last session of the Council, 44 States joined a joint statement on Eritrea, expressing concern at the situation in the country. This statement may pave the way for a resolution at this session.

The situation of human rights in Bahrain, however, remains off the Council’s agenda. As the recent UPR of Bahrain demonstrated, there are urgent and serious issues in need of address in the country, which demand the attention of the Council outside of the framework of the UPR. The Council’s failure to take action with respect to the grievous situation in Bahrain seriously undermines its credibility.

Also at the UPR of Bahrain, the President of the Council highlighted the danger of reprisals faced by human rights defenders who had engaged with the process. The President faced criticism from some States who claimed she was not authorised to speak on behalf of the Council. Since the President took as her basis for authorisation the Council’s own condemnation of reprisals, States would do well at this session of the Council to reiterate that condemnation and give support to the President’s position.

A key area of discussion at this session will be women’s human rights. The Council President announced that the annual full-day discussion on women’s human rights, co-sponsored by Canada and Chile, will be broken into two themes, with panels held on the afternoon of 25 June and the morning of 26 June. As the subject of the first panel, the Council decided to discuss ‘remedies, with a focus on transformative and culturally sensitive reparation for women who have been subjected to violence’, as requested by resolution 17/11. The discussion will identify good practices, ensuring women’s access to judicial institutions and out-of-court reparations.

The second theme of discussion during this annual full-day discussion will be on women human rights defenders. Moderated by the Council President with a panel of distinguished experts, the discussion will focus on the effectiveness of mechanisms, if any, that have been established by States to protect and empower women human rights defenders with a view to making concrete recommendations to States on designed and implementing gender-specific programmes for the protection of women human rights defenders. Panellists include Ms Sunila Abeysekera, representing the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRD IC).

Adding to the focus on women’s human rights at this session, there will also be interactive dialogues with the Working Group on discrimination against women, and the Special Rapporteur on violence against women.

Following on from the high profile panel on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity, and other related events at the Council’s last session, this session will see this issue take a much lower profile. There are however several contexts in which it could arise, including the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the right to health. His report on the mandate’s visit to Ghana includes criticism of the criminalisation of female sex workers and men who have sex with men.

Also at this session a panel will be held on ‘the promotion and protection of human rights in a multicultural context’. The resolution that created the panel initially sparked fears that it could be used as a vehicle for culturally relative interpretations of human rights, of particular concern in the context of women’s rights, and sexual orientation and gender identity. Those fears were largely assuaged by the final version of the resolution, and the focus of the panel will be on combating xenophobia, discrimination, and intolerance.

Finally, the office of the Presidency of the Council will co-host a high-level side event, with OHCHR and the Permanent Missions of Armenia, Belgium, Mexico, Senegal, Qatar, and Thailand. The event will be on ‘enhancing cooperation with regional and sub-regional human rights mechanisms’, and will be held on 18 June. It will be chaired by the President and includes the High Commissioner as panellist, together with representatives from the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Council of Europe, the League of Arab States, and the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. The event will include discussion of how regional and sub-regional mechanisms could enhance inputs and follow-up to the UPR process.

The only mandate due for renewal at this session is that of the Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Côte d’Ivoire. The Council will also appoint an expert to the mandate of Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, health and sustainable environment, a mandate created at the last session of the Council. The list of candidates can be found here.

This session will be somewhat lighter than previous sessions, due to the fact that there are no UPR adoptions.

Resolutions to be brought at 20th session, as mentioned at organisational meeting

  • Promotion of the enjoyment of the cultural rights of everyone and respect for cultural diversity (Cuba)
  • Trafficking in persons, especially women and children (Germany and Philippines)
  • The effects of foreign debt and other international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights (Cuba)
  • Promotion of the right of peoples to peace (Cuba)
  • Human rights of internally displaced persons, theme on IDPs outside camps (Austria)
  • The right to education (Portugal)
  • Assistance to Côte d’Ivoire in the field of Human Rights (Senegal/African Group)
  • Human rights situation in Belarus (EU)
  • Accelerating efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women – theme on remedies (Canada)
  • Human rights of migrants (Mexico)
  • National institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights (Canada)
  • Human rights and climate change (Bangladesh and Philippines)
  • Promotion of human rights in the context of the use of internet (Sweden)
  • Discrimination against women in law and in practice (Mexico and Colombia)
  • Right to nationality with focus on women and children (USA)
  • Right to conscientious objection within military service (Croatia)
  • Arbitrary detention (France)
  • Arbitrary deprivation of nationality - obstacles to enjoyment of human rights (Russia)

Based on previous June Council sessions, the following resolutions, although not announced at the organisational meeting, may also be tabled at the upcoming session

  • Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance
  • Human rights situation in Syria
  • Freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
  • Human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises
  • Extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions
  • Extreme poverty and human rights
  • Independence of judges and lawyers
  • Technical assistance and cooperation on human rights for Kyrgyzstan
  • Freedom of opinion and expression
  • Right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health
  • Follow-up of the report of the Independent International Fact Finding Mission on the incident of the humanitarian flotilla

First-ever Council panel on women human rights defenders


You can view a webcast of the panel discussion below.

ISHR presented statement during the panel. Watch from 2:23:36 to 2:26:03 to view it being presented to the Council.

Human rights experts and State representatives will come together on Tuesday 26 June in the first-ever United Nations Human Rights Council panel discussion on the protection of women human rights defenders.

The panel will take place as part of the Council’s annual day of discussion on women’s human rights, and recommendations will be made to States on establishing and strengthening national programmes to protect women human rights defenders, based on the gender-specific nature of many of the violations women defenders face, and their specific protection needs.

The panel will include the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Margaret Sekaggya; Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, José de Jesús Orozco Henríquez; Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition representative, Sunila Abeysekera; with an opening statement by the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kyung-wha Kang. It will be moderated by the President of the Human Rights Council, Laura Dupuy Lasserre.

The UN and regional human rights systems have previously highlighted women defenders for particular attention. Ms Sekaggya’s 2010 report to the Human Rights Council focused on the situation of women human rights defenders. Mr Jesús Orozco Henríquez’s office at the Inter-American Commission has also acknowledged this group of defenders in its Second Report on Human Rights Defenders in the America, launched this year. Meanwhile, the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition has been working since its formation in 2005 to press for effective responses to the issues faced by those working on women’s and sexual rights, including activists defending the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

ISHR’s representative on the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, Eleanor Openshaw, says the panel is an important piece in a much broader Human Rights Council commitment to integrating a gender perspective in the work of the UN.

‘In 2007, the Council adopted a resolution that encourages all parts of the UN human rights system to integrate a gender perspective in their work, including through the annual day of discussion on women’s rights.

‘Gender integration requires documenting and analysing the gender-specific nature of the violations women human rights defenders face. It also involves questioning how different people experience violations differently, how this affects their ability to claim and defend rights, and, therefore, how this should inform responses to those violations. 

‘The direct engagement of women defenders with human rights processes and access to UN bodies is key to answering these questions. The focused panel on women human rights defenders tomorrow should therefore make an important contribution to raising awareness about the specific challenges women defenders face and their specific needs for protection. ‘

Any discussion on the protection of women defenders and their engagement with the UN must include a focus on the problem of reprisals, adds Ms Openshaw.

‘Reprisals against the legitimate engagement of women defenders with the Human Rights Council and other UN human rights mechanisms is simply one expression of far broader, but often under-reported, threats and intimidation faced by human rights defenders,’ she says.

‘This panel is an essential opportunity to explore the extent of this problem for women defenders, and to look at ways the Council can improve its response.’

The panel on women human rights defenders is one of two that will take place as part of the Council’s day of discussion on women’s human rights, which started on Monday 25 June. The second panel will explore remedies and reparations for women who have been subjected to violence.

States defensive against High Commissioner's criticism


The Human Rights Council opened its 20th regular session on 18 June 2012. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navanethem Pillay, updated the Council on the recent activity and prospective concerns of her office (OHCHR).

Ms Pillay’s statement focused on the Rio+20 Outcome Document, the treaty body strengthening process, OHCHR resources, and the domestic human rights situations in various countries. Her statements were raised in the context of a general appeal for a ‘human rights focus to be applied to all dimensions of United Nations activity in light of the ‘backdrop of crisis around the globe’. Most States expressed approval for this idea.

However, Ms Pillay’s description of specific human rights concerns in some States, including Canada, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), drew defensive and hostile responses from their delegates. In the course of the general debate, Ms Pillay was repeatedly accused of working beyond the scope of her mandate and failing to approach the international human rights situation with objectivity and impartiality.  To dispute Ms Pillay’s assessment of the human rights situation in their respective countries, these delegates attempted to deflect attention away from their own States by listing human rights violations in States that had echoed the High Commissioner’s concerns. This gave the opening session a somewhat combative atmosphere, which will hopefully be channelled into productive debate as the session progresses.

Continuing the trend of her previous reports and the increasingly outspoken role of the President of the Council, Ms Pillay expressed regret that reprisals against those who cooperate with UN human rights mechanisms continue. However, she welcomed the attention that the issue has recently received. A more diverse group of States took up her concern about reprisals than in previous sessions; Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC) said that it was important to increase the safety and security of those who cooperate with human rights mechanisms. Chile and Peru also referred to the need to address the issue, and Switzerland declared that it was the responsibility of all countries to ensure that human rights defenders can exercise their rights freely.

In an ongoing effort to ensure attention to human rights violations in all regions of the world, the High Commissioner discussed the human rights situations in Syria, Mali, Eritrea, Somalia, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), Nepal, Hungary, Mexico, Canada, and various Latin American countries. Additionally, she reported on the Deputy High Commissioner’s missions to Guatemala, Barbados, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Chad, Niger, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Regardless, her comments drew angry responses from some States because of delegates’ perceptions of being ‘singled out’.

Though nearly all States affirmed the need for action in Syria and deplored the actions of the Syrian regime, the Syrian delegate described Ms Pillay’s remarks as 'very strange' and 'far from being objective or accurate'. The delegate criticised Ms Pillay for failing to refer to the actions of Al Qaeda, and dismissed her remarks as ‘far from constructive dialogue’ and contradictory to her mandate. At the conclusion of formal proceedings, Syria exercised its right of reply to also condemn the 'hypocrisy' of Qatar, Libya, France, and Canada in criticising Syria while failing to address human rights violations in their own countries. Syria accused other delegates of ‘lying’ in their expressions of sympathy for the victims of the uprising and said that nothing justified the ‘foul language’ used by the High Commissioner in her comments.

Similar resentment about 'hypocrisy' was expressed by Sri Lanka on the ‘ill conceived’ resolution passed on Sri Lanka at the 19th session. The delegate stated that the resolution created mistrust in international processes and was ‘wholly unnecessary’ to resolving Sri Lanka’s human rights challenges.

Surprisingly, Canada also objected to the High Commissioner’s remarks, on the grounds that legislative reform restricting student protests in Quebec did not justify Canada’s consideration alongside States such as Syria and the DRC. The Canadian delegate tartly dismissed Ms Pillay’s comments with reference to various aspects of Canada’s judicial system and respect for fundamental freedoms. She went on to say that 'in a world where Syrians are dying', Ms Pillay had ‘wasted valuable time’ commenting on Canada when she could have been talking about important human rights violations relating to Sri Lanka and Syria.[1] The Sri Lankan delegate, in reply, expressed surprise at Canada’s attempt to deflect attention from its domestic situation, and criticised Canada for drawing unrelated parallels.

Belarus declared that the ‘selectivity’ of OHCHR in raising issues of concern was worrying, and called for the High Commissioner to consider adopting a new approach.

It was notable that a number of States from different regions was willing to criticise the human rights record of others, while reacting forcefully when faced with critical comments from independent sources, such as the High Commissioner and special procedures. Constructive debate in the Council requires willingness by all governments to engage on each human rights situation – including their own – on their merits. While it is to be expected that some governments disagree with the assessment of the High Commissioner or special procedures, their response should be based on a constructive presentation of facts, rather than on an unhelpful comparison of human rights violations occurring in very different contexts.

Following on from the joint statement on Eritrea presented by Somalia at the last session of the Council, the High Commissioner called for Eritrean authorities to cooperate with international human rights mechanisms. This issue was not widely picked up by States, though Denmark (on behalf of the EU) endorsed the High Commissioner's remarks, and Switzerland stated that the Council should react more specifically to the situation.

In relation to her office's increasing involvement in country situations, including requests for reports from the Council and continuing missions of Commissions of Inquiry operating under her office's mandate, Ms Pillay stressed the necessity of balancing competing human rights concerns given the limited resources available to OHCHR. She stated that OHCHR’s mandates and fields of operation could not be extended indefinitely without a review of priorities. India expressed support for this call from the High Commissioner, but stated that it was important for the High Commissioner to regularly share information on budgetary allocations, particularly on special procedures and specific programmes. Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC) said that this should result in a review and rationalisation of the special procedures, noting that ten special procedure mandates are country specific indicating a gradual increase. It suggested that this approach should change to one where country situations are addressed through thematic mandates.

India also raised the issue of special procedures. Noting positively the High Commissioner's call for cooperation between States and special procedures, India added that the special procedures must adhere to the Council-approved Code of Conduct as the ultimate guide to their behaviour, rather than any other internal procedural guidelines.[2]

Ms Pillay also discussed the importance of reinforcing protection of human rights holders at a domestic level in the context of treaty body reform. The strengthening process was launched in 2009 with multi-stakeholder participation, and a report containing stakeholders’ proposals was made available on 22 June 2012. Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC) said that it looked forward to contributing substantively to the intergovernmental process in New York. Poland, Spain, Chile, and Ireland made positive statements anticipating the report and on the importance of the treaty body strengthening process generally. Russia, however, suggested that the role of the OHCHR should be ‘backstopping’ in nature, and should not delve into the ‘substantive work’ of the treaty body process in a way that dictates its agenda. India stressed the importance of ensuring that States are fully involved in the outcome of the strengthening process, contrasting such an approach to the 'fait accompli' that it felt States had been handed when some treaty bodies adopted the new reporting procedure of List of Issues Prior to Reporting. The full involvement of States, the delegation argued, would ensure that treaty bodies were in turn able to elicit the cooperation from States that the system relies on. The role of NGOs in the intergovernmental process was not discussed, despite the severe lack of clarity about how civil society will be able to add its voice to the discussions.

Other issues raised included the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons. Ms Pillay referred to Russian and Ukrainian laws restricting freedom of expression in relation to LGBTI issues. This issue was not widely engaged by State parties, though Denmark (on behalf of the EU), the Czech Republic, Norway, and Switzerland stated that they shared the High Commissioner's concerns.

[1] The High Commissioner had included one sentence on Canada in her remarks, saying ‘Moves to restrict freedom of assembly continue to alarm me, as is the case in the province of Quebec in Canada in the context of students' protests'. 

[2] India did, however, not refer to any specific concerns in relation to the Code of Conduct or its observance by mandate holders.


Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association presents first report


The presentation of the reports of the Special Rapporteurs on the right of peaceful assembly and association, and on human rights and counter-terrorism, proved to be a truly interactive dialogue with many States concretely engaging in the topics. The reports were presented to the Human Rights Council on 20 June.

Mr Maina Kiai, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, opened the session by emphasising that these rights were key components of democracy, too long neglected in human rights law. While conceding that these rights were not absolute, he emphasised that they should be the norm, and restrictions by national law the exception. He introduced the best practices included in his report as going beyond legally binding issues and as designed to help States towards better compliance with their obligations.

Reporting on his country visit to Georgia, he acknowledged that his concerns regarding the manner in which amendments to the Law on Political Union of Citizens had been recognised in the adoption of a new version of the law in May 2012 and ongoing consultations with civil society. However he expressed concerns regarding the Chamber of Control’s powers to inspect financial accounts if there is a suspicion of illegal party financing, stating that these powers could be used to target human rights defenders and others for political reasons. He notably highlighted the crucial stage at which the country is today in the run up to upcoming elections, and added that upholding the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association would be fundamental to upholding the positive steps taken since the Rose revolution.  In response, Georgia underlined that the report did not accurately reflect the developments undergone since the writing of the report, as legal frameworks had since been further adapted to align themselves with international standards.

The best practices were widely welcomed by States, notably Morocco, Germany, and Cuba who were mentioned in the Special Rapporteur’s report as exemplary implementing actors. Senegal, on behalf of the African group, commended the report as it helped to fill the previous void in legal provisions. However, States including China and Malaysia,  who had been listed as of utmost concern in the Special Rapporteur’s report, refuted some of information contained in the report as distorted.

Echoed by Belarus, Cuba, while pleased with its own inclusion as an example of best practice, accused the report of being rather selective in its choice of negative cases and wished to know what the Special Rapporteur thought of cases such as oppressive measures taken by western States against the Occupy Wall Street movement and in the Canadian student protests for instance.

The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) as well as Sweden and Ecuador, made strong statements about the importance of protecting the rights to freedom of assembly and association for all people, including vulnerable groups, women human rights defenders, and members of the LGBTI communities, as well as highlighting a number of recent laws, proposals, and State actions which violate these rights. This countered the statement from Egypt, which denied that the notion of sexual orientation is part of universally recognised human rights, while calling on Mr Kiai not to undermine the legitimacy and credibility of his work in ‘the eyes of real people who actually need it’.

While acknowledging the positive developments since the liberalisation of its assembly laws, the Maldives highlighted the complicated balance of responsibility between the State and the organisers of demonstration with regards to safety and protection of all parties involved.

Ireland wished to commend the Special Rapporteur’s stance that the Internet should be considered as a tool for the organisation of peaceful assemblies.

Numerous states including Germany, Lithuania, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) including the World Organisation against Torture, Amnesty International, and Malaysia’s national human rights institution (NHRI) SUHAKAM, raised concerns about the situations in Egypt, Russia, Belarus, Syria, and Ethiopia, where restrictive laws were shrinking the space of civil society to assemble and associate freely.

Mr Kiai closed the session by emphasising that his role was to review States in all regions of the world under his mandate and to this end he was scrutinising cases including Switzerland and Canada, but he emphasised that cases such as Belarus were mentioned as they were deemed more pressing than others. He also pointed to a ‘disturbing trend’ whereby it seemed that States were learning from each other, for example, the Russian Federation’s law on protests seemed to have taken inspiration from a law in the canton of Geneva.

Mr Ben Emmerson, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, presented his first report to the Council with a poignant reminder of the numerous terrorist attacks and their victims that occur on a daily basis across the world.

His victim centered approach was commended by the European Union, Chile and the African Group amongst others. However, the Council of Europe and Mexico notably stressed that this should not become an excuse to subsequently infringe others rights in the fight for justice. This issue related notably to the sensitive issue of drone attacks where Cuba, China, Brazil, Egypt and more importantly Pakistan remained concerned that civilians are being killed to protect the human rights of others, contrary to the right to life of non-combatants and the UN Charter. In the context of supporting the UN global counter-terrorism strategy, Jordan stressed the need for collective work on this issue as well as to avoid equating terrorism to religious movements.

Norway, the United Kingdom (UK), and Botswana were concerned about the Special Rapporteur’s reference to non-State actors who commit acts of terrorism as also violating the human rights of the victims. The Special Rapporteur emphasised very strongly that his position in no way implied any lessening of or change in the obligations of States, as some States have taken this stance to justify crackdowns as a means of protecting human rights. Mr Emmerson referred in particular to Syria’s justifications of violence, strongly criticising it for referring to sections of his report out of context to attempt to avoid its own obligations to respect international human rights law. He reminded all States, ‘including Syria’, that reducing the plight of victims of terrorism to a justification for violation of human rights law is a secondly violation of the victims themselves.

Norway, the UK, and Belgium remained skeptical about the added value of an international normative framework, while Morocco and Austria voiced interest in the format this would take, either as a soft law mechanism or a binding document.

Russia controversially mentioned the responsibility of States that indirectly support terrorism though arms supply and strategic facilitation.

Mr Emmerson wished to thank those States open to the development of an international instrument, including the OIC and the EU. He stated that further work would include a letter to all States from the mandate asking for an internal audit of law, procedure, and practice in order to identify protection gaps. He called on States to ensure that the issue is raised within the context of the global review of the UN Counter-terrorism strategy, which will take place in New York next month. He also reminded States that the victim-centred approach is not only about compensation. The protection of victims requires a holistic approach including prevention, investigation, protection of privacy, protection of security, rights to freedom of expression and association, all of which are linked to the protection of the rights of victims of terrorism.

Focus on journalists by Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression and on extrajudicial executions


On 19 June the annual reports of the Special Rapporteurs on freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, and on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, were presented to the Human Rights Council (the Council).  A clustered interactive dialogue was held to discuss the two reports, and their common theme - journalism.

La Rue’s overview paid particular attention to the public service role played by journalists. Their investigative purview, he argued, situates them as watchdogs - an essential pillar of a modern democratic society. Threats and violence against journalists endanger freedom of speech, censoring not only the individual threatened but also, through creating a climate of fear, the wider society. La Rue singled out Colombia’s national Unit for the Protection of Journalists for praise, and called for States to follow this example and develop protection mechanisms, tailored to the local context, to protect the rights of journalists. The criminalisation of defamation also alarmed the Special Rapporteur. Similar to the direct threats mentioned earlier, these legal statutes, and corresponding ‘judicial harassment’, may cause self-censorship - stifling democracy.

Christof Heyns introduced his report by underscoring the threats journalists face. According to his report two thirds of journalists are killed because they investigate corruption, politics, the environment, and human rights - not because they are in conflict zones. Most perilous of all are the positions occupied by local, as opposed to foreign, journalists. The Special Rapporteur asserted that high levels of impunity within some of the more corrupt nations, including the Philippines, Colombia, and the Russian Federation, can be directly correlated to the killing of journalists. Heyns finished by mentioning that 70 per cent of journalists killed received prior threats, suggesting that there is significant room for preventative measures.

Concerned states, those visited by Special Rapporteur La Rue, were then allowed time to reply to his report. Algeria spoke first, criticising La Rue’s report for being unbalanced and exceeding its mandate. The delegate criticised the report for making reference to freedom of assembly, which it stated was the sole responsibility of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Mr Maina Kiai. The Palestinian delegate spoke next, agreeing with the La Rue’s concerns about the need to balance its defamation laws against greater freedom of opinion. Efforts to establish a human rights framework are, however, being overridden by the ongoing and illegal Israeli occupation. The third concerned State, Israel, did not speak because its delegate was absent.

The dialogue was then opened to the floor, where several themes were discussed. Despite the considerable use of Latin American States within Heyns’s report, only two States from the region picked up on this. Cuba and Brazil were the only Latin American countries to comment upon the omission of developed countries from the report. Belarus and the Russian Federation chimed in, however, over the issue of Julian Assange.[1] The illegal use of drones, and the growing number of deaths caused by drone attacks, became another focal point. Switzerland, Cuba, and the American Civil Liberties Union each called for an end to the use of robotic weapons, which jeopardise the lives of not only civilians but journalists as well.

La Rue’s definition of journalism also caused contention amongst States. Whilst the majority of European and other Western states fully concurred with the definition, Senegal, Egypt, Algeria, and Mexico disagreed with its content. The definition, which includes citizen journalists and bloggers within the broader umbrella of ‘journalism’, received criticism for being too broad. Whilst these States agreed that journalists should be afforded specific rights, the inclusion of bloggers and citizen journalists was considered too inclusive. Thailand, China, and Cuba aimed criticism at bloggers for their alleged lack of objectivity and ethical standards.

Overall the debate was well received by all parties, with constructive dialogue throughout. Despite several contentious issues, the majority of States thanked the two Special Rapporteurs for their objective and insightful reports. The majority of States also sought to question the Rapporteurs on methods of best practice regarding the protection of journalists. During Heyns’s final remarks he outlined several such best practices. Among these was Brazil’s federal law on crimes against journalists and the National Australian Broadcasting Commission’s (NABC) provision of first aid training to its journalists. At the regional level the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was cited for its provisions. The OSCE’s Committee to Protect Journalists is one such provision to protect the freedom of expression.

Human rights defenders also came up during the dialogue. Norway pointed to the link between human rights defenders and journalists stating that the trend of killing or harassment of journalists mirrored that experienced by human rights defenders. While it clarified that not all journalists are human rights defenders, it added that where journalists draw attention to human rights violations through their reporting they are carrying out an activity under article 6(c) of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. In this case, therefore, the provisions of the Declaration apply. 

In his closing remarks, La Rue distinguished between a journalist and a human rights defender by stating the former informed the population about human rights violations, whilst the second denounced human rights violations. However, despite making this distinction he recognised the similarity of risk faced by both groups, and called for a greater synthesis in the provisions for both. He highlighted several best practices from Mexico, Brazil, and Honduras. In Honduras the Secretary General of Justice has implemented the first national plan on human rights defenders, justice personnel, and journalists for a safe working environment. Brazil, encouraged by the success of its existing  protection afforded to journalists via protection programmes designed for human rights defenders, aims to continue in this vein. 

[1] Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, faces extradition to Sweden, and from there to the US where he could be charged under the Espionage Act, a law which carries the death penalty.

Council continues its engagement with the situation in Syria


The mid-point of the Human Rights Council’s (the Council) 20th session, on 27 June, saw the continuation of the body’s engagement with the situation in Syria. It followed the fourth special session on the situation in the country including the massacre in El-Houleh (held on 1 June) and centred around the briefing by the Deputy Joint Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Syria, Jean-Marie Guéhenno and the presentation of the oral update report by Commission of Inquiry on Syria (COI), which had been called for in the resolution adopted at that special session.  

Mr Guéhenno started the discussion by describing the current deplorable situation and the escalating violence, at the core of which are egregious violations of human rights. Indeed, the violence has now taken a sectarian perspective and has not only spread in the country but is currently threatening to destabilise the region as a whole. While he deplored the reality that all sides in the country seemed not to believe in a political solution anymore, he pointed to his hopes that during the meeting of the Action Group, planned for the 30 June, States would be able to agree among themselves in order to formulate a Syrian-led transition process.

Chairperson of the COI, Mr Paulo Pinheiro, while grateful to the Syrian authorities for enabling his visit to Damascus from 23 to 25 June, emphasised his concern over the continuing gross violations of human rights and the increasingly militarised fighting. The COI’s investigation into the El-Houleh massacre, discussed during his visit to Damascus, found that over 100 people were killed on 25 May, mainly targeting women and children in their homes.  Investigations concluded that Syrian Government forces or those loyal to them were the most probable agents responsible for the killings due to their unique ability to access the area and the resemblance of these killings to past Government actions.

While the Russian Federation, Romania, Slovakia, France, and Switzerland in particular commended the access given to Mr Pinheiro during this investigation, the need for unimpeded access by both the COI and humanitarian organisations was still a concern for numerous States including EU member states, Canada, and Switzerland.

The Russian Federation pointed to the flaws in the resolution stating that it had laid the ground to accuse the Government before any substantive conclusions could be drawn from the investigation. The State, however, welcomed the access granted to the COI by Syria, commended its objectivity, its responsible attitude, and its avoidance of unilateral assessments, and hoped that this visit would be followed by others so as to establish the truth and overturn unfounded speculation in the media.

As the concerned country, Syria noted that the report did refer to both foreign groups of unknown affiliation as well as anti-Government groups on its territory who in their view are those perpetrating acts of gross human rights violations. Syria also pointed to the ‘hypocrisy’ of foreign powers, who claimed to act on behalf of the victims, while hindering national reconciliation and promoting hostility through their material and financial support to the 'rebels'. It reiterated its commitment to the Annan Plan and stated that it will not allow armed factions to target the international observers and prevent them from exercising their mission. It added that the ‘shameful situation’ in the Council, its 'politicised meetings' and 'sterile resolutions', would seriously induce it to cease all cooperation with the UN and its missions, and that it will make the appropriate decision in this respect at the appropriate time with regard to its national interest. Referring to the interactive dialogue to follow its statement, it asserted that it would not participate in such a ‘politicised meeting’.

All States speaking during the dialogue strongly condemned the indiscriminate and deliberate killings of civilians by all parties including the Government forces, Shabiha, and anti-Government forces. However, special concern was reserved for the violence and abuses directed at children, notably during the El- Houleh massacre. Indeed, Austria, Botswana, Canada, Latvia, Qatar, and Romania, amongst others, voiced their consternation at children being used as human shields and porters by both sides as well as referring to reported cases of sexual violence. Austria in particular voiced its concern in the context of the implications on reconciliation. Indeed, as a further step into violence compared to its fellow Arab Spring states, such atrocities will inevitably render the process of reconciliation and a path for peace much harder with the younger generation scarred by physical as well as psycho-social traumas.

China, together with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Tunisia, and Cuba, was particularly concerned that protection of human rights and humanitarian actions were a guise for a potential 'imperialist' military intervention based on the responsibility to protect. It added that any such interference in the internal affairs of Syria would only incite further violence and have negative implications for the region.

Referral by the Security Council to the International Criminal Court (ICC), while not mentioned in the reports presented, was called for by numerous States including, the United Kingdom, Chile, and the Maldives (who read a cross-regional joint statement on behalf of Austria, Botswana, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Costa Rica, Croatia, Denmark, France, Honduras, Ireland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Nigeria, Norway, Poland, Peru, the Republic of Korea, the Republic of Moldova, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland). The ICC was highlighted as the only effective mechanism to ensure accountability for these crimes and to fight the ongoing impunity in the country. Slovakia noted that not even the UN presence in Syria had been spared in the violence, ‘which might constitute a war crime’.

Despite the wide range of concerns, most States continued to actively voice their ongoing support for the Annan Plan as the only means to achieve peace through political means. There was a universal call for a united front on this issue, notably by a strong statement made by Germany. The US and Germany, however, stressed their view that the future of Syria did not involve Assad.

While the Commission is still awaiting access to several areas of interest and there is very limited hope for an immediate solution, the session closed with the upcoming meeting of the Action Group in mind, seen as the last chance to put the Annan Plan back on track and to avoid the already deadly situation in Syria from spiralling completely out of control. That meeting concluded with an agreement on plans for a transitional government, but not one which necessarily excludes Assad. While prospects for such an agreement had seemed low beforehand, now that it has been achieved the challenge lies in implementing it.



A conducive legal framework is a necessary, although by no means sufficient, element of a safe and enabling environment for the work of human rights defenders (HRDs). This requires both the absence of laws and policies which restrict or, even, criminalise the work of HRDs, and the enactment and effective implementation of laws and policies which support and protect their work, writes ISHR director Phil Lynch.

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