Mali | Groundbreaking new law strengthens legal protection of human rights defenders

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ISHR, the Malian Coalition of Human Rights Defenders, Front Line Defenders and the West African Human Rights Defenders Network welcome the adoption of a human rights defenders law in Mali. After years of efforts and a demanding legislative process, they are hailing it as an important step towards defenders' protection. The Government must now establish and resource a protection mechanism to ensure the effective implementation of this law.

News

18 Jan

ISHR urges States to use Burundi’s Universal Periodic Review happening today to call on the Burundian Government to refrain from criminalising the legitimate activities of human rights defenders and refrain from restricting their rights.

12 Jan
Protest

ISHR, Amnesty International and partners have published a checklist for the selection and appointment of a UN expert on freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Candidates have until 23 January 2018 to apply for the position.

11 Jan
Yogyakarta Principles dandelion image

In a landmark Opinion, the regional human rights court of the Americas has upheld the rights of trans persons and same-sex couples. Referring to the Yogyakarta Principles and the Yogyakarta Principles plus 10, the Court advised Costa Rica that it should ensure that trans persons can change their name and gender markers on identity documents, and that same-sex couples enjoy full family rights – including marriage.

04 Jan

In a year that deep cuts were made to UN budgets, resourcing for human rights activities took a hit. Concluding its main session, the UN General Assembly’s approved approximately 50% less funding for some human rights posts than requested. Funds to support the work of treaty bodies were cut, but the need to adequately fund treaty bodies was reaffirmed, establishing a mandate for future resource requests.  

29 Dec

If you’re looking to make that last minute donation, there’s still time to invest in the future of human rights by empowering their defenders.

ISHR calls on General Assembly to protect right to open engagement with UN

19.07.2013

(New York - 18 July 2013) The President of the General Assembly, Mr. Vuk Jeremić, should use his office to help protect the right of independent civil society to engage openly and without restrictions in United Nations (UN) spaces, a group of leading international and regional human rights organizations, including the International Service for Human Rights, said today.

In a letter to Mr. Jeremić, the International Service for Human Rights and additional signees, address a number of key issues regarding civil society participation in the UN that Mr Jeremić needs to confront during his remaining term in office.

In particular, the group of NGOs recognize the instrumental role that the President of the General Assembly can play in ensuring that the selection of civil society is carried out in a way that is in keeping with UN values and the principle of procedural fairness. In this regard, Mr. Jeremić is encouraged to show leadership by facilitating a more open and transparent accreditation process for civil society in high-level conferences and meetings of the General Assembly.

Michelle Evans,  m.evans@ishr.ch is ISHR's New York Manager and Advocacy Coordinator, contact her on +1 212.490.2199

States must not weaken the UN’s human rights bodies

08.08.2013

(New York, 7 August 2013) – The UN General Assembly must not undermine the work of the UN’s human rights treaty bodies, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) and Amnesty International said today.

Since April 2012, States in New York have been participating in an intergovernmental process established under the guise of strengthening the UN’s human rights treaty bodies. The UN treaty bodies are independent, expert committees mandated to review and promote States’ compliance with international human rights treaties. The discussions in the General Assembly are now reaching a critical juncture as states must decide whether to extend the process, potentially into 2014, or accept a package of proposals now.

However, as ISHR’s Madeleine Sinclair points out, the process is far from achieving its stated goal. ‘Despite the fact that the treaty body system is facing very real and grave challenges, the process has been marked by the efforts of some States to attack and weaken these bodies.’

Those challenges include a failure by some States to prepare reports on how they are implementing their treaty obligations – in some cases these reports have been outstanding for decades; a failure to implement the recommendations of the treaty bodies; the election of treaty body members who are neither independent nor expert; and a chronic lack of funding.

In April 2012 NGOs identified seven issues for the General Assembly to address, including how to ensure good expert membership and adequate resources for the system, and how to implement more effectively the recommendations made by the treaty bodies. 

Amnesty International’s Jose-Luis Diaz expressed his disappointment with how these issues have been handled. ‘On each of these issues, without exception, States have missed the opportunity to make improvements. Their lack of ambition and in some cases deliberate obstruction has resulted in a process that threatens to achieve very little if indeed it does not seriously undermine the treaty bodies.’

Amongst some of the damaging proposals made during the process, one has been a ‘Code of Conduct’ for treaty body members, which would seriously damage the ability of the experts to carry out their work in an objective and impartial way.

Mr Diaz stated, ‘We strongly reject these initiatives. Not only do they threaten the independence of the treaty bodies but they also distract from the real issue at hand; namely improving the human rights situation on the ground.’

ISHR’s Ms Sinclair also expressed disappointment that the process has not been the open, inclusive and transparent one that was promised at its creation. ‘Far from being meaningful and effective, opportunities for NGO participation have been characterised throughout this process by unpredictability, disregard for our expertise, views and potential contributions, and above all a fundamental lack of commitment and initiative to include NGO stakeholders outside of New York and Geneva.’

‘States must refocus their efforts on the core goals of this process’, urged Mr Diaz, ‘That is, how can they, through this process, increase the protection and promotion of human rights on the ground.’

Background

Nearly four years have passed since a group of current and former Treaty Body experts adopted the ‘Dublin Statement’, catalysing the most recent attempt to strengthen the UN human rights treaty body system that would eventually become known as the Dublin Process. But before that process—which involved some 20 consultations with different stakeholders—could run its course, a group of States led by Russia decided 18 months ago that the issues were properly left to States to address and initiated the ‘Intergovernmental process of the General Assembly on strengthening and enhancing the effective functioning of the human rights treaty body system’ (the Intergovernmental process).

Armed with the wealth of ideas, views, suggestions and emerging consensus of the Dublin Process, a divided General Assembly initially spent much time debating its role in treaty body strengthening, given its lack of legal competence to decide matters properly left to States parties to the treaties and the treaty bodies themselves. The result was an agreement by States, implicit in some cases, that while the GA may not be able to decide certain matters, it could recommend that certain actions beyond its competence be taken by relevant stakeholders.

Download the full statement here.

Contacts
Heather Collister, Treaty Body Advocacy Coordinator, ISHR Geneva, h.collister@ishr.ch, +41 79 920 38 05.
Jose-Luis Diaz, Representative and Head of Amnesty International’s Representative office to the United Nations in New York, JoseLuis.Diaz@amnesty.org , +1-212-867-8878

Background information

01.01.2008
 

What are the treaty bodies?

The treaty bodies are international committees of independent experts who monitor State parties’ implementation of each of the seven core human rights treaties and their optional protocols. The implementation of each of the international treaties is monitored by its own committee. At present, there are eight treaty bodies/committees monitoring the implementation of the seven core international human rights conventions. They are:

  • The Committee against Torture (CAT) and the Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT)
  • The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
  • The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
  • The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR)
  • The Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (CMW)
  • The Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
  • The Human Rights Committee (HRC)

For further information on each of the bodies, please click on the respective links on the left.

Consideration of reports by treaty bodies

When States become party to one of the international human rights treaties, they are obliged to submit an initial, followed by periodic reports to the treaty body in question. The main purpose of the periodic reports is to examine the extent of the compliance of States with their obligations under the treaties, and how these obligations have been translated into the domestic legal provisions of the particular State. Ideally, the preparation of the report should also serve as a means by which countries can assess and debate particular human rights issues in their own countries, and identify problems and areas that may require further attention. One of the primary ways through which treaty bodies monitor implementation of their respective treaty by State parties is through the consideration of these State party reports.

Further reading

ISHR monitors and reports on the Committees' examination of State reports. Please see the Treaty Body Monitor in the Publications section to access the reports.

For a comprehensive guide to the treaty bodies, see ISHR Simple Guide to the UN Treaty Bodies.

OHCHR has also produced a Handbook for NGOs that contains an instructive chapter on how to engage with the treaty bodies.

For more information, see also OHCHR.

Treaty Body Monitor

06.12.2007
 

Treaty Body Monitor: change in reporting

Focus on ‘concluding observations’

Beginning in March 2009, ISHR changed the format of its treaty body reporting.  Concluding its narrative thematic summaries of the examination of States before the treaty bodies, reports will now focus on a number of concluding observations for each State examined, and will provide an assessment of how these were addressed in the examination, including the initial views of the State, questions, comments and responses provided. Each report will address 4-5 concluding observations on the basis of time that the Committee dedicated to the issue, whether they requested follow-up on implementation, and whether the final recommendation was specific and implementable within a certain timeframe. 

A tool for advocacy

The purpose of this approach is to assist national NGOs and NHRIs in seeing how the Committees arrived at their recommendations and to be aware of the views that the State has already expressed. It is hoped that this will serve as an additional advocacy tool for pursuing implementation of these recommendations at the national level.

A smaller selection of States

In addition, ISHR will no longer report on all States being examined by the treaty bodies. Instead, it will report on certain countries on the basis of a number of criteria, including those where NGOs and NHRIs have already submitted information to the Committees and may find the new ISHR reports useful. Those States not reported on in the Treaty Body Monitor will be summarised in ISHR’s 2009 Human Rights Monitor. ISHR will continue to monitor all treaty bodies with the exception of the Committee on the Rights of Child, whose examinations are fully reported by the NGO Group for the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In this section you will also find information related to the drafting of general comments, themtaic discussions and discussions related to the working methods of the treaty bodies.

Simply choose the treaty body you are interested in and then either:

  • Browse by country, to find the reports on the examination of a given country by the treaty body you have selected, or
  • Browse by session, to find the reports related to a given session of the treaty body you have selected

Joint NGO submission on treaty body reform

06.12.2010
 

Twenty NGOs, including ISHR, have recently presented their views and recommendations for strengthening of the treaty bodies. The joint NGO submission was developed in response to and released on the one year anniversary of the Dublin Statement on the Process of Strengthening the United Nations Human Rights Treaty Body System, which has been a catalyst for renewed reflection on how the treaty body system could be made more effective. While reform of the treaty bodies is an on-going process there is growing momentum for changes that could significantly enhance the functioning of the treaty bodies and contribute to improved human rights protection. The proposals put forward include recommendations to the treaty bodies themselves, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and States. In recognition of the important role of civil society in the work of the treaty bodies and in any reform process, the submission also contains commitments by the undersigned organisations to engagement with the treaty bodies. To read the joint NGO response to the Dublin statement, click here.

For more information on treaty body reform and relevant documents, click here.

Call for endorsement of the Pretoria Statement on strengthening the treaty body system

22.07.2011
 

On 20 and 21 June 2011 the Centre for Human Rights at the Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria, hosted a civil society consultation on strengthening the UN treaty body system. The consultation was attended by eight national and regional NGOs[1] and facilitated by two international NGOs.[2] Also in attendance were members of OHCHR and the Chair of the Human Rights Committee, Ms Zonke Majodina.

This meeting was the latest in a series of consultations on reform of the treaty bodies. Previous consultations have resulted in the Dublin Statement and the Poznan Statement (both by current and former treaty body members acting in a personal capacity), the Marrakech Statement (by National Human Rights Institutions) , and the Seoul Statement (by mostly international NGOs). A group of mostly international NGOs also came together to produce the NGO response to the Dublin Statement.

The Pretoria Statement is an important addition to these documents, as it represents the views of regional and national level organisations. These groups are some of the most active in engaging with the treaty bodies, have the ground level knowledge to make effective and necessary contributions to the review of a State, and are the best placed to follow-up on the recommendations that come from the various committees. Their perspective on the process of reform of the treaty bodies is essential, but up until now it has been largely lacking, certainly in any focused form. The views of these NGOs, as represented in the Pretoria statement, must be taken forwards as an indispensable element of the discussions on reform as they continue throughout the course of this year. You can find more information on upcoming consultations here.

The strong backing of wider civil society for the Pretoria Statement and the perspective it represents would go some way towards ensuring that the voice of regional and national organisations cannot be ignored. To this end the statement has been opened for endorsement beyond the original group of drafters. Any organisation that wishes to endorse the statement can do so through the OHCHR site. Endorsements should be made by 15 August.

 

[1] Human Rights Law Centre, Australia; Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), Argentina; Human Rights Working Group, Indonesia; Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, Uganda; East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, Kenya; Community Law Centre, South Africa; Liga dos Direitos Humanos, Mozambique; Asian Legal Resource Centre, Hong Kong.

[2] Amnesty International and the International Service for Human Rights

 

Human Rights Committee adopts General Comment 34 on freedom of expression

10.08.2011
 

During its 102nd session in Geneva in July 2011, the Human Rights Committee (the Committee) adopted a new General Comment number34. The General Comment is on article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (the Covenant) which covers freedom of opinion and expression. Mr Michael O’Flaherty was the rapporteur of this extensive General Comment, which replaces General Comment 10, the Committee’s previous interpretation of article 19.[1] For a full list of the general comments developed by the Committee see here. In three public meetings (19, 20, and 21 July 2011) the Committee completed the second reading of paragraphs 25 to 54 and adopted the amended version of General Comment 34. For previous reports on the Committee's discussions on the drafting of this General Comment, see here and here.

Two main issues persisted throughout the meetings. Firstly, there was a general concern about language in certain paragraphs, which would open loopholes for States to avoid their treaty obligations. For instance, a recurring issue was Japan’s proposal to change the word ‘must’ to ‘may’ throughout the General Comment. This was rejected by the Committee. Secondly, the fact that Committee members originate from many different legal cultures, occasionally posed a difficulty in reaching compromise and triggered lengthy discussions.

Many States, human rights organisations, and other actors provided input to the General Comment, amounting to a total of 350 submissions. Not all comments were considered during the public meetings, but many were discussed. The Committee evaluated the General Comment on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis and a number of paragraphs (24, 25, 28, 47-49)[2] triggered lengthy and contentious discussions. To make the negotiations flow more smoothly, the Committee opted to work with an implied consent approach.

An extensive discussion took place on the issue of the definition and meaning of the term ‘law’ (paragraph 24) reflecting the different legal backgrounds of the Committee members. The first reading of this paragraph had prompted heated debates around concerns to avoid giving the impression of imposing one system of law on other States. These debates continued at the second reading, in particular around the second sentence which read:  ‘“Law” in this regard may include statutory law [and where appropriate case law].’ The United States submitted a proposal to remove the whole second sentence, considering the meaning of ‘law’ to be evident. Conversely, Mr Lallah stressed that it is vital to have reference to statutory law in order to avoid condoning a judicial dictatorship in which all decisions are left to the courts. Eventually, the Committee agreed to the United States’ proposal. Mr O’Flaherty further suggested adding ‘enshrined in traditional, religious or other such customary law’ in the final sentence in order to clarify the meaning of ‘customary law’.

The Committee received two suggestions relating to the issue of the qualitative requirements for a norm to be considered ‘law’ (paragraph 25).  Firstly, the Committee agreed that the requirement that ‘it must be made public’, while accurate, was not very elegant and should be changed to ‘must be made accessible to the public’. Secondly, members agreed to add a final sentence to the end of the paragraph: ‘Laws must provide sufficient guidance to those charged with their execution to enable them to ascertain what sorts of expression are properly restricted and what sorts of expression are not.’

Negotiations on paragraph 30, on treason laws and state secrets laws, led to a heated debate over the misuse of treason laws and other provisions relating to national security to impose restrictions on freedom of expression. The second sentence in particular, in which the Committee gives an example of what would not be permitted in this regard,[3] triggered many concerns from stakeholders that giving only this example was too limited. Mr O’Flaherty acknowledged the concern, noting that the Committee has a practice of fleshing out general statements with reference only to their own jurisprudence, which can give a misleading impression that this is all there is to be said on a matter. Eventually, the second sentence was changed to ‘[i]t is not compatible with paragraph three, for instance, to invoke such laws to suppress or withhold from the public information of legitimate public interest that does not harm national security or to prosecute journalists, researchers, environmental activists, human rights defenders, or others, for having disseminated such information’.

The issue of whether defamation laws can carry penal sanctions (paragraph 47) was another source of robust debate. Some Committee members supported decriminalisation of defamation, while other members argued that criminalisation could be appropriate in certain cases, such as in the case of States or criminals owning newspapers and media outlets and using them to express defamatory speech and press forward their political agendas.

The Committee then continued with a lengthy debate about the controversial issue of blasphemy laws, an issue contained in paragraph 48. There was a clear divide on how to approach this topic with some members considering blasphemy laws to be inherently incompatible with article 19 and others insisting on their legitimacy. The divide and, at the same time, collaborative approach of the Committee was clearly illustrated with one member stating that ‘while he would like to ban blasphemy laws outright, he felt that this would not enjoy widespread support and would actually undermine the body of General Comments of the Committee’.[4]

Paragraph 49 and 52, relating to to historical events, specifically ’memory laws’ that penalise the promulgation of specific views about past events, were also extensively discussed. In paragraph 49, the Committee decided to delete reference to ‘memory laws’ and replace ‘past events’ with ‘historical facts’.[5] This was based mainly on Germany’s concern about the ambiguous reference of the term ‘past events’ to long term events such as World War II. This discussion continued in relation paragraph 52 where the Committee agreed to delete both sentences relating to ‘hate speech’;[6] Germany had raised concerns about the use of this term arguing that it lacked legal precision.

Overall, the general comment is a strong reaffirmation of the central importance for all human rights of the freedom of expression, and sets out narrow parameters within which the right can be restricted by states. Freedom of expression is crucial for the realisation of transparency and accountability, which again are essential for the protection of human rights. However, the discussion also demonstrated  how difficult it is to achieve this goal; for instance, the different legal and cultural backgrounds of the Committee members not only made the task of drafting the general comment a difficult one, but also demonstrated the need to take great care to formulate it in such a way that it will be interpreted correctly without becoming subject to misuse.


[1] General Comment 10 is four paragraphs long, while General Comment 34 is 52 paragraphs long, making it one of the longest general comments drafted by the Committee (only General Comment 32 on article 14: Right to equality before courts and tribunals and to a fair trial is longer at 62 paragraphs).

[2] Paragraph numbers refer to the adopted version of the text.

[3] The second sentence of paragraph 30 originally read, ‘It is not compatible with paragraph 3, for instance, to invoke treason laws to prosecute journalists, researchers, environmental activists, human rights defenders, or others, for having disseminated information of legitimate public interest’.

[4] Http://www.unog.ch/unog/website/news_media.nsf/(httpNewsByYear_en)/E4D729D3E6E0CCD5C12578D4004CF6C0?OpenDocument

[5] The original phrase, ‘Laws that penalise the promulgation of specific views about past events’, now reads, ‘Laws that penalise the expression of opinions about historical facts’.

[6] These sentences originally read, ‘The Committee is concerned with the many forms of “hate speech” that, although a matter of concern, do not meet the level of seriousness set out in article 20. It also takes account of the many other forms of discriminatory, derogatory and demeaning discourse.’

 

Human Rights Committee advance draft General Comment on freedom of expression

29.04.2011
 

During its 101st session in New York in March 2011, the Committee started its second reading of the draft general comment No. 34 on Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (the Covenant), which covers freedom of opinion and expression. The first reading of the General Comment was concluded in October 2010. Mr. Michael O’Flaherty is the rapporteur of the extensive General Comment which will replace the earlier and more limited General Comment No. 10. In three public meetings (18, 23 and 24 March), the Committee held the second reading of paragraphs one through 24.

Following the Committee’s call for stakeholder comments by end of January 2011, many States, human rights organisations, academics and other actors provided input into the General Comment. In total, the Committee received 70 submissions.  All comments were considered, and many discussed by the Committee during the public meetings. Mr. O’Flaherty said that the level of interest among stakeholders was extremely high and that, overall, the commentators welcomed the new General Comment on freedom of opinion and expression.

The Committee evaluated the General Comment on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis, and a number of paragraphs triggered lengthy and contentious discussions. In the first section of the General Comment under the heading 'General remarks', the Committee decided to incorporate a paragraph 2bis as proposed by Mr. Gerald Neuman, including a reference to the enjoyment of the freedom of opinion and expression as a necessary condition for realizing the principles of, inter alia, transparency.

A lengthy discussion took place on the insertion of some articles containing guarantees for freedom of opinion and expression in paragraph three. Some Committee members contested the inclusion of article 17 (right of privacy) in the list, arguing that its relation to freedom of opinion and expression is unclear. At first the Committee deleted the reference to article 17 but later reinserted it on the basis that paragraph 19 makes a reference to article 17, and therefore the list in paragraph three would be incomplete without the reference. The proposal to include a reference to article 24 (right to nationality) did not find support, with Mr. Krister Thelin remarking that it would lead to the proposal of many more unrelated articles. Similarly, the Committee did not support other proposals which added references to economic, social and cultural rights on the basis that minimalist rather than expansive language was preferred.  The Committee included language stating that freedom of expression is integral to exercise the right to vote.

The Committee agreed to delete 'any form of discrimination' from the sentence 'No person may be subjected to any form of discrimination and impairment of any right…' in paragraph nine. Mr. Rafael Rivas Posada observed that the 'discrimination' and the 'impairment' of any right are two different issues, and that discrimination is already dealt with in another paragraph.

The Committee received a large number of comments containing proposals for the modification of paragraph 11. Firstly, the square brackets around 'commercial advertising' were removed, thereby including it as a protected form of freedom of expression. However, because the Committee did not consider commercial advertising to be on equal footing with the other levels of speech, they included the reference in a separate sentence: 'It may also include commercial advertising'. Accordingly, the footnote to the case Ballantyne v. Canada, Nos. 359/1989 and 385/1989 was removed because in that decision the protection of commercial advertising was considered equivalent to other means of expression.

Secondly, Mr. Neuman raised the importance of the right to receive information, especially in relation to political issues, and argued that this right should be treated equally to the right to express ideas. Therefore, a second sentence was added to paragraph 11: 'This right includes the expression and receipt of communications of every form of idea […].'

A third contentious issue related to the proposal by several NGOs to reference the right of expression of sexual orientation and gender identity. The experts were generally reluctant to include such a reference.  Sir Nigel Rodley voiced concern about the generic quality of the terms, while at the same time emphasising that the guarantee of expression covers sexual orientation and gender identity. As a compromise, Mr. O’Flaherty proposed including ‘forms of dress and other manners of expression of sexual orientation and gender identity’ in the list of means of expression in paragraph 12. However some Committee members, including Sir Rodley, Mr. Thelin, Mr. Ahmad Amin Fathalla and Ms. Christine Chanet, articulated their discomfort with referencing sexual orientation and gender identity, which led to just the addition of the phrase ‘forms of dress’ to paragraph 12. The Committee also decided to take out paragraph 13, since the freedom to express oneself in a language of one’s own choice was not considered central to the freedom of expression. 

Paragraph 15, though short, was also subject to heated debate. Most comments focussed on whether to strengthen the recommendation: specifically, whether ‘must’ should be replaced by ‘should’, and ‘encourage’ by ‘guarantee’. Ultimately it was agreed that the two sentences should be compressed into one, reading: 'As a means to protect the rights of media users, including members of ethnic and linguistic minorities, to receive a wide range of information and ideas, States parties should take particular care to encourage an independent and diverse media.'

Paragraph 16, on the independence of public broadcasting services, was the only fully bracketed paragraph in the draft General Comment. NGOs and many national human rights institutions (NHRIs) have urged the retention and even strengthening of the paragraph, but experts were divided on the matter. On the one hand, Ms. Iulia Motoc argued that paragraph 16 should be retained because a reference to media independence is fundamental given some practices of excessive state control in the global South. Mr. Thelin and  Ms. Chanet did not support the paragraph as it is drafted, since it can be counterproductive to provide instructions on how the state could ensure media independence as the second half of the  paragraph tries to do. For example, the prescriptions in the second half of the paragraph are very weak, and they do not support any particular model to guarantee independence. Furthermore, Ms Chanet observed the issue was far to complicated to elaborate on properly and there is no case law available. Taking note of these concerns, the Committee adopted a revised version of paragraph 16: 'State parties should ensure that public broadcasting services operate in an independent manner. In this regard, State parties should guarantee their independence and editorial freedom. They should provide funding in a manner that does not undermine their independence.'

Throughout the session, the Committee struggled with the incorporation of a paragraph on new or social media. Multiple commentators and all members of the Committee unanimously expressed the necessity of a contemporary General Comment, specifically given the use of new media in the situations in North Africa. Over the course of the session, Mr. O’Flaherty drafted a new paragraph on social media. The paragraph 16bis says: 'States parties should take all necessary steps to foster the independence of these new media and to ensure access of individuals thereto.'

The last meeting on the 24 March started with a lengthy debate regarding the specification of public bodies in paragraph 18. Some experts favoured mentioning all three branches of government. Others wanted to remove specific reference to the judiciary. Mr. O’Flaherty resolved the issue by pointing out that the Committee had already addressed the issue in paragraph six. Therefore, he proposed alternative language: 'Public bodies are as indicated in paragraph 6 of this General Comment.' Under the same section on the right to access of information, a suggestion was made to include an extra paragraph on the leaking of information, in particular on whistleblowers. While most Committee members recognized that the treatment of whistleblowers was an important topic, they did not want to include it in the General Comment since they had no solid jurisprudence in that area. 

The subsequent section under the heading 'freedom of expression and political rights,' consists of merely one paragraph. It was observed that the two middle sentences of the paragraph are identical to those in paragraph 14. The Committee, however, found itself unable to remove the two sentences arguing that the paragraph would lose meaning.

In terms of paragraph 23, which covers the application of restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression, the Committee had received a proposal that the draft Comment include a reference not only to the principle of necessity but also to that of proportionality. Though Ms. Chanet pointed out that the principle of proportionality is already dealt with extensively in paragraph 35, the Committee believed that a reference to proportionality would also be appropriate in the context of paragraph 23. Hence, a phrase will be inserted as follows: 'restrictions must meet a strict test of necessity and proportionality'.

The final paragraph under scrutiny was paragraph 24. The main criticism was that preventive strategies were overlooked. A human rights organisation recommended the draft Comment include that 'State Parties should put in place effective measures to protect against attacks aimed at silencing those exercising their right of freedom of expression.' The Committee was sympathetic to this approach, and adopted that wording.  Furthermore, it was noted that the International Court of Justice has found that, in addition to journalists and human rights defenders, judges and lawyers also need special protection. Again, this suggestion was added to the text in paragraph 24 without any resistance.

The Committee will continue the second reading of the draft Comment in July 2011 in Geneva.

Other resources

Extensive notes by the Open Society Institute on the public meetings on the second reading of General Comment 34 are available at http://freedominfo.org/documents/HRCnotesMarch2011.pdf

CESCR reviews Israel: No mention of Bill on NGOs’ Foreign Funding

08.12.2011
 

On 17 November 2011, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the Committee) finished reviewing the third periodic report of Israel. The Committee experts addressed a number of issues, including those presented in NGO reports. The Committee paid special attention to the cultural rights of the Bedouins, which is considered an indigenous population by the Committee but not by Israel. The experts and the Israeli delegation also found themselves in disagreement on the State party’s responsibility to report on the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). According to the delegation, the OPT fall under the responsibilities of the Palestinian Authority as a result of the 2005 Interim Agreement. The Committee, on the other hand, reminded Israel that it is legally bound by international law to report on such matters, despite denying having effective control on the area.

Surprisingly, the Committee members made no mention of the two recent bills passed early in the same week by the Israeli Ministerial Committee for Legislation on NGOs in Israel. The two bills limit foreign donations to NGOs and human rights groups to approximately 3’900 Euro per year, with an imposed tax of 45 percent. The bills come with the support of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who stated that they are a necessity in light of ‘acts of incitement by many organisations operating in the guise of human rights organisations that seek to influence political discourse, the character, and policy of the State of Israel’. The bills have faced national and international opposition. Six Government ministries voted against them, arguing that the documents represent an infringement on Israel’s democratic values. The bills would de facto weaken NGOs critical of the coalition government, many of whom receive funds from the European Union and its member States. The EU itself, along with the US, has pressured Prime Minister Netanyahu to reconsider the bills, stating they would harm freedom of association, freedom of speech, and Israel’s image as a democracy.

CESCR’s review of Israel ended on a note of disagreement, as the Chairperson, Mr Ariranga Govindasamy Pillay, restated that Israel is under legal obligation to report on the human rights situation in the OPT. In addition, the Committee’s general affirmation that it saw no improvement since Israel’s last review in 2003 emphasises the need for more attention by treaty bodies to following up their own work. The concluding observations will be published on the OHCHR Web site.

CAT questions Belarus on allegations of reprisals against human rights defenders

12.12.2011
 

On 9 and 10 November 2011, Belarus was examined by the Committee Against Torture (the Committee) in relation to its compliance to its responsibilities and obligations under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the Convention). Belarus ratified the Convention in March 1987.

The Committee raised numerous concerns with Belarus, including its treatment of human rights defenders and lawyers. Specifically, in the List of Issues,[1] the committee asked Belarus to comment on allegations of widespread harassment of human rights defenders and journalists by law enforcement officials. The Committee referred to specific cases where human rights defenders and journalists had been allegedly arrested including the arrest and detention of the Chair of a human rights NGO, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC). In its written reply, Belarus did not address the allegations regarding the Chair of the BHC, however in relation to the allegations concerning the journalists, Belarus claimed that the journalists had been afforded due process.

During the examination, the Vice-Chairperson of the Committee and Rapporteur on Belarus, Ms Gaer, noted the absence of a full reply in relation to the above allegations and requested Belarus to comment. The second country Rapporteur, Ms Sveaass, stated that there was a general sentiment of danger associated with being a human rights defender in Belarus and noted examples of human rights defenders being detained in psychiatric hospitals and arrests of journalists to support her statement. In reply to Ms Gaer and Ms Sveaass, the Belarusian delegation stated that it did not agree in principle with the use of the phrase ‘human rights defenders’. Ms Gaer took issue with this point and referred to the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders[2] to point out that everyone has the right to promote and protect human rights and that the definition of ‘human rights defenders’ is not a closed category of individuals. The delegation commented that for the purposes of justice, ‘it doesn’t matter who the State is dealing with when the law is being violated’ and cautioned against the presumption that human rights defenders are always ‘good guys’, demonstrating a fairly limited understanding of the concept of human rights defenders.

The List of Issues on Belarus had also raised concerns relating to allegations of intimidation of the BHC by State officials including allegations that KGB officers had searched the BHC offices and that official warnings had been sent to BHC for spreading false information. During the examination, Belarus replied to these allegations and claimed that BHC itself had recognised its own wrongdoing in relation to the activities for which the warnings were issued – namely, use of official stamps for which it did not have permission.

The Committee also raised concerns regarding a number of lawyers who had been harassed, detained, and expelled from their bar associations. Some of the lawyers at the centre of the allegations had been representing high profile individuals, including presidential candidates and journalists, and others had been representing individuals who took part in protests in December 2010. Belarus addressed this concern during the examination and stated that the Ministry of Justice had carried out investigations of the Bar of Lawyers in December 2010 and had expelled 89 lawyers from the Bar Association for violations of the legislation relating to the legal profession. It stated further that only 5 of the 89 lawyers expelled had given assistance to individuals involved in the December protests. In relation to one of the specific cases raised by the Committee, the expulsion of Pavel Sapelka from the Minsk Bar Association, Belarus commented that the Ministry of Justice had terminated his license but his license had been rendered ineffective in any event as Sapelka had been expelled at the decision of the Minsk Bar Association itself. The Minsk Bar Association had expelled Mr Sapelka due to his ‘negative attitude’ which Belarus stated had been determined following his departure from Belarus at a time when he was required to provide assistance to a client.

In the Committee’s advanced unedited version of its concluding observations, the Committee notes that it remains ‘deeply concerned about numerous and consistent allegations of serious acts of intimidation, reprisals and threats against human rights defenders and journalists, as well as the lack of information provided on any investigations into such allegations’.[3]  

 

[1] Committee Against Torture, List of issues to be considered during the examination of the fourth periodic report of BELARUS, UN Doc. CAT/C/BLR/Q/4.

[2] Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, UNGA Res 53/144, UN Doc A/RES/53/144, 8 March 1999.

[3] At para 25, document available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cat/cats47.htm

 

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Opinion:

ISHR Director Phil Lynch reflects on civil society's highs and lows at the Human Rights Council in 2017, and offers some thoughts on opportunities to strengthen the Council and make it more accessible, effective and protective for human rights defenders and victims of violations in the year ahead.

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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