11 May

NGOs and human rights defenders have until the 18th of May to submit cases of reprisals to the UN Secretary-General's report, covering the period June 2017 to May 2018.

15 May

By Urgent Latin Fund for Latin America and the Caribbean UAF-LAC

As they confront not only powerful economic and political interests, but the systematic and specific violence against them, women environmental activists face particular risks, threats and attacks, such as sexual violence and other gender-related offenses. However, documentation on this issue is insufficient and lacks of a feminist and intersectional approach. 

09 May

On 24 April, ISHR organised a meeting between the African Commission's Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders and the defenders participating in the NGO Forum.

08 May

We're thrilled to launch ISHR's latest annual report, outlining our key impacts during 2017 and our bold vision for 2018 and the years ahead. These impacts, and the achievement of our vision, would be impossible without you – fellow defenders, decision-makers, diplomats and donors who share and promote our mission and who contribute the resources, expertise and influence necessary to make our vision a reality. Thanks for supporting ISHR and making human rights change happen! 

03 May
Image of Tashi Wangchuk

As the world recognises the importance of a free press, ISHR joins with global NGOs to urge China to release Tibetan activist Tashi Wangchuk. It is also a moment to highlight recommendations to China on media freedoms and freedom of expression, part of a new joint report from ISHR and the Committee on the Protection of Journalists.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Council continues its engagement with the situation in Syria


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Council mandates inquiry into massacre in El-Houleh at fourth special session on Syria


On 1 June 2012, the Human Rights Council (the Council) held its 19th special session on the ‘deteriorating human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic and the recent killings in El-Houleh’. Despite three previous special sessions on the situation in Syria, the violence has continued. The request for the special session, submitted by Qatar, Turkey, the European Union (the EU), Denmark, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United States of America (US) was supported by 23 members of the Council and 33 observer States. This special session follows last week’s massacre in the town of El-Houleh that drew international condemnation and prompted the US and at least a dozen other nations to expel Syrian diplomats on Tuesday.

The special session concluded with the adoption of resolution A/HRC/S-19/L.1 entitled ‘The deteriorating human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic and the killings in El-Houleh’. The session followed the pattern of previous special sessions, with China, Cuba, and the Russian Federation continuing to block efforts to reach consensus on the situation in Syria. These three States voted against the resolution. Ecuador and Uganda abstained, while the Philippines did not vote. The final vote tally was 41 votes in favour, 3 against, and 2 abstentions. There were notable shifts from India which, having abstained on all resolutions on Syria to date, voted in favour of the resolution, and Angola, which also voted in favour after having previously either abstained or not voted.

The resolution, which condemns the increasingly grave human rights violations in Syria and more specifically the massacre in the town of El-Houleh, includes the decision to request the Commission of Inquiry (COI) to urgently conduct a ‘comprehensive, independent, and unfettered special inquiry’ into the events in El-Houleh, and to attempt to publicly identify those who ‘appear responsible’. Further, the resolution invites Mr Kofi Annan, Joint Special Envoy for the UN and the League of Arab States, to brief the Council at its 20th session. Again, the resolution makes no reference to referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC), despite attempts during negotiations to have this reference included. It states however that the evidence gathered from the above investigation should be preserved for ‘possible future criminal prosecutions or a future justice process’. The COI is requested to provide a full report of its findings to the Council’s 20th session.

As expected, Syria expressed strong opposition during the session to the draft resolution, as it had done at the previous sessions. Its main point of concern was that the resolution was politicised, and that the Council’s continued attention on Syria is selective. It added that several States continued to promote violence in the country by supplying the rebels with arms. It stated that the resolution prejudges the findings of the inquiry that it calls for, and that by giving this mission to the COI it casts doubt on the role of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) and the Joint Special Envoy, Mr Annan. Syria stated that it fully accepted its responsibility to protect its people and to uphold international law, with the aim of emerging from the crisis. It called for a constructive debate to this end.

Condemnation of the massacre and calls for an investigation were unanimous, including from those who were opposed to the resolution. However several States (including China, Cuba, the Russian Federation, and Syria) criticised the assignment of the investigation to the COI, stating that this undermined the missions of UNSMIS and Mr Annan, and risked duplicating their work. China appealed for an immediate cease-fire and a strengthening of support for the existing mechanisms and measures including Mr Annan’s six point plan and UNSMIS. These States, as well as Venezuela speaking on behalf of ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas) repeated the calls they had made in the past that the international community should not use the special session or the resolution as a pretext for foreign intervention. Venezuela and China stated that the situation should be resolved by dialogue, rather than the one-sided approach represented by the resolution. Jordan associated intervention with risks for regional and international peace and security, which it feared could lead to an escalation of the situation. Other Arab States, notably Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, wished for more robust action in order to stop violence but highlighted the need to protect Syrian sovereignty and integrity.

Many States echoed Mr Annan’s description of Syria as being ‘at a tipping point’ following these massacres, stating that if action was not taken, irreversible descent into civil war was on the horizon. Indeed India gave this as the reason why it had decided to vote in favour of this resolution. Many other States emphasised the urgency of the matter, referring to the findings from UNSMIS and the COI of acts of violence that may amount to 'crimes against humanity'. Botswana endorsed robust diplomatic measures as well as sanctions. Several States including Denmark (on behalf of the EU), Chile, Switzerland, New Zealand, Slovakia, and Botswana expressed the need to refer or, in the case of the EU, to consider referring these matters to the International Criminal Court (ICC), emphasising accountability as essential if a future peaceful Syria is to be achieved. These calls were reiterated by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navanethem Pillay (represented in the meeting by Ms Marcia Kran) and endorsed in a joint statement by special procedure mandate holders, which was delivered through videolink, by Mr Christof Heyns, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. Cuba and Russia stated however that unwarranted pressure was being placed on the Security Council.

Ms Pillay along with most of the States on the speakers' list, expressed regret that Syria continued to fail to cooperate with the international community, including the with the COI and UNSMIS. This call was echoed by many States including Denmark (on behalf of the EU). A priority for many States was the imperative need for access for humanitarian aid into the country. Qatar called for the establishment of a humanitarian corridor.

During the adoption of the resolution, the Russian Federation, while ‘categorically and most decisively’ condemning the events in El-Houleh, and demanding an investigation, stated that the resolution was one-sided and failed to include a condemnation of terrorism. It reiterated claims made during the session that the resolution anticipates the findings of the inquiry it calls for, and added that such an inquiry should not be carried out by the COI, as this calls into question the competence of UNSMIS under whose mandate such an inquiry falls, and risks duplication. Further, the delegation held that the invitation to Mr Annan to brief the Council was inappropriate. The Russian Federation’s remarks were echoed by Cuba and China. Syria’s response was to condemn what it described as the selectivity of the Council, and to describe the resolution as motivated by a desire to interfere in the internal affairs of Syria.

Working Group on Business and Human Rights announces intention to carry out country visits


On 21 June the Human Rights Council (the Council) held an interactive dialogue with the newly established Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other enterprises. This Working Group replaced the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on business and human rights, with the goal of putting into effect the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that had been developed by the former Special Rapporteur, John Ruggie. While the dialogue was held in a positive athmosphere, it also exposed continuing differences on the scope and utility of the Guiding Principles, given their non-binding nature and known substantive gaps. 

Ms Margaret Jungk, rapporteur of the Working Group, opened the session by mentioning the Human Rights Council’s historic decision to endorse the Guiding Principles. This, she said established for the first time an ‘authoritative global standard’ to address the negative impacts on human rights of business activities. The next step was for awareness raising of the Guiding Principles and for States and businesses alike to effectively implement. Ms Jungk introduced the three work streams that will guide the Working Group in this effort, namely dissemination of the Guiding Principles, ensuring impact through implementation, and promoting and strengthening global governance structures. She emphasised the duty of States as well as businesses to respect and protect human rights while noting that all actors needed to ensure effective access to remedies when breaches occur. This strategy enjoyed general support from the States that spoke.

Ms Jungk’s mention of possible country visits was notably welcomed by Australia as a means to ground the Working Group’s work in real-life complexities on the ground, to speak directly with those responsible for implementation, and to make constructive recommendations. Ghana stated that it was important for the Working Group to undertake country visits to assess the different capacities each has for implementing the Guiding Principles.

This issue of capacity was raised by several other States. India expressed its concern that those businesses that did not live up to the Guiding Principles would be blacklisted. It worried that this would reflect a lack of capacity on the part of businesses in developing countries and the general lack of a ‘level playing field’ in the global corporate world, rather than any ill will. It called on the Working Group to take capacity and cultural context into account when assessing implementation. In a similar vein, the Russian Federation stated that while the Guiding Principles are universal in their application, the methods for their implementation may vary depending on the capacity of each country.

Spain joined Norway in calling for clear communication between States and the Working Group, and a constant elaboration by the Working Group of practical tools to address challenges which vary from country to country and from sector to sector. Following up on this point, the European Union (EU) wished for further elaboration of the implementation phase as well as an indication of priorities and timelines for the tasks ahead. India, Sweden, and Spain, and requested exchange of best practices as a tool for implementation, with India stating that the Working Group should ensure that it does not become a catalyst for 'naming and shaming' States and corporations.

Norway made the crucial point about the need for incentives for enterprises to integrate the Guiding Principles into their own work, an argument echoed by the Russian Federation which called for the dissemination aspect of the strategy to be complemented by a strategy to increase the interest of corporations in human rights, thereby stimulating demand.

Many States (Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC), Argentina, Australia, Sweden, and the United States, along with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)) welcomed the Working Group’s consultative approach, with Argentina, Australia, the UK, and the ICJ noting the particularly important role of civil society. However, the ICJ questioned the success of that approach, saying that those directly affected by business practices have been virtually excluded. To this end it suggested that future consultations be held in places where representatives of these groups could participate, and that a voluntary fund be established to encourage and facilitate that participation. In a somewhat contradictory statement, Ms Jungk mentioned in her closing remarks that the issue of the victims’ voices was one that the Working Group had struggled with, and that in the end it had been recognised as an issue that cuts across all the planned work streams, as a result of which it is not explicitly mentioned in the strategy. Australia called for the Working Group to also consult with small and medium enterprises (SMEs). The Forum on Business and Human Rights, which will be held from 4-5 December 2012 under the guidance of the Working Group, is another opportunity for broad consultations between all stakeholders, and civil society is strongly encouraged to continue their engagement with the Working Group by participating in this Forum. However, given the skepticism among parts of civil society on the limited scope of the Forum's work, it may be difficult to attract sustained attention to the Forum.

Paraguay and the Russian Federation drew attention to vulnerable groups with the Russian Federation requesting the Working Group to ensure that the Guiding Principles are disseminated amongst these groups, to inform them about their rights. UNICEF highlighted its Children's Rights and Business Principles, which seek to fill gaps in existing standards in relation to the impact of business and children.

With regard to next steps, the UK stated that it was important not to upset the integrity and balance achieved by Mr Ruggie in the Guiding Principles, and described the ultimate goal of the process as being to transform the Principles into action. Other States saw the Principle as a starting point from which a further process can be developed (for example, Cuba, Egypt). Egypt stated that the Working Group should seek to identify protection gaps so that issues not covered by the Guiding Principles could be addressed, giving as an example the activities of the pharmaceutical industry in the acquiring and merging with enterprises in developing countries, which impacts upon the production of generic drugs. The ICJ too said that the implementation of the Principles should not foreclose any further development, including further enhancement of standards, pointing out that Mr Ruggie himself had described the Principles as a platform on which cumulative progress can be built. It expressed concern with the description by some, including the Working Group, of the Principles as the 'authoritative basis' for understanding the duties and obligations of States and businesses, noting that it is not a legally binding document. Of particular concern was the lack of sufficient judicial remedies provided by the Principles, further underscoring the need for substantive development of the normative basis. Ms Jungk, responding in her closing remarks, said the Working Group's intention was to begin the process of implementation and on that basis to identify gaps and shortcomings in the process on a factual basis. She did not talk about plans to identify gaps in the Principles themselves.

Ms Jungk concluded by setting out three objectives that the Working Group wanted to see States achieve, first, identify areas in country which are most affected by the activities of businesses and build action plans on the basis of the knowledge obtained; second, the development of a team within governments that can drive the work of implementing the Guiding Principles across all ministries and departments; and third, direct engagement from States with the Working Group to get advice and assistance.

Human Rights Council ends 20th session


The Human Rights Council concluded its 20th session today (6 July 2012) with a series of important country and thematic resolutions. Refer to this joint NGO statement made at the end of the session for more details.

Videos: wrap-ups of the 20th session of the Human Rights Council


We are pleased to provide you with these short videos summarising some of the key country specific and thematic developments at the 20th session of the Human Rights Council. Look out for a more in-depth written summary in the next issue of the Human Rights Monitor Quarterly.

The first clip focuses on country-specific developments, including on Bahrain, Belarus, Eritrea, Syria and Mali.



The second clip focuses on some of the session’s main thematic developments. These include the first report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association, a panel discussion on women human rights defenders, a discussion on the protection of journalists, and a resolution on human rights and the internet.

UPR boosts cooperation between States and civil society


A workshop held this month in Liberia has shown the potential of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism for increasing cooperation between government, national human rights institutions (NHRIs) and human rights defenders for the advancement of human rights.


The training took place in Monrovia from 9 to 12 July. It was organised by the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), in collaboration with the Liberia Coalition for Human Rights Defenders, and the West African Human Rights Defenders Network.

The workshop brought together government officials, national human rights institutions and human rights defenders from Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and Liberia to examine their countries’ human rights progress. There was a particularly focus on recommendations made to States under the UPR, and also on the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Manager of ISHR’s regional human rights defenders programme, Clement Voulé says he was greatly encouraged by the cooperative dynamic between civil society, NHRIs and ministries of justice and human rights.

‘All the participants seemed to have an open approach to one another, together with a desire to advance human rights by seeing UPR recommendations implemented in their countries.

‘There’s the sense that the UPR has boosted the priority of human rights at the national level. It’s also been a catalyst for encouraging the government, NHRI and civil society to work together toward this common goal.’

He says it was interesting that all the participants of the workshop were already familiar with the UPR mechanism, even if they had never been exposed to other UN human rights mechanisms, such as the treaty bodies.

‘While it’s a good thing that the UPR has managed to garner such a high profile, this does present the threat that UPR recommendations will be prioritised over recommendations made by other human rights mechanisms.

‘It will be important therefore that UPR recommendations support those made by these other mechanisms, such as the treaty bodies or special rapporteurs, by referring to the action points identified by them and, certainly, never contradicting them.’

Mr Voulé says Guinea had taken a proactive approach to the UPR and is in the process of finalising a draft action plan on how it intends to implement its UPR recommendations. The meeting in Monrovia provided the ideal forum for the government, civil society and NHRI to work together to develop this further.

‘National action plans that implicate all government ministries are absolutely essential for the implementation of UPR recommendations because otherwise any “commitments” are just rhetoric. The necessity of developing and implementing national action plans is one of the recommendations that the participants identified in an end of session statement.

‘It was excellent to see Guinea using the workshop as an opportunity to further develop its plan, and Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire using the opportunity to get discussion going about how such a plan would be put together when the participants returned to their respective countries.’

A more disappointing observation was the currently low level of investment in or engagement by NHRIs in many of the countries represented. ‘One of the greatest opportunities for NHRIs is to play a role of convenor of the process at the national level – helping to bring together State and civil society,’ he says.

The NHRI of Sierra Leone was a good example of the role these institutions could play in their countries. ‘Sierra Leone’s NHRI has worked with its government and offices of the United Nations to raise awareness of the UPR process and to link UPR recommendations with other government processes in the country.’


Participants recommended that each country create a core group – encompassing civil society, NHRI, State and other stakeholder representatives – to monitor the implementation of UPR recommendations.

Another important recommendation related to a severe lack of country reports submitted the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Liberia currently has 15 reports outstanding, Sierra Leone 14, Cote d'Ivoire 10, and Guinea 7. Without the submission of these reports to the African Commission, many serious human rights situations have never been able to benefit from the Commission’s input.

The workshop participants recommended that all overdue reports be submitted to the African Commission.

You can read the participants’ full end of session statement and recommendations in English and French. The workshop was made possible by the support of Irish Aid and Diakonie.

Mark International Women Human Rights Defenders’ Day by sharing your experience


The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa is seeking input for a report on the challenges faced by women defenders in Africa and their protection needs. And with International Women Human Rights Defenders’ Day just around the corner (29 November), now is an opportune time to provide your feedback.

If you are a woman activist working alone or in association with others to promote and protect human rights, and/or you’re someone who works on women’s rights or sexual rights, including issues related to sexual orientation or gender identity, then please do complete this questionnaire (English). It is also available in FrenchArabic and Portuguese. It is open to those working at the national, regional or international levels.The deadline for submitting responses is 31 December 2012.  

The report comes at a time of growing attention by the international and regional human rights systems to the challenges and protection needs of women human rights defenders. In 2010, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders produced a report on women defenders, which was followed earlier this year by the first ever Human Rights Council panel discussion on the same issue, held on the UN’s Annual Day of Discussion on Women’s Rights.

The study on women human rights defenders in Africa was initiated by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Commission) in a resolution passed just last month at the Commission’s 52nd Ordinary Session (also available in French). The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa is spearheading this process, and is preparing a report that she will present to the African Commission at its next session, in April 2013.

The report is anticipated to provide recommendations for several stakeholders, including States, regarding the protection of women defenders and the promotion of their work. These recommendations will help to bring domestic standards and practice in line with regional and international human rights standards, including the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. This will be the first time that the African Commission provides such a focus on the situation of women defenders.

Take action!

Civil society engagement is crucial to ensure the report reflects and analyses the situation of women defenders working in different areas of human rights across the continent.

Please take the time to complete and return the questionnaire above if it is relevant to you, and also forward it onto colleagues and partners. Given that not everyone has email or responds to questionnaires, any way you can actively encourage women defenders to provide information would greatly assist the process.  The deadline for submitting your responses is 31 December 2012.

Currently all the sub-regional human rights defenders’ networks and several other national, regional and international organisations that regularly engage at the African Commission are actively encouraging women defenders to provide information about their experience.

For more on the challenges faced by women human rights defenders and their specific protection needs, see Claiming Rights, Claiming Justice, a handbook developed by the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition.

ISHR celebrates Human Rights Day in Liberia


Human rights defenders in Liberia are today marking Human Rights Day (10 December) and the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) is pleased to be celebrating with them.

The Liberia Coalition of Human Rights Defenders (LICHRD) in collaboration with the Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR) and the Ministry of Gender and Development are holding a week-long series of events, to raise awareness of this year’s theme ‘My Voice Counts’.

The events, being held in Monrovia, have included the first annual National Human Rights Book Fair, awareness-raising activities through schools and community groups, radio talk shows, and a Human Rights Day parade.

ISHR is supporting this event through distribution of its publications to human rights defenders through a Human Rights Day books and resources event.

Jarwlee Tweh Geegbe, of the LICHRD, says the events are taking place to raise visibility for the human rights issues pursued by the Coalition, international partners and the Independent National Commission on Human Rights. He says the organisers are also leveraging the theme ‘My Voice Counts’ to help break the silence on the problem of child rape in Liberia.

In addition to the LICHRD, INCHR, and the Ministry of Gender and Development, the events around Human Rights Day also count on the involvement of the United States Ambassador to Liberia, the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Liberia, other UN agencies, government officials, and civil society organisation representatives.

Manager of ISHR’s regional human rights defenders programme, Clement Voulé says ISHR is pleased to be among the international human rights organisations represented at the events, and for the opportunity to support local human rights defenders in their Human Rights Day activities.

53rd Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights


The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights is an expert body established by the African Union to monitor, promote and protect human rights in African States. The 53rd Ordinary session of the Commission was held in Banjul in The Gambia from 9 to 22 April. It was preceded by a three day NGO Forum (5 to 8 April) which brought together human rights defenders from across the continent and beyond. The Forum aims to bring human rights concerns to the attention of the Commission in a bid to increase the protection and promotion of rights through the mechanism.

Key developments

Commission fails to take necessary steps to protect human rights defenders from attacks and reprisals

For the first time at an opening ceremony of the Ordinary session of the Commission, the Chair publically condemned reprisals against those that cooperate with the mechanism. However, NGO calls for the Commission to show greater resolve and establish an effective institutional mechanism to prevent and respond to reprisals against human rights defenders were not heeded.

Reprisals against those engaging with the African Commission have long been reported by individual human rights defenders. The experience and fear of reprisals is deterring human rights defenders from engaging with the mechanism. ISHR is aware of human rights defenders who decided the risk was too high, having been allegedly threatened both during the last Ordinary Session, and upon their return home. With the Commission regularly acknowledging the importance of the contribution of human rights defenders to its work, including at this session, its unwillingness to attend to their protection is discouraging.

Reprisals against those engaging with the Commission are just one example of the broader insecurity experienced by human rights defenders across the continent. The lack of protection for human rights defenders is frequently highlighted by activists during statements made to the Commission. In its 2011 resolution on human rights defenders in Africa, the Commission itself drew attention to the raft of violations experienced by human rights defenders across the continent, as well as the impunity frequently enjoyed by perpetrators of violations - including reprisals. The Commission acknowledged its responsibility and the opportunity it has to challenge attacks against defenders. However, so far its response has remained largely rhetorical and ad-hoc.

Two hundred human rights defenders gathered at the NGO Forum and unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Commission to ‘to establish a reporting and follow-up mechanism to receive, document, analyze, report and follow-up on allegations of reprisal and intimidation reported in relation to cooperation with the ACHPR and its mechanisms.’ This echoes initiatives within the UN system, where a means to document, report on and follow up on cases of reprisals against those who cooperate with the UN has been set up. Whilst a great deal remains to be done at the UN to effectively prevent and respond to reprisals, it does provide a model for the Commission to consider.

With no particular response from the Commission to the NGO demands, it is unclear what reservations the Commission might have. NGOs have acknowledged the under-resourcing of the Commission’s activities, but consider that taking steps to track and follow up on reprisals should not be resource intensive.

NGOs noted that by moving to systematize its response to reprisals, the Commission would show itself to be serious about preventing attacks against human rights defenders with whom it partners. The Commission has a responsibility to do so given that many engage with the mechanism precisely because space to claim and defend rights at the national level is so limited. Ultimately, the Commission should consider an attack against anyone engaging with the African Commission to be an attack against the Commission itself, and act accordingly.

No State reports presented during the session

A worrying precedent was set during this African Commission Ordinary Session by the lack of any review of a State’s human rights record. The African Charter requires State parties to submit a periodic report every two years, and the Commission, in accordance with its own rules of procedure, to hold a dialogue with States to establish their compliance with their human rights obligations. When no interactive dialogue is held between a State party and the Commission a rare opportunity to hold the State to account for its human rights record is wasted.

The Commission gave no official reason for the lack of reporting – despite the periodic report of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic being available on the Commission website ahead of the session.

At this session several States, including Cameroon, Chad, The Gambia and Malawi committed to submitting their periodic reports in time for the next session. A couple of these same States have made the same pledges at previous sessions without reports being forthcoming. Overall 11 State parties never having sent in reports to the Commission, and countless others are behind in submitting their reports.

With no State reporting, all those who rely on the Commission as a means to try to effect human rights change at the national level, are let down.

In its statement under item 6, ISHR suggested the Commission establish a realistic schedule for State reporting to the Commission on their obligations under the African Charter and relevant protocols. This should be made public to enable civil society to hold States to account for the production of reports and to press States where reports are overdue or not forthcoming. In the case of a State’s repeated failure to send a delegation to present its report or non-submission of reports, the Commission should consider the State in its absence.

Limited response by African Commission to NGO calls

The NGO Forum, held in the days ahead of the Commission session, provides an opportunity for human rights defenders to debate means to advance a range of human rights concerns, including through the African Commission. At this Forum, NGOs pushed the Commission to introduce a human rights perspective to those issues to which it had not yet paid attention.

The NGO Forum called upon the African Commission and other regional and international human rights bodies ‘to integrate terrorism (and) transnational organized crime in its agenda’, recommending that research be carried out on the root causes of terrorism and transnational organized crime, and their implications on human rights and democracy in Africa. The Commission did not respond to this call directly. However, it did pass a resolution related to illicit capital flight from Africa, an issue compellingly brought to the attention of the human rights body in NGO statements during the Commission session itself. The resolution asked ‘the Working Group on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Africa and the Working Group on Extractive Industries, Environment and Human Rights Violations in Africa to undertake an in-depth study on the impact of illicit capital flight on human rights in Africa.’

NGOs have long pushed the Commission to fulfill its mandate to protect and promote rights, by considering both new areas of concern and improving its ways of working. Recommendations made during the 25th Anniversary of the Commission last October included several related to the transparency and efficiency of the ways in which the Commission works. Reforms would maximise the Commission’s use of NGO experience and expertise. During its statement under Item 6, ISHR called on the Commission to produce a road map for the implementation of the recommendations it accepts and supports, and provide an explanation when rejecting recommendations. However, whilst the Commission deliberated on these recommendations during its private session, there is as yet no road map for their implementation.

Focus by international and regional mechanisms on Eritrea prompts State response

The human rights situation in Eritrea received some attention during both the NGO Forum and informal meetings held around the African Commission session. Eritrean human rights defenders spoke of the depth and breadth of human rights violations experienced by those living in country, including torture, arbitrary detention, and systematic discrimination against women. In response, the NGO Forum passed a resolution calling on the Eritrean government to engage with regional and international mechanisms, including the UN Special Rapporteur. The UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, Ms. Sheila Beedwantee Keetharuth, who attended the African Commission session, further reiterated her call to the Eritrean State to meet with her. This call, allied with NGO demands, prompted a faintly positive response from the Eritrean State. An ad-hoc meeting was held between the Rapporteur and State parties, and the Commission later reported a meeting with the Eritrean delegation at their request. However, the long-sought after request by the Rapporteur to visit the country continues to be denied. The Special Rapporteur will now visit neighbouring countries to hear the evidence of those who have fled from Eritrea, ahead of presenting her first report to the UN Human Rights Council in June.

Other NGO Forum country-specific resolutions - on Angola, Kenya, Sudan and Swaziland - all called upon the Commission to urge States to protect human rights defenders from acts of intimidation or attack. Upcoming or recently completed electoral processes - where the risks faced by human rights defenders can be heightened - were noted in resolutions on Swaziland and Kenya respectively, with calls for respect of rights to fundamental freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Regrettably, the Commission did not make any particular reference to any of these NGO calls, or reflect any particular concerns on these country situations, in its final communiqué.

Commission’s response to Mali indicates potential for greater response to conflicts

At the end of the Ordinary session, the Commission announced its intention to send a fact-finding mission to Mali in early June 2013. This comes at a time when the observer mission to Mali, headed by Commissioner Alapini-Gansou, continues as part of the African Union’s response to the situation in the country.

The nature of the role the Commission might play in African Union responses to conflict within the continent was part of an NGO line of enquiry during the NGO Forum. The Forum approved a resolution on Sudan calling on the Commission to coordinate with African Union bodies, such as the Peace and Security Council, to define an effective response to the situation in-country. As part of that coordinated response, the NGO Forum urged the Commission ‘to carry out an urgent protection mission’ to gather information on the human rights situation in different parts of the country. Such calls for proactivity by the Commission speak to the fact that NGOs see potential for the Commission to be far more of a player in terms of proposing and executing responses and preventative strategies to conflict.

Chairperson condemns violence and discrimination on any grounds

The NGO Forum called upon the Commission to condemn discrimination and violence against people on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation, and to call on State parties to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of such violations.

The Commission did not respond directly to this call. However, in an important development, the Chair of the Commission in a video address to the Oslo International Conference on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity – which ran in parallel to the Commission session – affirmed that the African Commission ‘denounces violence committed against individuals based on their sexual orientation as part of its mandate to protect individuals from all forms of violence.’

The Chair speaks of the Commission as an ‘innovator’ in human rights

With the launch of two new Commission documents – The Model Law on Access of Information in Africa, and the General Comments on Article 14 (1) (d) and (e) of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa –  the Chair characterized the Commission as ‘an innovator’ in the development of human rights standards. Both of these developments in the articulation and interpretation of Charter obligations are firsts for the Commission, and the role of NGOs in providing energy and expertise to the process was acknowledged by relevant Commissioners.  

Reflecting another emerging area of focus for the Commission, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa spoke of her report on women human rights defenders, due to be completed by the next Ordinary session in October. It is hoped that through this report, the Commission will provide detailed recommendations regarding the specific protection needs of women human rights defenders in Africa.

ISHR advocacy

ISHR calls for Commission to step up its response to attacks against defenders

ISHR called upon the Commission to show it is serious about ending reprisals against those who cooperate with the mechanism. In a statement on reprisals, ISHR urged the Commission to establish a means for systematically recording, reporting on and following up on cases of reprisals.

Mindful of the fact that reprisals against those cooperating with the Commission are one manifestation of the failure of States to adequately protect individuals in their legitimate human rights engagement, ISHR called the Commission’s attention to the increasing phenomenon of the criminalisation of the work of human rights defenders. Criminalisation of defenders includes the enactment of laws that restrict or deny the rights of human rights defenders, as outlined in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. These include laws restricting NGOs from receiving foreign funding, proposed criminalisation of ‘homosexual propaganda’, and laws that limit freedoms of expression, association and assembly on discriminatory grounds. The misuse of the judicial process is another example of criminalisation. Costly court cases initiated and perpetuated with the purpose of hindering or paralyzing a defender’s work, are known tactics: such criminalisation and stigmatization of human rights defenders facilitate and constitute human rights violations.

ISHR called upon the Commission to urge states to refrain from the criminalisation of human rights defenders, as part of their overall engagement with State parties regarding obligations to create and sustain an enabling environment for the defense of rights.

ISHR welcomes Commission initiative focusing on the situation of women defenders

ISHR welcomed the initiative on women defenders by the Special Rapporteur, and noted that it would play its part in supporting the work of the Commission by disseminating the Commission’s recommendations, and demanding that member States fulfill their obligations to ensure women defenders across the continent can work without harm or hindrance.

Commission must improve its ways of working to hold States to account

The Commission must amend its ways of working to enable NGO engagement with the mechanism, with the overall objective of holding States to account for their human rights obligations under the African Charter.

Delays in States submitting periodic reports to the Commission, and a lack of any State reporting whatsoever at this session, make the need for a doable and predictable schedule for reporting even more pressing. NGO engagement in the process - including submitting shadow reports - relies on this.

‘Whilst we agree that the reporting process should be centred on constructive dialogue, with certain flexibility where States are unable to report in exceptional circumstances, ultimately the process cannot allow for member States to avoid their responsibility altogether.’ said Clement Voulé, ISHR Head of Advocacy at the African Commission. ‘With no clear sense of which country is due to report, NGOs are thwarted in their efforts to push their States, or provide the Commission with information in a timely way.’

In a statement, ISHR also reminded the Commission about recommendations made to it during its previous Ordinary Session. Several of these recommendations related to improving the ways the Commission works. The Commission should produce a road map for the implementation of those recommendations it accepts and supports, and provide an explanation in the case of rejecting any recommendations.

With a mind to the challenges faced by the Commission, however, Mr Voulé added that ‘without resources, the Commission is thwarted in its efforts to do the work it has been mandated to do by State parties to the Charter. If States are serious about guaranteeing and respecting human rights, this includes providing adequate resources for the human rights mechanisms they created to assist them to meet those commitments.’

Commission must demand the highest standards in national institutions

To encourage the development of the overall human rights system in the continent, ISHR called upon the Commission to ensure that it only permits national human rights institutions (NHRIs) of the highest caliber to participate at its sessions. ISHR noted that whilst 22 NHRIs are accredited to speak during the Commission session, only 15 NHRIs across the continent are fully compliant with principles of independence, impartiality and transparency (known as the ‘Paris Principles’). ISHR called upon the Commission to put in place a periodic review of the status of NHRIs, allowing for suspension of those that don’t meet the grade.

‘Ensuring that only those NHRIs fully compliant with the Paris Principles are afforded the privileges of accreditation with the Commission will send a strong message to States for the need for reform,’ said Mr Voule, ISHR Head of Advocacy at the African Commission.


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