News

19 Sep

In the face of mounting evidence of crimes against humanity committed with impunity by Burundian authorities, the Human Rights Council should push for investigation and prosecution by the International Criminal Court and for Burundi's Council membership to be suspended, says a group of 35 African and international NGOs. 

12 Sep

This week, in sister events in New York and Geneva, 15 candidate States presented their vision for Human Rights Council membership for the period 2018 – 2020. They also responded to questions on how they would realise their pledges and commitments.

18 Sep
President of the Human Rights Council

Reacting to a report by UN experts exposing ongoing threats and attacks against human rights defenders across the globe, ISHR calls on States to work together and cooperate with the UN to protect civil society.

15 Sep
Palais Wilson where Committee meets

The UN watchdog body on the rights of migrant workers and their families has reviewed the records of Ecuador, Indonesia and Mexico, drawing particular attention to the important role of defenders, and the challenging environment they face.  

12 Sep

Arbitrary detention is a tool governments use to target defenders and rights activism, said ISHR today. Highlighting the case of China, ISHR emphasised that the outstanding cases of defenders languishing in detention, despite the efforts of the international community, are a call to action for Council members and UN officials alike.

Cancelled: side event: 31 October, New York. 'Restrictive laws and the Repression of Human Rights Defenders'

17.10.2012
 

EVENT CANCELLED

Please note that due to circumstances related to Hurricane Sandy, this event has unfortunately been cancelled.

______________________________________________

On Wednesday, 31 October, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), CIVICUS, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and the Norwegian Mission to the United Nations will hold a public panel discussion in New York entitled 'Restrictive laws and the repression of human rights defenders'.

The event will be held in New York at the  offices of the Baha'i International Community, at 866 United Nations Plaza (one block north of the UN), between 1.15pm and 2.45pm, local time. Lunch will be provided.

The discussion will focus on Special Rapporteur Margaret Sekaggya’s report to the 67th General Assembly, and the experiences of human rights defenders in Bahrain, Zimbabwe, the DRC, and other countries.

The report of the Special Rapporteur focuses on how national legislation is being used to regulate and limit human rights defenders' work and activities.

It includes concerns about the arrest and prosecution of human rights defenders under the guise of combating terrorism; the excessive use of force on assemblies; the use of legislation to curb activities of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender defenders; the loss of licenses by lawyers who defend individuals prosecuted under national  security laws; the use of personal information on human rights defenders obtained through social networking and websites; and the wrongful use of defamation laws to charge human rights defenders with defamation and blasphemy.

If you wish to attend this event please RSVP to +1 212 490 2199 or to m.evans@ishrny.org.

States and NGOs welcome discussion of pledges by Human Rights Council candidates

27.10.2012
 

In anticipation of the Human Rights Council elections on 12 November 2012, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) and Amnesty International, with the support of the Permanent Missions of Mexico and Switzerland, held an event entitled ‘Human Rights Council Elections: A Discussion of Candidates’ Aspirations and Visions of Memberships’. Held on 19 October 2012, the event gave candidates an opportunity to present their vision for membership on the Human Rights Council (the Council) and respond to questions on how they would realise their pledges and commitments, if elected.

Regrettably, only eight of the eighteen candidates for election chose to participate in the event: Argentina, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Montenegro, Sweden and USA, presented and discussed their pledges. However, the candidates present were for the most part represented at the highest levels and the event was well attended by both States and civil society. The discussion was chaired by Ambassador Christian Strohal, the Permanent Representative of Austria to the UN in Geneva and Vice-President of the Council.

In accordance with the General Assembly resolution that created the Council, States electing members are directed to “take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto”. Though States failed to agree to a public pledge review mechanism during the creation of the Council and later during its 5-year review, this event offered a voluntary platform for candidates wishing to discuss their pledges ahead of the election. The candidates’ pledges can be linked to here.

Key Areas of Discussion

All candidates were asked a common question in advance about whether they considered that the Council is living up to expectations in terms of prevention and response to human rights emergencies and what they would do if elected to strengthen this aspect of the Council’s mandate.

Most candidates acknowledged significant progress in reacting to emergencies compared to its predecessor the Commission on Human Rights, while recognising that improvements were needed. Argentina noted that the picture was mixed on prevention and response but that prevention had been more successful. Germany noted the need for a more responsive Council with greater impact on the ground. Greece cited positive Council responses to Cote D’Ivoire and Libya, but noted the reaction to emergencies still needed improvement. Ireland shared its view that the Council has only partially met expectations but has shown real capacity for robust engagement, in Syria and Libya for example. Noting that the capacity for the Council to consider emergencies needs continuing work, Ireland hoped States would be able to return to the question of objective trigger mechanisms for emergency sessions. The US shared its view that the Council is far more likely to live up to expectations with the US as a member as it has taken a leading role on emergencies during its first term. The US noted that its commitment, capacity, and unique collaboration led to positive consequences.

States were also asked individual questions in advance relating to topics in their pledges (Argentina on transitional justice; Estonia on gender equality; Germany on racism; Greece on irregular migration; Ireland on hunger; Montenegro on violence against women, Sweden on internet freedom and the US on prevention of torture). States were asked what concrete steps had been taken recently to meet commitments and how these would be pursued as members of the Council.

Several States[1] and civil society representatives asked additional questions during the discussion period that followed. In addition to some country-specific questions, all candidates were asked to comment on vote trading, visions for strengthening the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the process by which pledges are created, cooperation with/standing invitations to Special Procedures, and reprisals.  

Regarding vote trading, most candidates asserted that they do not trade votes with countries that commit gross human rights violations. Estonia, the US and Sweden indicated they do not participate in vote trading. Ireland and Greece were candid in their responses, stressing that, while vote trading should not exist, larger, more powerful countries tended to have leverage unavailable to smaller countries. On the UPR, both Sweden and Ireland stressed the importance of contributing to the UPR Voluntary Fund for Financial and Technical Assistance. Most candidates echoed the need for ‘effective’ standing invitations to Special Procedures by members of the Council. Ireland stated they would like to see the work of Special Procedures better incorporated into the work of the Council, for example through informal briefings tot eh Council outside regular and Special Sessions.

Many candidates also voiced their concern about reprisals against those cooperating with UN human rights mechanisms, including the Council. Sweden strongly condemned reprisals, stating governments should be ashamed at their continuation.  Germany echoed Sweden on the need to condemn and expose reprisals, noting that follow up should be carried out by governments through embassies.  Ireland voiced its deep concern about reprisals, commending the President of the Council, Ms. Laura Dupuy Lasserre and High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navi Pillay for consistently speaking out against reprisals.


[1] Liechtenstein, UK, Mexico

 

Special Rapporteur welcomes progress in Myanmar but says there is much more to be done

05.11.2012
 

On 25 October 2012 the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tomàs Oojea Quintana, presented his annual report to the General Assembly’s Third Committee. Mr Quintana commended the rapid pace of reforms and the considerable progress made in the area of human rights. However, he also stressed that the country continues to grapple with ongoing human rights issues that could pose risks to the reform process.

Mr Quintana highlighted in particular the tensions in Rakhine State and continuing allegations of human rights violations in conflict-affected ethnic border areas, including Kachin, where he received allegations of extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, internal displacement, torture, use of landmines and recruitment of child soldiers. Mr Quintana welcomed the recent release of prisoners of conscience but urged the Government to work with relevant stakeholders to identify those prisoners who remained in detention, noting their release must be without any conditions. He also pointed to disproportionate restrictions in the new Peaceful Demonstrations and Gathering Law and noted that, while restrictions on media and internet had eased, censorship and prosecution of journalists is still a problem. With regard to accountability measures, he recommended that consultations be held on the feasibility of a truth commission.

During the interactive dialogue, the representative from Myanmar noted that the Special Rapporteur's report could have been more constructive and that it is time to end the country-specific resolution on its human rights situation.

Asian States, including Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand and Japan generally commended the government on the progress made and welcomed the reforms. Malaysia reiterated that sanctions on the country should be lifted immediately. While other states were also supportive of the positive developments, their questions and comments were generally more balanced, stressing that the human rights situation still needs attention and improvement.

Several States including the US, the Czech Republic, the UK and Switzerland expressed concern about the recent violence in Rakhine State. The UK and Switzerland urged the government to provide unhindered humanitarian access. In response to the Special Rapporteur’s comments, Myanmar noted that the violence in Rakhine State has nothing to do with racial or religious oppression. However, the Special Rapporteur disagreed, stressing that the root cause of the situation is discrimination against Muslims, which he hoped the enquiry committee set up by the Government would investigate.

In closing, Mr Quintana reiterated the progress in Myanmar and the positive impact on human rights. He stressed that for any democratic transition to be successful, human rights must not be excluded from the Government’s political agenda, and that democracy must coincide with human rights and development. He recognized that the General Assembly had played an important role in the progress made, through resolutions and dialogue, and stated that the Government’s behaviour offered an example for the special procedures system.  He hoped to continue his work in that manner, as there was “much more to be done”.

Special Rapporteur renews request for access to Iran

06.11.2012
 

On October 24, 2012 the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Mr Ahmed Shaheed, appeared before the Third committee of the General Assembly to present his second report since he took up the mandate in August 2011. Overall, Mr Shaheed painted a disturbing picture of the human rights situation in Iran. The main areas of concern were the imprisonment of journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders, high frequency of executions, restrictions on freedom of expression and information, in particular as regards the internet, and the new Islamic Penal Code. The majority of the States that engaged in the dialogue echoed these concerns.

In his presentation, Mr Shaheed stated that Iran has one of the highest number of imprisoned journalists, with over 40 journalists serving sentences from six months to more than 19 years. The infamous ‘Cyber-crimes’ and ‘cybercafe laws’ allow the government to persecute and imprison those who use the media to criticize the government. Mr Shaheed also expressed concern over the situation of human rights defenders in Iran, stating that thirty two lawyers and human rights defenders are currently detained, including Nasrin Sotoudeh, Abdolfattah Soltani, Narges Mohammadi and Mohammad Ali Dadkhah.

On the subject of Iran's adoption of a new Islamic Penal Code, Mr Shaheed pointed out that it compelled judges to defer to either fatwas or Sharia where the law is silent on criminal matters and could serve as a loophole for the use of stoning and prosecution for apostasy. The Code also broadens the scope of national security crimes under the vague heading of “corruption of earth” and undermines gender equality. The Special Rapporteur expressed concern at the lack of due process revealed through recent interviews conducted with ex-detainees, including solitary confinement, beatings during interrogation and insufficient access to lawyers.

Furthermore, Iran accused the Special Rapporteur of violating articles 8 and 13 of the Code of Conduct for Special Procedures Mandate-Holders ,[1] by not adequately considering the comments and observations forwarded by the Iranian government to his assessment and allegations, nor annexing a copy or summary of the government’s comments to his final report. Iran pointed to the 57 pages of comments it submitted on the draft report of the Special Rapporteur, regretting that these were not reflected in the final version. In response, Mr Shaheed stated that the 10,000 word limit precluded him from taking on the lengthy comments but that he had endeavoured to summarize these in a few paragraphs at the outset of the report.

All of the countries that spoke, with the exception of China and the Maldives, expressed regret over the fact that the Special Rapporteur has been denied access to Iran and called once again on the Iranian government to allow the Special Rapporteur into the country. China supported the statements made by Iran, stating that the Iranian people had the right to determine their own path to protect human rights. In its intervention, Brazil acknowledged the positive achievements in the realm of economic and social rights.

Several States including Norway, the EU, the UK, Brazil and the Czech Republic voiced their concerns about the situation of human rights defenders in Iran, alarmed by their frequent detention without charges, torture, executions in absence of fair trials, and reports of subjecting family members and friends to interrogations. The US deplored the continued blocking of domestic and foreign news sources, attempts to filter media and online content, bans on personal email accounts, as well as torture and executions of 'netizens'.

Several States, including Canada, the US and the Czech Republic also expressed concern about the upcoming presidential elections in 2013, and whether these could be free and fair under the circumstances. Mr Shaheed said that there were a number of serious concerns, including limiting women from running for office and the prosecution of journalists. It was difficult to speak about free and fair elections when there is no free press in the country, seriously limiting the space for political activity. He stressed that transparency, rule of law and some systemic indicators would be the mark of free and fair elections.

Canada emphasised the lack of freedom of religion, highlighting Iran's discriminatory laws against its religious minorities (Christians, Zoroastrians, Baha’i and Jewish), and expressing particular concern that members of the Bahai faith were imprisoned based on their faith and prevented from pursuing education.

In response to a question from the Maldives, the Special Rapporteur expressed deep concern about the impact of sanctions on human rights in Iran, noting that this would be considered in his future work. However, he mentioned that he could not accurately assess the situation due to the lack of access to the country. While he relies on witness testimonies for information, corroborated by various sources, he noted that it was more difficult to rely purely on witness testimony when examining the effects of sanctions.


[1] Art. 8(d) of the Code of Conduct states that, in their information-gathering activities, mandate holders shall give representatives of the concerned State the opportunity of commenting on mandate-holders’ assessment and of responding to the allegations made against this States, and annex the State’s written summary responses to their reports.

Art 13(a) states that mandate-holders shall while expressing their considered views, particularly in their public statements concerning allegations of human rights violations, also indicate fairly what responses were given by the concerned State.

 

Special Rapporteur underscores the need to address violence against women with disabilities

07.11.2012
 

The Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Ms Rashida Manjoo, presented her second annual report to the General Assembly on 24 October 2012. The report focused on violence against women with disabilities. Ms Manjoo stressed the need to recognise that violence against women takes a unique form when gender and disability intersect. She further stressed that despite normative frameworks concerning both the human rights of women and of persons with disabilities, violence against women with disabilities remains largely unaddressed. All States that participated in the dialogue expressed appreciation for the efforts of the Special Rapporteur in combating violence against women and shared their deep concern over the pervasiveness of violence against women with disabilities.

During the interactive dialogue, several States attempted to link the discussion to recent events by acknowledging that women with disabilities face additional challenges during periods of transition. The UK, EU and Liechtenstein in particular emphasised that women with disabilities in post-conflict situations are often not included in the reconstruction process and requested the Special Rapporteur to advice on how the national and international community can ensure that these women are better included. Ms Manjoo noted that women with disabilities in conflict or post-conflict regions are at a greater risk of violence, stressing that narrow conceptions of citizenship understand ‘accommodation’ as merely physical accommodation, resulting in further isolation and invisibility of women with disabilities. She further stated that when conflict is a cause of disabilities, the major challenge in addressing violence against women with disabilities is in terms of humanitarian assistance.

Switzerland raised the issue of sexual and reproductive health, drawing attention to the  practice of forced sterilisation of women with disabilities in some countries and the need for all women and girls to have full access to sexual and reproductive health. Ms Manjoo emphasized that women with disabilities are often treated as if they have no control, or should have no control over their sexual and reproductive health. She underscored the need to counter this through awareness programmes and legal protection.

In addition to the focus on women with disabilities, the Special Rapporteur’s report also summarised her activities in the past year, including the thematic report (A/HRC/20/16) she presented to the Human Rights Council in June 2012, which focused on the issue of gender related killings of women, and her country visits to Jordan, Somalia and Italy. Jordan critiqued the assertion that refugees were denied access to healthcare and public education in Jordan and argued that the report ignored that citizenship of Palestinians should be considered within the Middle East peace process. Jordan further rejected the claim that its constitutional amendments encouraged a traditional view of women as people in need of protection. Ms Manjoo responded by offering to meet with Jordan one-on-one to address these concerns.

Four of five regional groups run 'closed slates' in Human Rights Council elections

12.11.2012
 

On 12 November 2012, the General Assembly elected 18 members to the Human Rights Council (Council). The new members will take up their seats on the 47-member body on 1 January 2013. They are (by region):

  • Africa: Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Sierra Leone [1]
  • Asia: Japan, Kazakhstan, Republic of Korea, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates [2]
  • Eastern Europe: Estonia, Montenegro [3]
  • Latin America and Caribbean: Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela [4]
  • Western Europe and Others: USA, Germany, Ireland [5]

Only the Western Europe and Others group ran an open slate, that is, they presented more candidates than there were vacant seats available. Five candidates competed for three seats. The USA, Germany and Ireland defeated Greece and Sweden.

Four of the five geographic regions that are allocated seats on the council (African group, Asian group, Eastern European group, and Latin America and Caribbean group) ran ‘closed slates’, where the number of candidates matched the number of available seats. Running closed slates continues to be criticized by human rights NGOs since it can all but guarantee victories for the candidates, regardless of their human rights records. The lack of competition not only opens the Council’s door to ‘abuser’ States, but it also goes against the spirit and the letter of the resolution that established the Council.  Resolution 60/251 requires not only that members of the Council uphold the ‘highest standards’ of human rights and 'fully cooperate' with the Council, but also that members of the General Assembly consider the voluntary pledges States submit with their candidacy to show how they will improve the promotion and protection of human rights domestically and internationally.

Due to the practice of running closed or so-called 'clean' slates, this year saw the possibility of a particularly shameful spectacle for the UN. Sudan, a country whose head of State has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, came close to winning a seat on the Council. Sudan was originally one of five candidates for five seats in the closed African slate. The slate was rearranged ten weeks before the election, after a campaign by human rights organizations and States culminated in a decision by Kenya to contest the Sudanese nomination. This led Sudan to drop its bid and the African group to present another closed slate with Kenya instead of Sudan as the fifth candidate alongside Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, and Sierra Leone. Unfortunately similar efforts to dissuade the African group from including Ethiopia in a closed slate were not successful.

Unfortunately proposals made by human rights NGOs and like-minded governments during the review of the Human Rights Council in 2011 to prohibit ‘closed slates’, and to establish a public ‘pledge review’ mechanism to improve Council members’ accountability for fulfilling pledges and the standards in Resolution 60/251 were not successful. Though the proposals only reflected an attempt to operationalize the commitments in Resolution 60/251, and not to add any new elements, detractors refused to consider including them during the review.  The result of their intransigence has led to business as usual in the Council elections, with vote-trading and uncontested slates the norm.

A backdrop to this year’s elections is the ongoing work of the Third Committee of the General Assembly, responsible for humanitarian and human rights issues, which takes place in New York from early October through the end of November. Before the Human Rights Council Review in 2011, the elections were held in May. One of the consequences of the change to November elections is that the campaigns are run and the elections held while a number of divisive issues are being considered by the Third Committee. States and NGOs have questioned what effect this has had on Third Committee negotiations and on the elections, particularly given the reality of vote trading at the UN.


[1] The votes were: Gabon (187), Cote d’Ivoire (183), Sierra Leone (182), Kenya (180), and Ethiopia (178). Three States that did not run also received votes: Sudan (4), Tanzania (1), and Rwanda (1).

[2] The votes were: United Arab Emirates (184), Kazakhstan (183), Japan (182), Korea (176), Pakistan (171)

[3] The votes were: Estonia (184), Montenegro (182)

[4] The votes were: Brazil (184), Argentina (176), and Venezuela (154). Two States that did not run also received votes: Bolivia (2), Panama (1).

[5] The votes were: USA (131), Germany (127), Ireland (124), Greece (78) and Sweden (75)

 

Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions focuses on death penalty in General Assembly report

13.11.2012
 

On 24 October, 2012 Mr Christof Heyns, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, presented his annual report to the Third Committee of the General Assembly, which focused this year on the death penalty. The Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment also focused his report to the Third Committee this year on the death penalty. This would seem strategic as the Third Committee is currently in the midst of negotiating its biannual resolution on the death penalty.

The Special Rapporteur’s report and presentation mainly focused on restrictions relating to the imposition of the death penalty, which generated much debate amongst member States during the interactive dialogue. While the Special Rapporteur cited a growing trend among States toward the abolition of the death penalty, he was gravely concerned by the several cases in which domestic law and practice defied international standards. Equally problematic was the fact that information on the use of the death penalty is often kept secret, precluding assessment of the State’s level of compliance with international standards. Mr Heyns reminded States that the death penalty may only be imposed for the most serious crimes, namely those involving intentional killing, and specifically excluded other offences such as drug-related activities, economic crimes, apostasy, and homosexual acts, among others.

A secondary theme of his address related to the issue of fair trial, specifically the inappropriateness of military tribunals imposing the death penalty, and the problem of error in capital proceedings. The Special Rapporteur highlighted the emerging evidence that innocent people have been sentenced to death as a critical concern. Mr Heyns urged States to ensure transparency in all cases of capital punishment, including prosecutions, sentences and executions, noting that the absence of transparency on the imposition or implementation of the death penalty by consequence violates the right to life.

Concluding, Mr Heyns called on all States to ensure that countries that still administered capital punishment apply it under very strict observance of international standards. In particular, he noted that abolitionist States have an obligation not to assist in the imposition of the death penalty in any way, whether or not the State that actually imposed it is in compliance of international standards.

Nine States participated in the interactive dialogue that followed.[1] In response to a question from Switzerland on whether a Special Procedure on the death penalty should be created, Mr Heyns said he supported special attention being given to the issue of the death penalty, but noted that the level of resources for mandates needed to be kept in mind. He also noted that he plans to continue his engagement with the issue, as 20-25 per cent of his communications relate to the death penalty.

Singapore and Vietnam argued that the death penalty is outside the scope of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate, noting that that there is no international consensus for, or against, capital punishment when imposed according with due process. In response, Mr Heyns stressed that unlawful killings in the context of the death penalty do indeed directly fall within his mandate, and cited in particular the GA resolution on the mandate. That resolution calls on all States in order to prevent extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions to comply with their obligations under relevant provisions of international human rights instruments, and further calls upon States that retain the death penalty to pay particular regard to the provisions contained in articles 6, 14 and 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and articles 37 and 40 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Also noting its reservations was Kenya, which observed with less conviction that addressing the death penalty probably encroached on an area outside of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate. Kenya also asked the Special Rapporteur on how to move from a moratorium to full abolition, to which Mr Heyns responded that a moratorium is a useful “halfway house” until the political will is strong enough to repeal the death penalty. The US engaged constructively, sharing its concern about the death penalty being carried out in violation of international law and asked the Special Rapporteur what States and civil society could do to increase transparency where it is lacking.

Presumably taking aim at the US, Russia inquired if the Special Rapporteur intended to do a study on drones or remote controlled vehicles. Mr. Heyns said he does plan to investigate the use of robotic technology and remote controlled aerial vehicles within the international human rights framework, and its implications for protection of the right to life.


[1] Switzerland, Norway, the EU, the US, Kenya, Russia, Brazil, and Viet Nam.

 

Special Rapporteur says death penalty may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment

09.11.2012
 

On 23 October 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Mr Juan Mendez, presented his report to the Third Committee of the General Assembly. The Special Rapporteur’s report focused on the death penalty and the prohibition of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. He argued that a new approach was needed to frame the debate over the legality of the death penalty in the context of human dignity and the ban on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.  The timing seemed strategic as the Third Committee is currently in the process of negotiating its contentious bi-annual resolution on the death penalty.[1]

While Mr Mendez was clear that capital punishment is not a per se violation of the right to life, he argued that it can violate the prohibition on torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in practice, because the death row phenomenon[2] or methods of execution involve unnecessary suffering and indignity.  Linking the discussion back to his report to the General Assembly last year, Mr Mendez noted that solitary confinement, a common practice on death row, combined with knowledge of impending death, contributes to irreparable mental and physical harm.  He said that while it may be theoretically possible to carry out the death penalty without violating the ban on torture, the necessary conditions make the retention of the death penalty costly and ‘not worth the effort’.

Mr Mendez also noted that, while international human rights bodies have yet to hold that the death penalty per se violates the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, there is ‘clearly a trend in this direction at the regional and national levels’. Mr Mendez noted that, even if the emergence of a customary norm holding the death penalty as contravening the prohibition on torture was still underway, most conditions under which it is actually applied render it tantamount to torture. In that regard, he recommended a more comprehensive legal study on the emergence of a customary norm prohibiting use of the death penalty under all circumstances. 

Nine countries intervened in the dialogue, with an evident split between those who viewed the death penalty as incompatible with the prohibition on torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and those who argued that there is no a necessary link.

To varying extents, Singapore, the US and Egypt rejected the Special Rapporteur’s link between the death penalty and torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The US disagreed with Mr Mendez on the evolution of a customary norm towards abolishing the death penalty in all circumstances. Singapore voiced ‘strong reservations’ on the report generally, and argued that State conduct in the report points to a lack of consensus on a customary norm. Egypt echoed Singapore’s reservations about the customary norm and argued that the attempt to draw a link to torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment was an attempt to “de-legalize” the death penalty. The Special Rapporteur pushed back against Egypt and Singapore, clarifying that the fact that persistent objectors[3] remain doesn’t imply the absence of a customary norm.

The EU, Norway, Switzerland and Lichtenstein welcomed the Special Rapporteur’s report, reiterating their hope for a worldwide abolition of the death penalty. Norway and Switzerland supported the Special Rapporteur’s call for a comprehensive legal study on the emergence of a customary norm prohibiting use of the death penalty under all circumstances. In that regard, Norway reminded the Third Committee about the call by the previous Special Rapporteur, Manfred Nowak, for a comprehensive legal study on the compatibility of the death penalty with the right to personal integrity and human dignity. Mr Mendez welcomed Switzerland’s question on establishing a special procedure on capital punishment, noting that such a mandate holder could carry out the study.

In light of current events and presumably taking aim at the US, the Russian delegate called for a study on the use of torture during military operations outside national jurisdiction.  Reflecting recent events around the world, Egypt urged Mr Mendez to study the use and effects of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment as a tool to discourage and prevent peaceful assembly and protest. Mr Mendez assured the Russian delegation that many of his communications dealt with torture in the context of war, and that he frequently communicated with the Special Rapporteur on human rights while countering terrorism.  Responding to the Egyptian delegation, Mr Mendez stated he was concerned and committed to engaging in circumstances of excessive use of force to curb the right to freedom of expression and assembly.

The Special Rapporteur noted that he had a number of visits planned for 2013, including to Bahrain and Guatemala, and was in discussions with Thailand and Iraq.  He also stated that he remains engaged with the US on the situation of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and hoped to visit in the near future.

[1] Click here for an overview of the General Assembly’s 64th session, including coverage of the last death penalty resolution

[2] Mr Mendez explained in his presentation that the ‘death row phenomenon’ consists of “a combination of circumstances that produce severe mental trauma and physical deterioration in prisoners under sentence of death. Those circumstances include the lengthy and anxiety-ridden wait for uncertain outcomes, isolation, drastically reduced human contact and physical conditions and regime restrictions which are often worse than those for the rest of the prison population.”

[3] Under international law, a State may avoid being bound by a rule of customary international law if it has been a "persistent objector" to the norm or rule.  Objection to the norm must be consistent.

 

Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion says converts may face death penalty in some States

14.11.2012
 

On 25 October 2012, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Mr Heiner Bielefeldt, presented his report,[1] to the  Third Committee of the General Assembly.[2]  

In his statement, the Special Rapporteur said his thematic report focused on the right to conversion in order to clarify the rights of converts and those trying to convert others non-coercively. In his study of the issue, which was based on research gathered from country visits, the Special Rapporteur found a pattern of abuses of the right to conversion perpetrated in the name of religion or ideology, including under the pretext of promoting national identity or preserving political security. He also reported that converts, in some States, may face criminal prosecution, including the death penalty for such offenses as ‘apostasy,’ ‘heresy,’ ‘blasphemy,’ or ‘insult’ in respect of a religion or the country’s dominant traditional and values.

In attempting to clarify the rights of converts and those trying to convert others non-coercively, the Special Rapporteur distinguished four sub-categories of the right to conversion:

  • the right to conversion, in the sense of changing one’s own religion or belief;
  • the right not to be forced to convert;
  • the right to try and convert others via means of non-coercive persuasion, and,
  • the rights of the child and of his or her parents.

These dimensions illustrate that the freedom of religion or belief is not confined to the individual internally, or the forum internum. It also relates to one’s freedom to manifest one’s beliefs in acts, in the forum externum, through prayer, worship and teaching. Unlike the forum internum, aspects of the rights that exist forum externumare not absolute. The Special Rapporteur did make clear, however, that the burden of proof falls upon those intending to restrict this freedom, not those defending it. Subsequently, any restriction must be clearly and narrowly defined, and in a non-discriminatory manner, in accordance with Article 18 (3) of the ICCPR.

The Special Rapporteur urged all States to respect, promote and protect the right of freedom or belief in the context of the right to convert. He underlined that, “the right of conversion and the right not to be forced to convert or reconvert belong to the internal dimension of a person’s religious or belief-related conviction, which is unconditionally protected under international human rights law.”

The Special Rapporteur expressed concern that he had encountered numerous violations of the right to conversion by State and non-state actors. In particular, he was concerned that converts are not only victimized by social pressures, public contempt and systematic discrimination, but often also face administrative obstacles when trying to live in conformity with their convictions.

Commenting on the gender dimension of the right to conversion, the Special Rapportuer noted the pressures and threats experienced by women in the context of marriage, or from a husband or prospective husband expecting her conversion. He also described repressive activities faced by children of converts in schools and said that such measures were used to coerce parents to reconvert to a 'socially appropriate' or accepted religion.

Lastly, the Special Rapporteur indicated that many States impose restrictions on outreach practices, which unduly limit the right to persuade people to convert via non-coercive means. These discriminatory limitations can strengthen the official or dominant religion of the country while further marginalising minorities.   

Twelve countries participated in the interactive dialogue, which proved to be largely supportive and non-controversial.

Canada, the European Union (EU) and the United States (US) expressed appreciation for the Special Rapporteur's attention to the rights of converts, and asked the Special Rapporteur to elaborate on best practices to ensure the protection of a person's right to conversion.  The EU, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom (UK) and Germany welcomed the discussion of the gender dimension of the right to conversion, and of the relationship between the rights of the parents and the rights of the child. Canada and the Netherlands echoed the Special Rapporteur's view that international human rights law apply a broad scope in consideration of the freedom of religion or belief, including theistic, non-theistic and atheistic convictions. 

The UK  questioned the report’s finding that the existence of an official religion would inevitably adversely affect religious minorities. The UK suggested that the Special Rapportuer stress non-discrimination before the law as the overarching principle and not whether the country has an official religion.

Russia and China contended that the State has a right and a responsibility to intervene if a group's outreach activities are not in line with international law. In response to remarks by Canada, China defended its treatment of Falun Gong, calling the group a cult and not a religion.

Several comments alluded to the ongoing tensions and discussions around 'defamation of religion'. Canada, the Netherlands, the US and Austria all emphasized the need for interfaith dialogue because of the connection between the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion.  Iran, more directly, asked whether the issue of insult to the sanctity of religion would be taken up in the Special Rapporteur's next report. The Special Rapportuer emphasised the importance of communication between religions, and responded to Iran's question by discussing the threshold for “hate speech” set out in Article 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

 

[1] See the interim report (A/67/303) of the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of religion or belief at:http://www.un.org/en/ga/third/67/documentslist.shtml

[2] See a webcast of this interactive dialogue that took place during the 25th meeting of the Third Committee at http://bit.ly/YthnYh

 

Top human rights expert says human rights is treated as the 'Cinderella' of three UN pillars

15.11.2012
 

On 24 October 2012, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navi Pillay, presented her report to the 67th session of the General Assembly’s Third Committee.  Ms Pillay's statement focused on the crisis in Syria, the treaty body strengthening process and the  lack of funding for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).  She also summarized the work and activities of the OHCHR worldwide.  In the interactive dialogue, Member States discussed these issues as well as the protection of human rights defenders, discrimination against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, and recent tensions surrounding freedom of expression.

OHCHR’s role in the treaty body strengthening process proved to be the most controversial topic discussed during the dialogue. Ms Pillay reminded States that  strengthening of the treaty body system was necessary for the effective functioning of the human rights system, and noted that her report on the treaty body strengthening process was a culmination of discussions with all relevant stakeholders.  

Pakistan, Switzerland, South Africa, Bangladesh and Angola welcomed OHCHR’s role in the treaty body strengthening process.  A key concern for some States was OHCHR’s decision to move the New York meetings of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Human Rights Committee to Geneva. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the African Group, Russia and Bangladesh expressed discontent about this decision. Some States questioned the financial benefits of the move, while others noted that the committee experts were not consulted. Ms Pillay countered that consultations had taken place, however, the move was essential for budgetary reasons.  The Office had overspent extra budgetary funds by $40 million, so she had asked her staff to make a 7.85 percent cut.  The decision to move the meetings from New York to Geneva was part of this cut.

Some States also expressed concern about an OHCHR letter that requests States to disclose their standing national reporting practices and coordinating mechanisms.  CARICOM and Liechtenstein questioned whether the request would place an additional undue burden on Member States. Russia and China vehemently argued that the request was a violation of General Assembly resolution 66/254 (2012), which established the intergovernmental consultative process on reform of the treaty bodies.  Ms Pillay clarified that the intention was for Member States to share best practices, leading to a fruitful discussion that would ultimately benefit States.

Ms Pillay and various Member States expressed much concern over the limited resources available to OHCHR. OHCHR is under financial constraints, due in part to the support the Office provides to the Human Rights Council, including the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and an ever-growing number of special procedures. Liechtenstein, Algeria, Chile, Malaysia, Morocco Norway, and Switzerland questioned how OHCHR would address underfunding. Ms Pillay responded that OHCHR was looking to Member States for financial support as less than 5 percent of the regular budget covers all human rights mechanisms.  She noted that although human rights is one of the three pillars of the UN, it is often ignored. “This tradition of keeping human rights as the Cinderella of the three pillars must be addressed,” she said.

Voicing her concern about the protracted violence and escalating bloodshed in Syria, Ms Pillay noted that protection of human rights,  while a daunting challenge, is the raison d'etre of the UN.  She had briefed the General Assembly and the Security Council on Syria, reiterating to States that outright disrespect for human rights cannot be tolerated, and that the UN must act as a protector of these rights. While taking into account important political concerns, it was urgent to find ways to avert massive loss of civilians and human rights violations.  International law obliged States to protect their people, and where a State manifestly failed to carry out that obligation, the international community should take urgent measures to protect the Syrian people. The European Union (EU), Liechtenstein, Malaysia, and United Kingdom (UK) expressed support for OHCHR’s work in addressing human rights violations in Syria.  Syria continued to question Ms Pillay’s evaluation of the conflict, arguing she relentlessly criticized the Syrian government while ignoring offenses of the opposition.

Both Chile and the UK expressed concern about human rights defenders. Chile declared the UN must guarantee security for those who defend human rights. Echoing Chile, the UK referred to the disturbing trend of reprisals, questioning what the international community could do in order to end reprisals. An attack on human rights defenders for cooperating with the UN is an attack on UN principles.  Ms Pillay expressed disappointment that defenders continued to be threatened, harassed, and killed for engaging with the UN system.  She reminded Member States of their obligation to conduct investigations and provide effective remedies for victims of reprisals.

Ms Pillay highlighted that OHCHR had conducted a study of LGBT rights, and she hoped it would encourage further dialogue between the States on sexual orientation and gender identity issues.  Pakistan noted  that Member States remain divided on the issue, and Iran encouraged the High Commissioner to avoid reports on controversial issues that fall, in its view, outside internationally recognised norms.  The United States (US) was fully supportive of OHCHR’s advocacy on behalf of the LGBT community.

Highlighting recent tensions between freedom of expression and respect for religion, Ms Pillay stressed that international human rights law provides a framework to protect freedom of speech while sanctioning incitement to hatred. She discussed the various workshops held by her office to try to reconcile the tension between freedom of speech and incitement to hatred.  Malaysia, Algeria, Bangladesh and Iran condemned religious hatred, arguing that with freedom comes responsibility.

Numerous member States expressed alarm about Israel’s withdrawal from the Human Rights Council. Liechtenstein, Malaysia, Pakistan, Morocco and UK were concerned that Israel’s rejection of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) threatened the universality of the system. Ms Pillay assured delegations that she was making every effort to ensure universal participation. OHCHR had asked Israel to reconsider its disengagement. Ms Pillay stressed that the UN was set up for all by all and there was a fundamental obligation to participate in the world body.

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1984

ISHR commences work to develop an international Declaration on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders

1988

ISHR publishes first Human Rights Monitor, connecting human rights defenders on the ground with international human rights systems and developments

1993

ISHR facilitates global civil society engagement with the Second World Conference on Human Rights, which leads to the strengthening of women’s rights, the affirmation of universal rights, the adoption of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and the establishment of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

1994

ISHR provides training, technical assistance and support to its 1000th human rights defender

1998

After 14 years of ISHR lobbying, advocacy and negotiation, the UN General Assembly adopts the landmark Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

2000

UN Secretary-General appoints Hina Jilani as inaugural UN Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders, strengthening protection of human rights advocates at risk worldwide.

2004

ISHR leads a successful campaign for the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

2005

ISHR co-founds and supports a range of international and regional human rights coalitions, including the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project and the West African Human Rights Defenders Network

2006

ISHR contributes to the establishment and institution building of a new global peak body for human rights issues, the UN Human Rights Council

2007

ISHR leads and coordinates the development of the Yogyakarta Principles on sexual orientation and gender identity, strengthening legal recognition and protection of LGBT rights worldwide

2011

ISHR’s sustained advocacy on the issue of reprisals and intimidation faced by human rights defenders leads to adoption of landmark UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning and strengthening protections against reprisals

2012

Working with key NGO partners such as Amnesty International, ISHR leads civil society efforts to strengthen UN human rights treaty bodies, prevent their weakening and better connect their work with victims and human rights defenders on the ground

2013

Working with supportive states and NGOs, ISHR advocacy leads to adoption of historic Human Rights Council resolution calling on all States to review and amend national laws to respect and protect the work of human rights defenders