News

19 Sep

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

12 Sep

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

18 Sep
President of the Human Rights Council

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

15 Sep
Palais Wilson where Committee meets

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

12 Sep

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

President of Human Rights Council must address alleged reprisals in China

09.07.2013
 

(Geneva - 5 July 2013) - In a joint letter, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) requested the President of the United Nations Human Rights Council to urgently address alleged reprisals against human rights defenders in China.

A press release issued by ‘Chinese Human Rights Defenders’ (CHRD) on 4 July alleges that human rights defenders who were staging a peaceful sit-in aimed at highlighting the importance of the State engaging civil society actors in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process were subjected to restrictions of their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression and were further subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention.

‘The President of the Human Rights Council is responsible for the work of the Council and it’s subsidiary mechanisms, and is the custodian of the integrity and quality of the UPR’ said Phil Lynch, Director of the International Service for Human Rights. ‘It is therefore imperative that he acts decisively to ensure the full and safe participation of civil society in the Council’s work’, Mr Lynch said.

The Universal Periodic Review process is a critical mechanism of the Human Rights Council. The participation of civil society in the UPR process is essential to ensure that the process is based on ‘objective and reliable information’ as required by General Assembly Resolution 60/251. Civil society participation in the drafting of the national report is directly envisaged by the founding texts of the Council, and is essential to ensure that the national report reflects the actual human rights situation on the ground.

In their joint letter, HRW and ISHR also urged the President to give effect to the Human Rights Council’s resolutions condemning intimidation and reprisals against those who cooperate with it, and in which the Council affirms “the duty of all States to end impunity for such actions by bringing the perpetrators, including accomplices, to justice in accordance with international standards and by providing an effective remedy for their victims”.

Read the joint letter and the CHRD press release.

ISHR advocacy helps to protect NGO participation in the UN Human Rights Council

05.08.2013
 

(Geneva - 5 August 2013) - Proposals to restrict the important work of non-governmental organisations in the UN Human Rights Council have won the support of just thirteen states following advocacy efforts by NGOs in Geneva.

On 31 July, the Permanent Mission of Pakistan sent letter on behalf of a group of ‘like-minded States’ to the President of the Human Rights Council regarding the participation of NGOs. The letter makes a number of proposals which would have the purpose or effect of restricting NGOs’ participation in the work of the Council, including by enabling the arbitrary or discriminatory exclusion of NGO representatives, exposing such representatives to increased risk of intimidation or reprisal, and facilitating the censorship of NGO side-events.

However, despite efforts to gather up to 60 signatories to the letter, the final letter was endorsed by just 13 States – Pakistan, China, Russia, Cuba, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Uganda, North Korea, Belarus, India, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Iran. This followed outreach and lobbying by NGOs to many States that were invited to sign on to the letter, including through the distribution of a joint NGO letter circulated to those States.

‘International law recognises the important role played by non-governmental organisations in the promotion and protection of human rights, including through their advocacy at the UN,’ said Phil Lynch, Director of the International Service for Human Rights.

‘As the world’s peak, multilateral human rights body, it is imperative that NGOs are able to participate in the work of the Human Rights Council and that the Council hears directly the voices of human rights defenders.’

‘It is very pleasing that despite the best efforts of some States, only 13 of the UN’s 193 Member States were prepared to endorse proposals that are incompatible with international law and which would undermine civil society contributions to the Council.’

The critical role of NGOs is enshrined in Article 38 of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, General Assembly resolution 60/251 and the Human Rights Council’s Institution Building Package. It is also reflected in Operative Paragraph 15 of Human Rights Council resolution 22/6 on human rights defenders, adopted by consensus by the Council in March 2013.

Contact: Phil Lynch, Director of ISHR, on + 41 76 708 4738 or p.lynch@ishr.ch

Interview: Human Rights Counsellor, Geir Sjøberg, Norwegian Mission to the UN, Geneva

25.03.2013
 

1. The Human Rights Council has adopted a resolution which some have called a landmark in furthering the protection of human rights defenders. Are you satisfied with the results?

Let me first of all thank the ISHR and other human rights organizations for the invaluable advise and support throughout the process we have had here in Geneva.

In 2011, the General Assembly expressed grave concerns about the serious nature of risks faced by human rights defenders due to threats, attacks and acts of intimidation against them. Regrettably, the situation has hardly improved since then. On the contrary, current trends are largely negative, as reported by the Special Rapporteur and others. Against this background, the Council had to respond with a clear message. The resolution ‘Protecting Human Rights Defenders’ should be seen as such, as the collective voice of the international community in 2013. On balance, we see the resolution as an appropriate response by the Human Rights Council at a very difficult time for human rights defenders in all regions of the world.

The unanimous adoption of this resolution sends an important signal of support to all the courageous people who are fighting against human rights violations all over the world. We must now work to ensure that this resolution is translated into concrete results on the ground and leads to an improvement in the situation of human rights defenders. 

2. What do you see as the main advances achieved through the resolution? The resolution places special emphasis on women human rights defenders; why did you choose to highlight their work?

The resolution provides for a collective and clear direction to States, which rallied behind the resolution when adopting it by consensus. A large number of States across all regions have also cosponsored the resolution. This is important.

The strength of the resolution lies in the broad support around a comprehensive and clear message. I believe it addresses the main issues in a principled and fairly straight forward manner. Let me mention a few aspects. A key message of the resolution is that national legislation must be consistent with international human rights law. Measures to combat terrorism and preserve national security must follow transparent and foreseeable criteria and standards. Procedural safeguards must be in place, including in criminal cases against human rights defenders. Legal provisions and their application affecting human rights defenders must be clearly defined, determinable and non-retroactive, and they cannot be used or misused to criminalize, stigmatize, impede, obstruct or otherwise restrict the work of human rights defenders contrary to international human rights law. Rather, human rights defenders must be allowed to play their important and legitimate role in the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The independence of their organizations must be respected.

Moreover, the freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly - which are essential for the promotion and protection of other rights - must be ensured and provided for on a very practical level, including by avoiding discriminatory restrictions on potential sources of funding. Laws regulating civil society organizations must not hinder, but facilitate their work. New forms of communication, online and offline, and the media of one’s choice should be promoted and facilitated at all levels. Clear laws and policies must allow for a general right to request and receive information held by public authorities. Provisions must not prevent public officials from being held accountable. Penalties for defamation must be limited in order to ensure proportionality. Legislation aimed at preserving public morals must be compatible with international human rights law. Legislation must not target the activities of those defending the rights of persons belonging to minorities or espousing minority beliefs. States must ensure that dissenting views are allowed. These are some of the aspects that are laid out in the resolution.

Let me add that the resolution also sends a strong message that States must allow defenders to cooperate effectively with the UN and other international bodies without the fear of reprisals of any kind.

The emphasis on women human rights defenders is significant, both because recent events have shown the vulnerability of women in this context, and because effective, just and sustainable development will only happen with women being allowed to assume their rightful place in society. Gender equality is a fundamental and overriding priority of the Government of Norway.

3. Are there any elements that were particularly difficult to negotiate or that you feel should have been covered but were left out?

As with any UN negotiations concerning topical issues, there will be differences in view, but the extensive and transparent process that we had over the four-week Council session permitted for all views to be heard and considered, and in the end we found common ground, as expressed by the resolution.

Over all, we believe that the resolution reflects and gives justice to the important recommendations issued by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. These recommendations covers the key, pertinent issues, in our view, and they formed a solid basis for the resolution.

4. We've heard one state disassociate itself based on the paragraph on the right to access funding; how do you intend to ensure the resolution in its entirety is applied in policy making in the contexts in which it matters most?

States are under the obligation to protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms of all persons.  The resolution states clearly that no law should criminalize or delegitimize activities in defense of human rights on account of the origin of funding thereto. The resolution also urges states to extend support to local human rights defenders.

We will continue our dialogue with all partners, this is a process, and we will continue to play our part with a view to realizing fully the objectives of the resolution, so that human rights defenders can in fact operate free from hindrance and insecurity, a fundamental principle to which all States have agreed.

5. Why did Norway focus on the particular theme of the use of legislation to restrict the work of human rights defenders? What plans do you have for the future development of the defenders resolution? 

In light of the increased pressure on human rights defenders, in all regions of the world, and based on the report of the Special Rapporteur to the General Assembly last fall, we believed that this was the logical and appropriate theme to address. Consultations with a broad set of actors confirmed this approach.

The work in support of human rights defenders is a top and long-standing priority of the Norwegian government. The creation of a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders should be a fundamental objective of any society. We will continue to follow developments closely here, and we will continue to provide leadership in this very important area. The UN resolutions constitute an important part of this commitment. We will continue to work closely with all partners, including the ISHR and other human rights organizations, in defining the proper steps ahead.

6. Finally, the HRC is sometimes criticised for developing its work in a vacuum, and for delivering limited impact for rights holders on the ground. Have you faced or do you anticipate such criticism in relation to this particular resolution? What does Norway intend to do to ensure the resolution represents a tangible value add for human rights defenders in their day to day work?

The reactions to the resolution adopted on 21 March have – as far as I have seen – been largely welcoming of its message and of its broad support.

We will work with all partners at all levels in order to realize the important objectives of the resolution.

We will listen carefully to civil society and other stakeholders, in accordance with the spirit of paragraph 20 of the resolution, through our ongoing day to day contacts and partnerships with human rights defenders in all regions.

The doors of Norwegian embassies are always open to human rights defenders.

End restrictions on NGO access to funds for human rights advocacy

29.05.2013
 

(Geneva – 29 May 2013) – Non-government organisations, particularly those that advocate on issues of human rights, are facing unprecedented restrictions on access to funding, according to a new report by a UN expert.

In his annual report to the Human Rights Council, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, says ‘In recent years, civil society actors have been facing increased control and undue restrictions in relation to funding they received, or allegedly received.’

According to Mr Kiai, the ‘problem is not isolated and exists in all parts of the world’, with the restrictions aiming, ‘in many cases, to silence the voices of dissent and critics.’

The right of NGOs and civil society organisations to access and to receive funding is a fundamental aspect of the right to freedom of association. It is expressly guaranteed in Article 13 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which provides that ‘Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to solicit, receive and utilise resources for the express purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms through peaceful means’.

According to ISHR Director, Phil Lynch, the Special Rapporteur’s report exposes a disturbing global trend.

‘The Special Rapporteur’s report rightly calls attention to illegitimate and disproportionate restrictions on NGO access to funds in Algeria, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Egypt, Jordan, Russia, Sudan, Uganda and Zimbabwe. However, the problem is not limited to the Global South. Just last week, new guidelines were announced in New South Wales, Australia which effectively prohibit community legal centres from undertaking “political advocacy or political activism”.’

The NSW Legal Assistance Services Funding Principles state that this includes, but is not limited to, ‘lobbying governments and elected officials on law reform and policy issues’ and also includes ‘public campaigning and advocacy… seeking changes to government policies or laws’.

According to Mr Lynch, laws and policies such as those described in the Special Rapporteur’s report or recently adopted in Australia are incompatible with international human rights law and directly contradict a landmark resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in March 2013 and explicitly supported by Egypt and Australia. Human Rights Council resolution 22/6, entitled ‘Protecting human rights defenders’, calls upon States to ensure ‘that no law should criminalize or delegitimize activities in defence of human rights on account of the origin of funding thereto.’

The International Service for Human Rights warmly welcomes the Special Rapporteur’s report and calls upon States to endorse and fully implement its key recommendations, including by:

  • Enshrining the rights to rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly in law and practice,
  • Ensuring that any restriction on the rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly is strictly necessary, reasonable, proportionate and non-discriminatory; and
  • Recognising and protecting the right to NGOs and other civil society organisations to seek and receive funding – whether from domestic, foreign or international sources – and to use those funds to promote and protect human rights, including through advocacy.

An ISHR briefing paper on the right to access funding is available here (May 2009).

An opinion piece written for ISHR by Human Rights Watch Executive Director, Ken Roth, on the right of NGOs to receive foreign funding is available here (April 2013).

Opinion: NGOs Have a Right to Receive Foreign Funding

26.04.2013

By Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch

The first lesson taught in the School for Autocrats is to keep people isolated.  When people join together to advance a political perspective, they gain confidence in their views and power in their collective voice.  But when society is atomized, fear is more likely to dominate, and individuals acting alone have a harder time making their voices heard. 

A common way for people to join together is by creating a non-governmental organization (NGO).  So when autocrats want to keep society cowed—to avoid organized pressure for change—a top priority is to handcuff the NGOs.  Because simply banning NGOs would so obviously flout the right to freedom of association, autocrats these days pursue more subtle approaches.  An increasingly common technique involves two steps: first, generating sufficient fear so few residents dare fund an NGO like a human rights group that is genuinely independent or might criticize the government; and second, citing nationalism or the alleged dangers of outside interference to ban or restrict foreign funding of NGOs. 

Ethiopia enacted a law in 2009 that prohibits human rights groups from receiving more than 10 percent of their funding from abroad.  That has decimated the country’s human rights movement.  Russia adopted a law in 2012 requiring NGOs that receive foreign funds to proclaim themselves “foreign agents.”  Russian human rights groups have refused, even under threat of prosecution, because the label is so stigmatizing.  Now Egypt is debating a law that would empower the government to determine which NGOs are allowed to receive foreign funding.  That would invite the government to pick favorites, approving foreign funds for lapdogs while rejecting them for critics.

But why are foreign funds so nefarious when NGOs get them yet apparently uncontroversial when others do?  The Ethiopian government is one of the largest aid recipients in Africa; does that make it subversive?  The Russian government lives off its sale of oil and natural gas to foreign buyers; is that an act of treason?  The Egyptian government receives billions of dollars in US military assistance and is negotiating for billions more in loans from the IMF; is that an act of disloyalty?

Of course not.  So why is it wrong for NGOs to solicit financial support from foreign friends? Bolstered by foreign funds, governments routinely advance their political agendas.  Militaries and businesses do the same.  Why should NGOs be singled out for restriction? It leaves the impression that their real sin is not accepting foreign contributions but criticizing the government. 

Restricting NGOs may be the first rule of the Autocrats School, but it violates the first principles of democratic societies.  That is because elections alone provide insufficient opportunity for the public to influence the decisions of government. The mere act of voting, important as it is, is too blunt an instrument by itself for citizens to express their views.  At best people vote for a political party -- a tendency or orientation -- but that periodic vote does not mean uncritical endorsement of every decision the party might make about the broad range of issues—some foreseeable some not—that arise in day-to-day governance.

That’s where the rights of free speech and association come in.  People need the freedom to speak out on issues whenever they arise, not only on Election Day.  And the way to increase the reach of each person’s voice is through such megaphones as social media, the press, and the ability to join together with like-minded people through groups such as NGOs.  Human rights NGOs play the added role of defending those whose voices a government wants to silence. 

It should be no surprise that NGOs -- like the media -- sometimes criticize government decisions. That is not subversion.  It is the essence of democracy.  Any government effort to bar funding for critics or to steer funding only to groups that parrot official views undermines this essential democratic role.

That is not to say that anything goes for NGOs.  Like everyone else, they should refrain from criminality.  If an NGO worker really is plotting to violently overthrow the state or to commit some other legitimately proscribed act, he or she should be prosecuted under the regular criminal code.  There is no need for additional restrictions specifically for NGOs.

Any regulation of NGOs should focus on their conduct, not their source of funds.  So long as an organization is engaged in peaceful advocacy, even if that is critical dissent, it should be entitled to do so as a matter of right, regardless of who funds it.

Council called upon to take action on human rights defenders and corporate accountability

03.06.2013
 

In a series of events the Human Rights Council has been called upon to better support and protect the work of human rights defenders who work on issues of corporate accountability.

In a statement during the interactive dialogue with the Working Group on Business and Human Rights, ISHR expressed concern at the harassment and reprisals faced by human rights defenders for their work investigating, protesting, and seeking access to remedies for victims of alleged abuses linked to business activities.

In a statement made to the Panel on Business and Human Rights, ISHR urged the UN and all relevant stakeholders to ensure that the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are interpreted and applied consistently with the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. In ISHR’s submission, this requires: that States enact legislation to protect civil society organizations and human rights defenders from harassment, persecution and reprisals linked to their corporate accountability work; that corporations consult with human rights defenders about the human rights risks and impacts of their work; and that both States and corporations provide access to an effective remedy for victims of corporate human rights violations.

Finally, in a side-event on business and human rights defenders jointly sponsored by ISHR and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a group of four expert panelists (Clement Voulé, expert member of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights working group on extractive industries and human rights; Sapna Malik, Partner at Leigh Day; Gerald Staberock, Secretary-General of the World Organisation Against Torture; and Lene Wendland, Adviser on Business and Human Rights in OHCHR) outlined the ‘particular risks’ that human rights defenders who work on issues of corporate accountability face. The panelists concluded that the Human Rights Council should better protect and support the work of such defenders and proposed a range of actions in this regard, including a joint study or report on the issues by the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and the Working Group on Business and Human Rights, and developing a resolution on business and human rights defenders for adoption by the Human Rights Council. All panelists agreed that there is a more pressing need for full and effective implementation of both the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders at the national level than for the elaboration of a new treaty or declaration on the issues.

New report shows need for States and business to prevent and redress corporate human rights abuses

30.05.2013
 

(Geneva - 30 May 2013) – A new report by the UN’s Working Group on business and human rights highlights the need for global action to prevent and redress corporate attacks on human rights defenders, the International Service for Human Rights said today.

‘We are disturbed by the Working Group’s reports of the harassment, persecution and reprisals faced by human rights defenders for their work investigating, protesting, and seeking redress for victims of alleged corporate human rights abuses,’ said ISHR’s Director of Human Rights Council Advocacy, Michael Ineichen.

The harassment of human rights defenders working on issues of corporate accountability is expressly prohibited by the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which provide that States and corporations must not obstruct or impair the legitimate and peaceful activities of human rights defenders.

‘We urge States to investigate any alleged acts of intimidation or reprisal against human rights defenders working on issues of corporate accountability. Where such abuses occur, States must also ensure that those affected have access to an effective remedy,’ Mr Ineichen said.

In a statement to the UN’s Human Rights Council, ISHR welcomed the Working Group’s recognition as to the important and legitimate role of civil society organisations, trade unions and human rights defenders in raising awareness of the human rights impacts and risks of business enterprises and activities.

‘The recent building collapse and loss of more than 1,100 lives in Rana Plaza in Bangladesh tragically demonstrates the consequences that can flow from the failure of corporations to meaningfully consult with human rights defenders to identify, prevent and mitigate the adverse human rights impacts of business operations,’ said Mr Ineichen.

ISHR is calling on the UN Human Rights Council to ensure effective national implementation of an historic resolution adopted by consensus in March 2013 which recognises the important role of human rights defenders in promoting and protecting human rights and which calls on States to respect, protect and support their activities.

‘The work of human rights defenders – including journalists, lawyers and advocates – is crucial to uphold human rights and the rule of law. Increasingly, this involves investigating, protesting against and ensuring accountability for corporate human rights abuses,’ said Mr Ineichen.

‘It is imperative that States increase their protection and support for civil society organizations and human rights defenders that work on issues of corporate accountability.’

ISHR’s statement to the UN Human Rights Council is available here.

First Human Rights Monitor

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

ISHR 30 years of impact

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

Pages

Opinion:

Imagine being killed for defending your land, your livelihood or the environment. Worse still – if worse exists: imagine that the murderer won’t be prosecuted. This sounds totally absurd and yet, as a new report by Global Witness shows, this is happening more often than ever. Read on. 

Browse our articles:

Region

Country

Topic

Mechanism

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