13 Feb

The Egyptian government has trampled over even the minimum requirements for free and fair elections for the planned 26-28 March vote for president, ISHR along with 13 international and regional rights organisations said today.

14 Feb

New UN Human Rights Council President Vojislav Šuc spoke about his key objectives for the Council during the welcome reception hosted by ISHR on 31 January 2018. The President emphasised his will to ensure greater effectiveness of the Council through cooperation, dialogue and increased civil society participation. He also highlighted his intention to develop closer ties with the New-York-based Third Committee and with regional human rights organisations - for greater impact on the ground. Read the Council's President full speech below. 

31 Jan

The appalling human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been the subject of consensus UN resolutions for many years.  Cooperation from partners with expertise on the country should be invaluable to the UN, but relevant NGOs have faced multiple deferrals of their applications for accreditation.  Will the ECOSOC NGO Committee finally open the door to these NGOs?  

30 Jan
Rainbow flag photo credit: Common Wikimedia Ludovic Bertron

ISHR and ILGA have updated their factsheets on different UN experts – check out the references to LGBTI persons and recommendations that these Special Procedures have made.

29 Jan

A group of regional and international human rights NGOs was blocked from making a statement at the UN NGO Committee session today.  Despite a precedent set two years ago for the delivery of a general statement, all requests since have been refused.  Read here the NGOs' call for leadership and reform.

Council holds panel debate on freedom of expression on the internet


The Human Rights Council (the Council) held a panel discussion on the right to freedom of expression on the internet on 29 February 2012. The panel was moderated by Mr Riz Kahn of Al Jazeera English. Panellists included Mr Carl Bildt, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden; Mr Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and Mr William Echikson, Head of Free Expression, External Relations, Communications and Public Affairs, Google.

There were several disruptive procedural points of order concerning the format of the panel, from Cuba and the Russian Federation. The Russian Federation made a pointed comment that this was a formal Council meeting and not a ‘TV talk show’ in reference to the panel's moderation by Mr Kahn. Similar procedural points have been raised during other panels at this session of the Council. As the Austrian vice-President made clear, the concept note for this and other panels had been available for some time, and States had therefore had sufficient opportunity to raise objections prior to the panel taking place.

There was a high demand for places on the speakers list. However, time constraints meant that only 26 States were able to speak, while 16 States, plus one NGO, were unable to take the floor. The Philippines took the floor at the end of the meeting to complain that it had not been able to speak, and implied that the Secretariat had not been entirely objective in compiling the speakers list.

The format of the panel, which may represent an emerging practice at the Council, saw panellists make several short interventions in immediate response to comments and questions raised by States. Again, however, the problem of time constraints meant that towards the end of the discussion the panellists' responses had to be placed on hold to allow as many States as possible to speak. As a result panellists were eventually limited to a final round of one-line concluding comments. These issues point to teething problems with this particular panel format, but overall it does allow for a more interactive exchange.

The discussion, which was the first on the issue at the Council, raised a number of interesting and relevant points on how States’ approaches to the internet and its regulation must focus on protecting human rights. Although the discussion was aimed specifically at the right to freedom of expression, States such as Honduras, as well as Ms Esterhuysen and Mr La Rue raised the role of the internet in promoting economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to education, and the right to development. Panellist Carl Bildt stated that States who see only the potential evils of the internet are in fact restricitng their own society’s development.

In her opening adress the High Commissioner for Human Rights Ms Navanethem Pillay highlighed the particular risks faced by journalists. States such as Canada, the United States (US), and the Netherlands spoke of their concern at the harassment of bloggers and online journalists by some governments, and the need to provide them with training to allow them to work safely online. Recent events in Syria have thrown into sharp relief the risks faced by journalists in covering conflict situations. This was referred to by the Press Emblem Campaign in its statement on the importance of the internet in facilitating reports when borders are closed to journalists. The NGO voiced its support for the idea of a convention on the protection of journalists.

The Arab Spring was a repeated theme in the discussion, unsurprisingly, as an example of the power of the internet in documenting human rights abuses, and mobilising social movements. Egypt in particular spoke of the ’pivotal role’ of the internet in its own revolution, as a tool for organising peaceful protests, despite the attempt by the government at the time to impose constraints. The point brought in the issue of the right to freedom of assembly in relation to the internet, and shows this medium’s increasingly broad human rights role in modern society.

China made a statement on behalf of large group of States,1 stating that freedom of expression is not absolute, and advocating strengthening law enforcement in this area to prevent use of the internet to 'corrupt minds’ with pornography and violent content, decrease stability, and promote violence. These States placed emphasis on increasing efforts to ensure the internet is crime-free and ’social safety and stability’ are maintained, as a priority above ensuring free expression.

A recurring theme throughout the discussion was the idea that human rights, and their protection, should be the same in the online world as they are in the offline world. This view was endorsed by the United States and European Union. Mr La Rue placed particular emphasis on the importance of the phrase 'through any media’ in the right to freedom of expression as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The relevance of private companies in the debate was signified by the presence of a panellist from Google, and the problem of transparency from these companies was referred to numerous times by states, panellists and NGOs. Mr Echikson stated Google’s concern at sometimes being expected to censor, by itself, the information it provides, and likened its role to that of a postman who cannot be held responsible for the content of the letters delivered. He expressed the company’s willingness to comply with legitimate court orders for the removal of material, requests which it then publishes,2 but not to be held responsible to act as the censor themselves. This statement brought an interesting private sector perspective to the discussion, and Mr Echikson concluded by calling for other private companies to join in similar transparency initiatives. On a different side of private company involvement, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies described worrying evidence of the complicity of some companies in selling monitoring and blocking software to ’repressive regimes’, and expressed concern at their lack of accountability, with the private sector operating in a ’human rights vacuum’.

A number of important questions were posed by States during the debate, such as Norway’s question on how governments, the UN, private companies, and civil society can work together in this area. However, the problem of time constraints meant the panel was unable to offer any suggestions, and the discussion lacked any practical and constructive results other than to raise the many potential issues involved in human rights on the internet. This shows the need for further discussion of this issue at the Council. Mr La Rue expressed the hope that a debate could be held at some point resulting in a resolution on this issue.

1 Algeria, Bangladesh, Belarus, Burundi, Cambodia, Congo, Cuba, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Ethiopia, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Lao People's Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Mauritania, Myanmar, Namibia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Palestine, Philippines, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), Uzbekistan, Viet Nam, Yemen, Zimbabwe and People's Republic of China



High Commissioner emphasises need for accountability to protect victims of human rights violations


The Human Rights Council (the Council) held an interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navanethem Pillay, on 2 March. Ms Pillay presented her annual report, outlining the key areas in which the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has undertaken work in the past year.

The High Commissioner’s report was met with widespread support from States and OHCHR was commended for its efforts in coping with an extraordinarily large workload. Work towards treaty body strengthening was generally supported although some States expressed concerns with the format of the consultations. The planned panel discussion on discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity raised serious objections from some Council members. The report of the Sri Lankan Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was praised by some States, however the High Commissioner stated that it fell short in its recommendations.

In the interactive dialogue, States expressed support for the ongoing treaty body strengthening process and recognised the need for the initiative. A second round of State consultations on treaty body strengthening will be held in New York on 2 and 3 April 2012. The High Commissioner explained that she hopes the New York consultations will build on the consultations that took place in Geneva earlier this year, which sparked a ‘lively debate’ from the 108 States that participated. The High Commissioner will be launching her report on the recommendations to come from the treaty body strengthening process in June 2012.

Emphasis was placed by some States (Malaysia, the Arab Group, and Cuba) on the importance of keeping within an intergovernmental framework. This is in reference to the recent resolution adopted in the General Assembly to create an intergovernmental process to work on treaty body strengthening, a process which threatens to exclude other parties, and to undermine the recommendations that have come from the broad consultations facilitated by OHCHR.

With the treaty body system continuing to grow and a significant increase in the tasks requested of OHCHR by the Council, the High Commissioner reiterated her concerns that her Office’s ability to support the treaty body system has become unsustainable. She explained that without sufficient resources, the protection offered by the treaty bodies will become weakened and appealed to the Council for a commitment to ensure that there are adequate resources available to enable OHCHR to continue to efficiently carry out its mandate. Support was overwhelmingly expressed to the High Commissioner in her call for adequate resources in order to fulfil her mandate.

Strong objections were made by Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC), Mauritania (on behalf of the Arab Group), Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia to the panel discussion on discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Mauritania (on behalf of the Arab Group) stated that it would ‘have preferred that the High Commissioner should not refer to subjects of sexual preference’ due to the subject being ‘incompatible with its values and principles as well as its moral and religious precepts’. Malaysia warned of the sensitive nature of the discussion and that ‘moral consensus and values in the community are rooted in cultural and religious beliefs’. It stressed that it is ‘important to respect and take into account the views of the majority as far as values and morality are concerned’. Pakistan stated that ‘such controversial issues put into doubt the credibility of human rights and undermine the promotion and protection of human rights around the world’.

The High Commissioner was criticised by some states for not covering certain situations in her statement, most notably, (Pakistan on behalf of OIC, Mauritania on behalf of Arab Group and Turkey) for failing to include in her report the recent burning of the Holy Koran. Similarly, (Pakistan on behalf of the OIC, Egypt on behalf of NAM, Thailand, Maldives, Bangladesh, Syria and Turkey) expressed that they felt the dire human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Syrian Arab Golan had not been addressed and they stressed that the situation should be given due attention by the international community. In an apparent effort however to deflect criticism that her report did not take into account human rights violations in all parts of the world, the High Commissioner did look to Guantanamo Bay and expressed her deep disappointment at the failure to close the facility. In addition she expressed her concerns about the rights of the detainees being held there.

The High Commissioner welcomed Sri Lanka’s publication of the report of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission but stated that the report fell short in relation to a comprehensive accountability process as recommended by the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts. She recognised the important recommendations made but encouraged the Government of Sri Lanka to engage with the Special Procedures and her Office on follow up to the report. Pakistan on behalf of the OIC, Egypt on behalf of NAM, and Cuba welcomed the LLRC report published by the Government of Sri Lanka but emphasised that Sri Lanka must be left alone to achieve its objectives without external pressure. Egypt on behalf of NAM went as far to say that Sri Lanka’s commitment to reconciliation and open engagement with international community renders any action by the Council unwarranted.

New report to launch on Women Human Rights Defenders: 8 March 2012


A new report on the situation of women human rights defenders will be launched this week during the Human Rights Council.

Entitled Global Report on the Situation of Women Human Rights Defenders, the research has been produced by the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRD IC).  It offers an essential insight into the work of the coalition’s members and the risks they have faced since the coalition was established in 2005.

The launch of the Global Report will take place as a side-event to the Human Rights Council, on Thursday 8 March, from 12 noon to 2pm at the Palais des Nations in Geneva (room XXIV). The event is organised by the International Service for Human Rights.

A panel discussion will feature Sunila Abeysekera, the Executive Director of INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre; Fikile Vilakazi, Programs Director for the Coalition of African Lesbians; and Christina Ellazar Palabay from Tanggol Bayi, an association of women human rights defenders in the Philippines. Ms Ellazar Palaby is also part of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development.

The Global Report contributes to an ongoing project of increasing awareness of the nature of the experiences of women human rights defenders.

It features 43 case studies, which demonstrate the links and differences in women human rights defenders identities, working environments and the violations they face. The report analyses their experience through the examination of several contexts, such as militarization, and through particular thematic areas of work, such as reproductive rights.

The report points to the urgent need for increased, systematic and more thorough documentation of human rights violations against women human rights defenders. Documenting these violations and explaining how the context in which they take place facilitates such violations to occur is essential in defining effective means to address them.

It also underlines the importance of recognising that the risks women’s rights defenders face differ from those of human rights defenders in general; risks can be gender-specific and often have gendered consequences, such as threats or violence of a sexual nature, verbal abuse which targets women rights defenders’ gender, or exclusion due to their gender.

In order to ensure the effective, long-term protection of the rights of women human rights defenders, the report recommends that these defenders participate in the planning and application of strategies designed to protect and assist them.

The WHRD IC is a resource and advocacy network for the protection and support of women human rights defenders worldwide. The coalition involves defenders and groups committed to the advancement of women's human rights and sexual rights including rights related to sexual orientation and gender identity. 

For further information on the work of the WHRD IC and a list of members, please see:

You can download a flyer regarding the side event here.

International human rights defenders experts to launch new reports on Latin America


United Nations and Latin American human rights experts will come together in March to launch new reports on the conditions of human rights defenders working in the Americas.

The launch will feature the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ (IACHR) on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, together with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the same issue.

It is being organised by the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) as a side-event to the 19th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, and will take place on Tuesday 6 March at Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The IACHR’s Special Rapporteur, Mr José de Jesús Orozco, will present the regional body’s latest report on human rights defenders in the Americas. The report highlights an increase in assassinations, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances of human rights defenders in the region since 2006.

It shows this problem to be particularly true in those countries where democratic rule is interrupted, where there is internal armed conflict, or where clashes occur between defenders and organised crime groups or powerful economic actors.

In response, the IACHR has ordered many American States to take specific action to protect defenders. These protection measures have been issued primarily to Colombia (27 percent), Guatemala (24 percent), and Honduras (9 percent).

IACHR Executive Director, Mr Santiago Cantón will also speak at the side-event, and will present the recent work of the IACHR in furthering the concerns of human rights defenders. 

At the same event, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Ms Margaret Sekaggya will present ISHR’s report on the situation of defenders in Colombia.

The findings are the result of research into whether recommendations made by the Special Rapporteur have been effectively implemented in Colombia, following her visit to the country in 2009.

The report portrays a Colombian Government showing a more constructive attitude in its dealings with human rights defenders. However, it also identifies a failure to mainstream this attitude among local authorities, a worrying increase in attacks on human rights defenders in the past year, and the limited success of State authorities in investigating and addressing such attacks.

Executive Director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, Mr Gustavo Gallón will go on to provide a civil society view on the ISHR report and the situation of defenders in Colombia.

Further information about the event can be downloaded here. The event will take place from 12h00 – 14h00 in room XXIII of Palais des Nations.

Advisory Committee discussing problematic study on traditional values and human rights


The Human Rights Council Advisory Committee (the Committee) will meet for its 8th session from 20 to 24 February 2012. The 18 member Committee, whose role is to act as a think-tank for the Human Rights Council (the Council) and consider issues at its request, will consider various reports and form recommendations for submission to the Council in the week prior to its 19th session. The draft programme of work and annotated provisional agenda are available here on the Advisory Committee Web site.

The report which is of greatest concern and which has drawn criticism from a number of NGOs is the report on ‘promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms through a better understanding of the traditional values of humankind’, set out as ‘dignity, freedom and responsibility’. At its 7th session, following Council resolution 16/3, the Committee established a drafting group to prepare this study, comprising Ms Boisson de Chazournes, Mr Chen, Ms Chung, Mr Karakora, Mr Kartashkin (Rapporteur), Mr Okafor, Ms Reyes Prado, Mr Seetulsingh and Mr Soofi (Chairperson). The drafting group’s final report is to be submitted at the 9th session, for submission to the Council at its 21st session, however the preliminary research on the study will be presented to the Committee in February (see here for official languages other than English).

The preliminary report begins by stating that there is ‘as yet no accepted definition of the term “traditional values of humankind”’. One of the main criticisms of the report is that in trying to formulate a definition, the drafting group has interpreted ‘values’ as being inherently positive, while nevertheless acknowledging that ‘tradition’ can be an obstacle to development and change and thus have a negative impact on human rights. The Russian Federation, who originally proposed the study at the Council sought to remove the negative connotations of tradition. However this denial of the existence of any negative values, such as racism and xenophobia, could add to the problem of states using traditional values as an excuse for human rights violations.

Another problem identified is the possible misuse of the concept of ‘dignity’ as a traditional value, particularly in reference to women. Unless the report affirms the language used in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) referring to ‘the inherent dignity and worth of the human person’, there is a risk of the dignity concept being used to justify traditional roles for women, contrary to human rights.

This is also an issue with the concept of ‘responsibility’ as a value, which is not clearly defined. The placing of this ambiguous concept on an equal footing with the inherent dignity and worth of the human person has drawn concern, as the principle of universality of human rights does not allow these to be contingent on an ill-defined notion of responsibility.

The report also includes a section on the importance of families and communities in the promotion of human rights, and the role of the family in forming a person’s values. References to ‘the family’ have been criticised as being based on assumptions about its positive moral influence. The use of the word ‘the’ does not acknowledge different forms of family, which could for example exclude same-sex relationships. Equally, in making these assumptions about family, the report fails to recognise that families are often sites of human rights abuses, including FGM and honour killings.

In light of these serious concerns, it is hoped that the 8th session of the Committee will provide a forum for thorough discussion of these issues, and perhaps be the basis a new and more critical approach to the report on traditional values. NGOs are able to make written and oral statements on substantive issues at the session. The relevant information on the procedures for this can be found here.

Other items that will be under consideration at the 8th session include a draft declaration on the right of peoples to peace (as revised following comments at the 7th session); proposals on the enhancement of international cooperation in the field of human rights; a study on the issue of terrorist hostage taking and its impact on human rights, the interim report of which will be submitted to the Council at its 21st session; and the outcome of the work of the drafting group on human rights and international solidarity. The Committee will also be considering a series of studies from the drafting group on the right to food, specifically its completed study on the rights of peasants, its completed study (following the input of stakeholder views collected by the OHCHR) on severe malnutrition and childhood diseases, focusing on children affected by Noma, and a preliminary study on promoting the human rights of the urban poor.

ISHR launches report on human rights defenders in Colombia


A new report on the implementation of United Nations human rights recommendations in Colombia was launched on Friday 27 January by the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR).

The report portrays a Colombian Government showing a more constructive attitude in its dealings with human rights defenders. While acknowledging these efforts, it also identifies a failure to mainstream this attitude among local authorities, a worrying increase in attacks on human rights defenders in the past year, and the limited success of State authorities in investigating and addressing the incessant attacks on human rights defenders. 

The report is the result of research into the status of implementation of recommendations made by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Ms Margaret Sekaggya, following her visit to Colombia in 2009.

Entitled Human Rights Defenders in Colombia: How is the Government protecting their rights?, it summarises the main views of human rights defenders, representatives of the Colombian State, and the local United Nations human rights office.

An event to mark the launch of the report was held at Rosario University in Bogotá, Colombia. The findings were officially presented by ISHR Board member, Mr Gustavo Gallón. Presentations were also made by representatives of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, and the Government of Colombia.

The report’s findings include observations of a clear change in the Government’s attitude towards human rights defenders since August 2010 during the administration of President Santos, including greater openness and willingness to dialogue and a proposal to formulate a State policy on human rights. Public officials have been instructed to more positively engage with human rights defenders and with civil society organisations, including by respecting their opinions and activities, even when they criticise Government or State action. 

However, the research highlights a lack of understanding and agreement amongst authorities at the regional and local levels about these new government policies. Information from non-governmental organisations indicates that individual attacks against human rights defenders during the first half of 2011 increased by 126 percent over the same period in 2010. 

It further reveals that there has been little progress in the area of investigations into attacks on human rights defenders and illegal wiretapping of their communications. Arbitrary detention of defenders and break-ins and theft of their research materials are said to continue. Also, defenders express concern that, despite efforts to reform the government protection programme for human rights defenders, the programme is still not providing timely and effective protection for threatened defenders, including women defenders, leaders of land restitution processes, and indigenous leaders.

You can download a copy of ISHR’s report, Human Rights Defenders in Colombia: How is the Government protecting their rights?, in English or Spanish.

In addition to the report’s launch in Colombia, an ISHR side event will be held at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland on 6 March (13h00 – 15h00 local time). The side event will address the theme of human rights defenders in the Americas, and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders will be present to speak about ISHR’s report on Colombia.

New report on Women Human Rights Defenders is launched


A new report on the situation of women human rights defenders was launched on 5 March 2012 at a side event to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The Global Report on the Situation of Women Human Rights Defenders has been produced by the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRD IC).

The key speakers of the side event were Ms Sunila Abeysekera, the Executive Director of INFORM and ISHR board member; Ms Fikile Vilakazi, the Programs Director of Coalition of African Lesbians; and Ms Christina Ellazar Palabay from Tanggol Bayi, an association of women human rights defenders in the Philippines. Ms Eleanor Openshaw from ISHR was the moderator for the panel discussion.

The report analyses the challenges faced by women human rights defenders in different contexts. Through the prism of over 40 case studies, the connections between the context in which a woman human rights defenders works and the nature of the violations she experiences are explored.

 The Coalition began the project of writing the report having identified a lack of systematic coverage of the gender specific nature of violence against women human rights defenders. It started from an understanding that that the experience of women human rights defenders is frequently silenced, ignored or misrepresented.  The Coalition’s hope is that the report will become an advocacy tool for women defenders, to highlight the need for consistent documentation to surface the experiences of women defenders and build effective responses to the violations they face.

At the side event, each of the panelists stressed the importance of recognising and understanding the wider context in which violations against women human rights defenders take place, as has been done in the Global Report. Ms Abeysekera affirmed that if the context is not taken into account, effective solutions for combatting such abuses are unlikely to be found.  

The main areas of contextual analysis in the report are fundamentalisms; militarization and situations of conflict; globalization; crises of democracy or governance; and heteronormativity. According to Ms Abeysekera, all abuses of women rights defenders should be understood in relation to the overarching ideologies - patriarchy and heteronormativity, which inform all these contexts.

The panelists’ presentations also highlighted the challenge of documenting violations in a gender-sensitive manner. Ms Palabay asserted that there are often few indications in human rights documentation of the gender specific nature of a violation.  This echoed one of the Global Report’s key calls to mainstream human rights organisations that they enhance their capacity to identify and articulate issues from a gender perspective.

Panelists highlighted violations at the hands of non-state actors, including private security organisations and multinational corporations, and the absence of effective mechanisms to hold them to account. Discussion also focused on the fact that a country's economic prosperity does not mean it respects women’s human rights, as is often assumed. A final point that was addressed was the need to make existing human rights mechanisms work for women human rights defenders, rather than creating new ones.

When the floor was opened for discussion, the panelists were asked to give advice to women human rights defenders regarding bad documentation. The panelists underlined the importance for documentation to be sensitive and respectful, taking people into consideration, rather than just presenting them as a number.

 A further question was raised about how to document violations when victims are too scared to register their abuse. Ms Palabay advised finding creative ways of documenting such information whilst respecting a victim's anonymity. One example given was to film them talking about their experience in the shadows so that they could not be identified.

Other recommendations made by the panelists included the need for women human rights defenders to write their stories and make them public; and the need for further discussion on gender sensitive methods of documentation.  Ms Vilakazi noted that future reports should include a discussion of the wellbeing of women human rights defenders, which is essential to a process of documentation and to sustaining human rights movements.

Human Rights Defenders in Latin America are still at grave risk, new reports show


A special focus on human rights defenders in Latin America was the theme of an ISHR side event held during the Human Rights Council on Tuesday 6 March.

The event marked the launch of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ (IACHR) Second Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in the Americas. The IACHR Rapporteur on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders, Mr José de Jesús Orozco, and the IACHR Executive Secretary, Mr Santiago A. Canton were hosted by ISHR in Geneva to present the report.

It follows up on the IACHR’s 2006 report on the same subject, and highlights an increase in assassinations, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances of human rights defenders in the region. It shows this problem to be particularly true in countries where democratic rule is interrupted, where there is internal armed conflict, or where clashes occur between defenders and organised crime groups or powerful economic actors.

Mr Orozco said the new report is structured into four parts: (1) problems faced by human rights defenders in the region; (2) human rights defenders at particular risk; (3) independence and impartiality of justice operators as a guarantee of access to justice; and (4) protection mechanisms for human rights defenders.

Mr Orozco said the protection of human rights defenders is fundamental to the protection of human rights in the continent. He pointed to problems such as legal measures that criminalise the work of human rights defenders, and other forms of arbitrary control of human rights organisations, as being among the biggest challenges faced by defenders in Latin America. He also highlighted evidence of impunity and impartiality in judicial processes, and reiterated the need for better, more transparent and more consistent investigations to counter these problems.

The ISHR side event also featured the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Ms Margaret Sekaggya, and Executive Director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, Mr Gustavo Gallon.

Ms Sekaggya and Mr Gallon spoke about a newly launched ISHR report on the situation for human rights defenders in Colombia. The findings are the result of research into whether recommendations made by the Special Rapporteur have been effectively implemented in Colombia, following her visit to the country in 2009.

Ms Sekaggya said Colombia is a very difficult environment for human rights defenders. Her report in 2009 had highlighted cases of illegal surveillance, illegal arrest and detention, judicial harassment, human rights organisations’ premises being raided and records stolen, together with violence and other threats. Many violations had been attributed to guerrillas and paramilitary groups, or the acts or neglect of the Colombian authorities.

Two years later, ISHR’s report shows that some positive steps have been taken by the Colombian Government: such as public statements by officials recognising the legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders; the work of the ‘National Guarantees Roundtable’ and the issuance of new decrees aimed at reforming and strengthening the protection programme for human rights defenders.

However, Ms Sekaggya highlighted that there are still many obstacles for human rights defenders in Colombia. The ISHR report shows preventative measures have not been satisfactorily implemented, mainly due to the lack of knowledge by local authorities of official national policies in regard to human rights defenders, and the lack of appropriate action on early warnings by the Ombusman’s Office.

The report also found that the National Guarantees Roundtable process was insufficient; that illegal wiretapping of human rights defenders conversations was continuing; and that criminal investigations into violations against defenders had produced few, if any results.

Ms Sekaggya highlighted the need for the Colombian Government to increase its human and financial capacity to deal with these problems, including through the establishment of a permanent unit dedicated to this.

Mr Gallon said 55 human rights defenders in Colombia had lost their lives in 2011; 49 of them murdered, and six disappeared. This presented an increase in lives lost compared to previous years. In addition, some 140 threats against defenders had been recorded.

He added that paramilitary groups, though no longer recognised by the Government as existing, were still very much active and had grown in number since the Special Rapporteur’s 2009 report. The Government’s lack of recognition of these groups – now simply referred to by the State as ‘criminal gangs’ – means it cannot adequately address the threat they present to human rights defenders.

Mr Gallon highlighted the responsibility of the State to ensure the protection of human rights defenders, including through ensuring that protection mechanisms and justice were effectively managed.   

At the side event Ms Sekaggya also presented preliminary findings following her visit to Honduras. The discussion was also opened to the floor for additional comments and questions.

The panel discussion was moderated by ISHR Director Mr Bjorn Pettersson, who expressed satisfaction that the panelists and the reports had drawn Human Rights Council participants’ attention to the plight of defenders in the Americas, a region not sufficiently highlighted in the Human Rights Council context. 

He said transitions to democracy and the end of several conflicts in the region, coupled with the existence of an effective regional human rights system, have left the human rights situations of most Latin American countries off the priority list of concerned Human Rights Council members and observers.

At-risk human rights defenders draw attention at ISHR side event


A panel discussion on the issue of human rights defenders who are most at risk took place on Monday 5 March at PaIais des Nations in Geneva. The side event was co-hosted by ISHR and other human rights organisations, with the aim of drawing attention to the challenges experienced by the most vulnerable groups of defenders.

The discussion coincided with the presentation of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders’ report to the Human Rights Council on the same day.

The key speakers at the ISHR side event were Mr Davi Kopenawa, leader of the Yanomami indigenous group from the Amazonia, Mr João Paulo Charleaux, a Brazilian journalist from Conectas Direitos Humanos, and Mr Kim Smeby, speaking on behalf of Ms Margaret Sekaggya, the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders. The panel was moderated by Ms Idun Tvedt, of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The event particularly focused on the key groups of defenders highlighted in Ms Sekaggya’s report:  journalists, environmental, student and youth rights defenders, and those working on land issues. The Special Rapporteur described these defenders as being significant need of protection, and faced by risks that ‘directly affect their physical integrity and that of their family members, but also involve the abusive use of legal frameworks against them and the criminalization of their work.’

Mr Kopenawa explained at the side event that, as an environmental and indigenous human rights defender, he had faced numerous threats and attacks, the target of gold diggers and farmers who want to exploit the land. The vital role that environmental, land rights and indigenous defenders play was highlighted; one attendee of the side event recognised the significance of Mr Kopenawa’s work, as he was said to be the only person able to represent the Yanomami people due to language barriers.

Mr Charleaux emphasised that media reporting was an essential element in giving visibility to violations of human rights. The Brazilian journalist said this work remained a struggle in many Latin American countries, where the three most common risks for journalists and other human rights defenders are murders committed by criminal groups, repression by security forces, and judicial and political pressures against individuals.

Mr Charleaux recommended that journalists work in networks to support each other, so that if one journalist or newspaper received threats they could call on their colleagues to research the same topic or publish the same article. He also recommended that private media companies acknowledge their responsibility and adopt measures to better protect their journalists and media workers.

Also discussed were the importance of the new technologies such as blogs and mobile phones in exposing human rights abuses, and the great risks that youth defenders and students face in speaking out against human rights violations, such as threats, violence or being refused the opportunity to continue their studies.

Following presentations by the panellists, the discussion was opened for questions from the floor. A representative of Journalistes sans Frontières reiterated how crucial it is to protect journalists and media workers, as to kill the messenger is to kill the message. The difficulty of establishing support networks for defenders of indigenous groups was highlighted, given their sometimes remote and dispersed locations and lack of modern technology to facilitate communication. The Special Rapporteur’s secretary drew attention to the central role that youth have had in defending human rights and placing human rights issues on the agenda and the importance of protecting this vulnerable group.

The panel discussion was co-sponsored by the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Conectas Direitos Humanos, Human Rights House Foundation, International Service for Human Rights, and the OMCT-FIDH Observatory on the protection of human rights defenders.

Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders presents report on defenders at particular risk


On 5 March 2012, the Special Rapporteur (the SR) on human rights defenders (HRDs), Margaret Sekaggya presented her fourth annual thematic report to the Human Rights Council (the Council). The report focused on HRDs at particular risk, including journalists and media workers, defenders working on environmental and land issues, and youth and student defenders.

The interactive dialogue that followed Ms. Sekaggya’s presentation saw States divided along familiar fault lines. A large number of States welcomed the report,[1] echoing the SR’s concerns regarding the violations experienced by the highlighted groups. Others were more critical of the report,[2] with a number of States saying that the rights of HRDs need to be balanced against their responsibilities and that HRDs must act in accordance with national legislation. India, Senegal, Cuba, and Algeria went as far as to accuse the SR of overstepping her mandate by including new categories of HRDs and duplicating the work of other special procedure mandates.

During the presentation of her report, Ms. Sekaggya noted that , during the last year, the vulnerable groups highlighted in her report suffered both physical and legal harassment by State and non-State actors. “Journalists and media workers have been targeted because of their reports on human rights violations or because they were witnesses to human rights violations themselves”, said Ms. Sekaggya. Violations included killings, arrests, arbitrary detention, torture, and harassment. Furthermore, legal frameworks and tools such as censorship have been “used and abused” to restrict the work of HRDs. Stigmatization of HRDs’ work by state officials or the media can foster a climate of intimidation, harassment and violence by non-State actors. Defenders working on land and environmental issues are particularly vulnerable to violence suffered at the hands of multinational corporations and private security companies. Lastly, youth and student defenders, especially those active in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), have been attacked and abused by security forces in the context of public demonstrations. Judicial and legal harassment of young people is also frequent and tied to legislation that prohibits them from participating in public assemblies. Ms. Sekaggya said that there is a tendency to consider “young age and alleged lack of maturity […] as grounds for not giving them a say in public affairs”. This limits the perception of youth and student movements as simply ‘trouble-makers’.

The issue of what falls under the definition of a HRD once again rose to the foreground of the debate. China, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, among others, voiced their concerns about the lack of a precise definition. These States consider the definition overly broad and therefore at risk of being abused and wielded to protect individuals viewed as HRDs by some but as criminals or terrorists by others. Bangladesh noted that politically motivated actors should not be confused with ‘real’ HRDs. Similarly, Sri Lanka characterized the term HRDs as one that is very ‘amorphous’ and warned the SR “not to fall prey to those who masquerade behind the readymade cloak of HRDs creating political havoc wherever they are”. Algeria expressed concern that the lack of a specific definition can lead to a broadening of the mandate and duplication of the work of other mandates. In her reply, the SR explained that the groups covered in her report are clearly HRDs. She clarified that anyone who promotes and protects human rights in a peaceful manner is entitled to the protection accorded to HRDs.

Senegal, India, and Cuba also spoke on the question of the SR’s mandate, reminding the SR of the requirement to act in accordance with the Code of Conduct for special procedures mandate holders. India chided that the special procedures are not “special prosecutors” and should be broad and thematic rather than focused on individual incidents. Senegal, speaking on behalf of the African Group, expressed concern that the HRDs mandate might overlap with other special procedures and become “omnibus” in nature. In that respect, Senegal warned the SR to be “more vigilant” and to respect the scope of her mandate. Cuba insisted that adherence to the Code of Conduct was needed to reinforce the authority and credibility of the Council.

Negative statements also focused on the issue of national legislation. Although this issue has been raised during previous dialogues with the Special Rapporteur, detractors may have been further emboldened by the additional reference they succeeded in getting in the last General Assembly resolution on HRDs[3] regarding the requirement that HRDs operate in the framework of national legislation.[4] Senegal, Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC), Malaysia, China, Algeria, and Egypt all raised this issue in their interventions. Addressing the issue head-on in her concluding remarks, the SR clarified that while there is no disagreement that HRDs must respect national laws, those laws must in turn comply with international human rights standards.

Several NGOs present raised the issue of reprisals against those cooperating with the UN human rights system. The SR specifically addressed the issue of reprisals against those HRDs cooperating with her mandate. Specifically, the SR noted that she has “once again” been alerted that HRDs in Sri Lanka have been threatened with reprisals should they seek the protection of her mandate. Sri Lanka responded during the dialogue, saying this was “pure conjecture”. Also on the subject of reprisals, Senegal (on behalf of the African group) claimed that the risk of reprisals was increased as a result of HRDs not complying with their ‘responsibilities’. Presumably as an attempt to deflect attention from reprisals by State actors, Senegal also noted that the report highlighted reprisals by non-State actors but did not make any recommendations in that regard.  On this issue, the SR recalled that her 2010 report to the General Assembly addressed State responsibility for violations by non-State actors. She reminded States that they bear the primary responsibility for protecting HRDs under their jurisdiction against rights violations not only by State agents, but also private persons or entities.

[1] Including Belgium, Honduras, the US, the EU, Chile, Norway, the UK, Australia, Spain, Poland, Ireland, Uruguay, Austria, Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, France, Switzerland, and Armenia.

[2] Including India, Morocco, Senegal, Pakistan, Cuba, Malaysia, China, Algeria, Egypt, and Belarus.

[4]   See ISHR stories on the 2011 session of the General Assembly here and here. The General Assembly began adopting resolutions on human rights defenders in 1998 with the adoption of the Declaration on human rights defenders. Though the Declaration included a reference to the requirement that human rights defenders should operate within the framework of national legislation, it was not until 2005 that a similar reference was made in the resolution. This was due to threats by Cuba that it would call a vote on the resolution otherwise. States opposed to civil society engagement seek to include such references in order to limit the rights of defenders to those prescribed by domestic law, which are often not in line with international human rights law.

Two references to national legislation appeared in the General Assembly resolutions on human rights defenders in 2005, 2007 and 2009. One is contained in a preambular paragraph that is based on the reference to national legislation in the Declaration. The other is contained in an operative paragraph that refers to registration requirements. In the last session of the GA in 2011, detractors such as China, Russia and Iran were able to gain an additional reference to the requirement that human rights defenders operate in the framework of national legislation, this time in a new paragraph on peaceful protests. It is worth noting  that the references to national legislation are somewhat mitigated by corresponding references to the requirement that national laws be consistent with international human rights law.




The cases of Wang Quanzhang, Gui Minhai and Liu Xia - just three cases out of dozens that ISHR and its partners are tracking on a regular basis - show the ways in which China is using detention and disappearance to intimidate activists and their families. The international community must respond to this widespread and systematisied crackdown on human rights and their defenders in China, writes Sarah Brooks. 

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