News

21 Feb

The Human Rights Council President has initiated a restructuring of the programme of work of the Council in order to decrease the meeting times due to budgetary restrictions for 2018. ISHR participated in informal consultations held on 12 February and 19 February and raised concerns about the lack of consultation with non-Geneva based organisations and the potential limiting of space for civil society participation. 

16 Feb

The challenges facing human rights defenders globally are exacerbated when those individuals and organisations seek to protect and promote rights of migrants and refugees and others ‘on the move’, says a new report released yesterday by a UN human rights expert.

13 Feb

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

14 Feb

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

31 Jan

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

NGOs warn against potential reprisals at meeting with President of Human Rights Council

05.09.2012
 

The President of the Human Rights Council, Ms. Laura Dupuy Lasserre, held a meeting with NGOs on 5 September 2012 to discuss the 21st session of the Human Rights Council (10-28 September). Participants in the meeting expressed concerns relating to the NGO participation, including the potential for reprisals against human rights defenders attending the session.

Reprisals were mentioned as a particular worry in the case of those participating in the UPR adoption of Bahrain in the light of threats made against defenders during the UPR of Bahrain. There was a suggestion made by an NGO that a general statement condemning reprisals against those who cooperate with UN human rights organisations be made at the opening of the session, as a preventative measure. NGOs noted that the Office of the President has a duty to ensure that civil society has a voice in the UN free from threats.

There was some concern expressed that Russia’s preemptive push for a resolution on traditional values shows disrespect for institutional procedure, given that the study requested from the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee on the subject, which was due to be presented to this session of the Council, will be delayed until March 2013.

A key focal point of the discussion was the nominee for election to the Advisory Committee from Bahrain, Mr Saeed Mohamed Al Faihani. Mr Al Faihani is currently the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and has served for many years in various Government positions, including as Ambassador to the UN in Geneva.

There was a push by various NGOs that Mr Al Faihani should be excluded as a candidate because he holds a decision-making position in government. The Council’s institution-building package (resolution 5/1) states in relation to elections to the Advisory Committee that, ‘[i]ndividuals holding decision-making positions in Government or in any other organistion or entity which might give rise to a conflict of interest with the responsibilities inherent in the mandate shall be excluded’. The President commented that it would be necessary to look in more detail at what is meant by a ‘conflict of interest’.

The 21st session will be Ms Lasserre’s last session as the Council’s President with the next president coming from the Eastern European Group.

Registration for NGO speakers for this session opens on Friday 7 September at 2pm Geneva time; registration can be completed using the link here. Note that there have been changes in registration for the UPR adoptions, which should now be signed up for on Friday 7 September at 2pm along with all other speaking slots. 

UPR of Bahrain: delegation fails to acknowledge ongoing human rights violations

23.05.2012
 

On 21 May 2012 the second cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) commenced with the thirteenth session of the working group, opening with an examination of Bahrain. Anticipation for the commencement of the second cycle was marked by concern that the process would involve the repetition of recommendations accepted during the first round of reviews. However, these worries were not realised as recent events in Bahrain dominated discussion, shifting focus away from the last review.

The delegation of Bahrain approached the review against the backdrop of year-long anti-government protests that created numerous and diverse human rights concerns. In this context, the opening statement of Bahrain’s Minister of State for Human Rights Affairs, Mr Salah Bin Ali Mohamed Abdulrahman, was bemusing. He spoke vaguely yet optimistically of Bahrain’s ‘culture of respect’ for human rights, delicately avoiding mention of the protests beyond allusions to ‘unfortunate events’ and ‘certain occurrences’. Throughout the review, the Bahraini delegation tried to direct attention to the future when questioned about human rights violations related to the protests, defeating the regularly reiterated commitment of States to a ‘frank and productive dialogue’.

Nevertheless, most of the 67 States on the speakers’ list remained persistent in raising the immediate and severe human rights concerns facing Bahrain. While the introduction of a 1 minute 49 second time limit[1] did not lead all representatives to dispense with flowery congratulations and formalities, most posed their questions directly and relatively quickly, focussing on the need to:

  • Promote the rights of women, gender equality and implement CEDAW
  • Introduce legislation protecting the rights of children, particularly the citizenship rights of children of Bahraini mothers and non-Bahraini fathers
  • Reform industrial relations, particularly by protecting the rights of migrant workers and introducing an anti-trafficking policy
  • Protect the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and release civilians detained on related grounds. In particular, the cases of Abdulhadi al-Khwaja and Nabeel Rajab were cited
  • Address allegations of torture and educate law enforcement officials on human rights. The delegates also confirmed the importance of inviting the Special Rapporteur on Torture to Bahrain
  • Ensure the freedom of the media
  • Conduct new trials for defendants convicted in military courts
  • Ratify the Convention on Enforced Disappearances, Rome Statute and optional protocols to CEDAW and CAT
  • Abolish the death penalty.

To some degree, the Bahraini delegation engaged with questions surrounding the first three of these issues, appreciating States’ congratulations for advancements made and accepting that the courses adopted must be stayed. However, the delegates quickly and sometimes curtly dismissed questions relating to the next four issues, and failed to meaningfully recognise questions posed regarding the last two. The recommendations concerning ratifying Conventions, strengthening judicial processes, providing citizenship rights to children of non-Bahraini fathers, and freedom of expression and the media were made following the last review, with little action taken since. A worrying tendency to deflect responsibility away from the Government emerged at an early stage in proceedings. For example, Mr Abdulrahman referred, throughout the session, to the establishment of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to address allegations of torture and other human rights violations emerging from the protests. It seemed that the delegation considered that merely establishing such mechanisms relieved the State of the need to engage with these problems further.

This frustrated discussions,  as States reiterated concerns about freedom of expression, torture, freedom of the press, and trials conducted in military courts. Switzerland was among the first to focus on the right to freedom of expression, with many other States echoing the call for the release of citizens detained for peacefully protesting. The Bahraini delegation denied that any prisoners were detained on that basis and claimed that all imprisoned persons are accused of criminal conduct. Mr Abdulrahman deftly met Denmark’s call for Mr Abdulhadi al-Khawaja to be released to Denmark for medical treatment, by claiming that the Government cannot, under any circumstances, interfere with the ‘perfect independence’ of the Bahraini judiciary. Queries from numerous States regarding allegations of torture in prisons were swiftly dismissed with reference to the BICI’s investigation, and the right of citizens to submit personal grievances to the Office of the Prosecutor. These denials were framed by the claim that the security forces never used indiscriminate power in quashing protests, and that any force that was used was absolutely necessary to maintain the security of Bahrain.

The delegation also explained away several issues by describing time-intensive legal processes obstructing law reform. Concerns about delays in the passage of laws establishing the freedom of the media, recommended in the last review, were addressed in this way. Mr Abdulrahman explained the delays by referring to Bahrain’s dedication to establishing a ‘comprehensive’ framework for free media, though he affirmed the Government’s continuing duty to review media content and remove material that could incite violence or hatred. During its first review, Bahrain had accepted a recommendation to bring its press law into line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This recommendation was repeated, with Japan alleging that a proposed press law was even more restrictive than the old law.

Mr Abdulrahman also referred to Bahrain’s desire to be thorough in reforming human rights laws to explain its continuing failure, since the last review, to ratify various international Conventions which have been approved ‘in principle’. Many other issues were barely given lip service, such as the destruction of places of worship and abolition of the death penalty.

Bahrain’s reluctance to engage with States might be explained by the legitimate desire, observable in many States that have experienced serious upheaval or conflict, to rebuild and move forward. However, the Bahraini delegation’s focus on the future was completely unacceptable in light of reports of ongoing human rights violations. The delegation’s insistence on looking beyond events of the recent past, pausing only to note that Bahrain has accepted all recommendations from the last review, defeated the potential for constructive dialogue on current and severe human rights violations.

At the adoption of the report by the UPR Working Group, the Bahraini delegation stated that it would consider the 164 recommendations made and would provide its responses to the 21st session of the Human Rights Council (the Council). It added that while some of the recommendations made may go against national law, the separation of powers, or the sovereignty of Bahrain, the delegation nevertheless appreciated all those recommendations and would undertaken in-depth discussions with relevant authorities with the view to accepting as many as possible. 

The adoption of the report was primarily notable for a statement by the President of the Council referring to a media campaign being run in Bahrain that identified and threatened members of civil society who had engaged with the UPR process. She listed the names of those threatened, calling on the Government of Bahrain to carry out follow-up and ensure that these people are able to return safely to the country.  

The delegation responsed extremely defensively, denying that threats had been made and describing the President's comments as 'unfounded allegations'. Several points of order were made (Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Belarus, Kuwait) some criticising the President's intervention as setting an unwarranted precedent by referring to issues relating to the 'sovereignty of States', that go beyond the UPR and the report under review. Further, it was argued that the President should not not take it upon herself to speak on behalf of the Human Rights Council. The President responded by stating that she was carrying out the decision taken by member States in paragraph 30 of the outcome document of the review of the Council (adopted in 2011), which 'strongly rejects any act of intimidation or reprisal against individuals and groups who cooperate or have cooperated with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights, and urges States to prevent and ensure adequate protection against such acts'.


[1] The time allocation for States is set at three minutes for member States of the Council and two minutes for observers, except where this would mean that not all States can be accommodated in the total time available. In these cases the time available is divided equally between all States signed up to speak. This was one of the procedural changes included in the outcome of the review of the work and functioning of the Human Rights Council, which concluded in 2011.

 

Ban Ki-moon outlines key challenges for the Human Rights Council

12.09.2012
 

The Human Rights Council (the Council) commenced its 21st session on 10 September 2012, with opening statements by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the High Commissioner for Human Rights Ms Navanethem Pillay.

In Ban Ki-moon’s address to the Council he highlighted the critical role that the Council plays in human dignity and the importance of upholding a decent life for all.

The Secretary-General particularly welcomed the intergovernmental discussion, in March 2012, on discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. He urged the Council to deepen its engagement on this issue, with a call to give it sustained attention. In the general debate that followed, however, Norway was the only country that made strong reference to this issue.

The Secretary-General outlined five critical challenges that warrant the attention of the Council:

  1. Mainstreaming human rights throughout the UN
  2.  The issue of reprisals against those who cooperate and work with the UN and its various institutions
  3. Need to uphold the dignity of all human beings and end discrimination against those who define their sexual orientation and gender identity differently
  4. The ongoing fight for women’s rights
  5. Member state support of the High Commissioner, including through ensuring the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has sufficient resources, while respecting her independence.

His speech concluded by calling on the Council to ‘be in the forefront in upholding the indivisibility and equal treatment of all human rights’. High Commissioner Navanethem Pillay’s opening statement also made special note of the indivisibility of human rights and the role her office has had in promoting these rights.

The High Commissioner addressed the issue of reprisals making particular reference to Bahrain where there have been severe prison sentences handed out to human rights defenders. She stressed that she was ‘not satisfied that fair trial procedures were observed, especially the reliance on confessions extracted under torture’. She went on to note that this is part of a broader issue of reprisals as cases of threats and intimidation continue to be documented.

This point was reiterated by the President of the Council, Ms Laura Dupuy Lasserre, who stressed resolution 16/21, the outcome of the review of the work and functioning of the Council, which strongly rejects any act of reprisals against those that cooperate with the UN or the Council.

The United States (US) noted that combating reprisals must be a priority for the Council. Norway, the Czech Republic, and Chile also made reference to the importance of addressing reprisals, with Chile advocating a preventative approach to the issue. The panel discussion on reprisals against those cooperating with the UN human rights mechanisms will be held on 13 September, and is expected to result in concrete suggestions for different actors to prevent and address reprisals.

A key part of the general debate that followed was the financial constraints of OHCHR. Malaysia, Bangladesh, and the Russian Federation spoke on the need to ensure transparency of funding of the Office. In particular these States called for a written report to be made of the informal briefing held in June where the High Commissioner updated States on her strategic plan for the next two years. This push has the potential to undermine the independence of the Office and could lead to States in the Human Rights Council attempting to oversee how the OHCHR’s finances are used. In response, other States including Belgium and Norway emphasised the point made by the Secretary General on the need to find more sustainable ways of resourcing OHCHR while maintaining its independence.

Chile, in relation to resource constraints, expressed its concern over the proliferation of special procedures. It did, however, stress the importance of the role of the thematic and country mandates and went on to emphasise that budgetary issues should not remove the focus of the Council from human rights.

In reference to the issue of the budget constraints the High Commissioner noted in her opening statement that ‘in the end, we must be realistic’.

The High Commissioner reiterated the Secretary-General’s concern over the on-going conflict in Syria and called on the Syrian government to ensure full and unhindered access to the Commission of Inquiry, as well as calling for full support to the newly appointed Joint Special Representative Mr Lakhdar Brahimi.

The US later called for an extension of the mandate of the Independent Commission of Inquiry. The Commission of Inquiry is scheduled to complete its work with the report to the Council at this session, unless States decide to renew its mandate. The Special Rapporteur on Syria is scheduled to take up his post once the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry concludes.

Qatar was particularly vocal in their assessment of the situation in Syria and the ‘barbaric nature of this regime’. It noted that international condemnation is not sufficient in the context of the ongoing conflict and that the Council must hear the legitimate calls for freedom and push for an immediate ceasefire.

The High Commissioner touched on the reforms taking place in Myanmar encouraging the release of more political prisoners and ongoing legislative reform. Notably, Malaysia, Libya, and Egypt expressed concern at the violence against Muslims in the Rahkine and Kachin states of Myanmar.

Norway commented on how to ensure OHCHR’s impact at country level, noting that the demand for technical assistance was increasing, and noted a need to strengthen field presences to meet this demand.

On the treaty body strengthening process, the Russian Federation positioned itself as a leading actor, by welcoming the High Commissioner’s report on the consultations facilitated by OHCHR, noting that ‘it could be a major input to the process initiated by Russia in the General Assembly’.

For a copy of the High Commissioner’s full opening statement follow the link here. The 21st session will continue for the next three weeks before concluding on 28 September. For the full agenda follow the link here.

Landmark panel on reprisals at the Human Rights Council

17.09.2012
 

The Human Rights Council’s (the Council’s) first ever panel on reprisals, held on 13 September, saw widespread condemnation of intimidation of those who cooperate or attempt to cooperate with the United Nations (UN) human rights system.

See previous ISHR news coverage on reprisals on our website. For comprehensive background on the discussions within the UN human rights system, and the Human Rights Council in particular leading up to this panel debate, see Respect and Protect? Exploring the need for the United Nations Human Rights Council to strengthen its response to reprisals a joint publication by ISHR and the independent researcher Jo Baker, available here.

Opening the panel via video-message, the UN Secretary-General, Mr Ban Ki-Moon, emphasised the importance for States to protect human rights and those who advocate for fundamental rights. He sasid that if States failed to do so, it is the responsibility of the UN to stand up and speak out to defend those who engage with the UN human rights system.

In her opening statement the High Commissioner for Human Rights Ms Navanethem Pillay highlighted both the need and the right of human rights defenders to participate in the work of the UN. She emphasised the crucial role human rights defenders play in the work of the UN, informing about the on-the-ground reality of situations. Mr Michel Forst, speaking as Chair of the Coordination Committee of special procedures, noted that human rights defenders are often the first source of information for special procedures. He related how difficult it was on a personal level for a mandate holder to return from a mission and to learn that defenders with whom they had met had suffered intimidation, abuse, or even death as a result of sharing information.

Underlying these remarks was the point that the UN is only credible insofar as it does engage with human rights defenders, a point raised by the High Commissioner and echoed by other panellists including Ms Mehr Khan Williams, Chair of the Board of the International Service for Human Rights; and Mr Szabolc Takacs, Deputy State Secretary for Global Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hungary. States from different regions also reiterated the point throughout the debate. Qatar spoke of the ‘moral responsibility’ to ensure those who assist us are not endangered. The UK, Norway, and Denmark, and Amnesty International, stated that reprisals are attacks on the UN system itself, while Australia stated that reprisals ‘undermine everything the UN seeks to achieve’.

Several human rights defenders contributed to the debate by speaking of the particular threats they had faced, including a defender from Bahrain who has received multiple phone calls threatening his life and his family after tweeting about his attendance at this session of the Council. He emphasised the expectation defenders have that the UN remain free from fear, as for some it is the only place where they can make themselves heard.

Norway commented on the need to give due attention to the Secretary-General’s report on reprisals. Mr Takacs suggested that Item 5 of the Council’s agenda could be used as a space for holding a dedicated discussion on the report and on reprisals. Mr Shire Sheikhahmed of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project emphasised the importance of following up more effectively to the report, and holding regular, timely and dedicated discussions on the report. The UK and Norway called on all States in the report to provide a response outlining the steps taken to investigate allegations and hold perpetrators accountable. In a joint statement on behalf of Austria, Lichtenstein, and Slovenia, the Ambassador of Switzerland was the only one to specifically name States including Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, China, India, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, and Sudan, requesting them to closely cooperate with the Council and to take ‘all necessary steps to investigate and ensure accountability’ in the alleged cases.

Several of the States mentioned criticised the report. China raised strong objections to the inclusion in the report of allegations of harassment of Chinese human rights defenders who had taken part in a training course in Geneva, questioning whether this fell within the scope of reprisals through cooperation with the UN human rights system. Norway, on the other hand, joined the Secretary-General in including ‘learning’ about the UN human rights system as a an element of seeking cooperation. Sri Lanka and Belarus also stood against the report, arguing against its ‘double-standards’ and perceived political approach. They raised the issue of the need for credible sources that are ‘cross-checked’. Cuba called for prior screening to ensure that complaints made are at least ‘minimally credible’ in order not to undermine the trust and confidence that States have in the UN system, and threaten credibility. Bahrain supported this view, arguing that objectivity in the report must be based in credible sources, rather than audio-visual media and social networking sites. In response, Mr Takacs quoted the report, in which the Secretary-General affirms that ‘information has been corroborated through multiple sources and assessed for its reliability and consistency’.

While there was general agreement that States have the primary responsibility to protect against reprisals, there was some discussion about the responsibility of other actors, especially when States will not or cannot meet their obligations in this regard. Reflecting this point, Dr Ramiro Rivadeneira Silva, Defensoria del Pueblo of Ecuador (Ombudsman of Ecuador), on behalf of the Network of NHRIs in the Americas, stated that there are violent groups in Latin America that have outrun the capacity of States to provide security to defenders. He emphasised the importance for the UN system to be capable of receiving and denouncing the complaints by human right defenders and to offer immediate and concrete responses to their issues. He also proposed to establish a system of protection for the lives and families of defenders that continue to be threatened.

Poland, echoing a point made by Mr Shire Sheikhahmed, called for the international community to enhance cooperation between mechanisms in order to provide a more systematic response, while the UK asked the panel how States could assist each other to meet their obligations in this regard. Mr Shire Sheikhahmed also spoke of civil society’s response, in particular the importance of networks, such as the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, as an essential element of the protection response for human rights defenders. Mr Forst suggested that transregional groups of States should work together to establish joint initiatives for the protection of defenders, such as for example establishing asylum agreements, or providing shelter in diplomatic missions. This, he said, could also include a group of Ambassadors in Geneva joining forces in protecting defenders coming to the Council.

The idea of appointing a focal point on reprisals within different branches of the State and other actors also gained traction. Mr Claudio Grossman, another panellist and Chair of the Committee Against Torture, suggested appointing an interlocutor in States that looks out for any potential acts of reprisals before they take place. He proposed establishing a mechanism at the national level that facilitates the dialogue with human rights defenders. France echoed Mr Grossman’s proposals by raising the idea of establishing a ‘mediator’ at the level of the UN, appointed by the Secretary-General, whose function would be to investigate alleged cases of intimidation or reprisals and assure that measures have been taken to follow up such allegations.

Mr Grossman also raised the importance of creating an environment in which everyone has the space to enjoy and uphold human rights. States supported this approach, listing concrete examples of initiatives that could be taken. The US condemned national laws and actions that prevent human rights defenders from carrying out their work. Mr Grossman particularly emphasised the need to repeal defamation laws that restrict freedom of expression, and are often used to criminalise the work of human rights defenders. On the other hand, the Russian Federation, Sri Lanka, and Belarus, expressed their opinion that defenders must act within national laws.

On Tuesday, 18 September, the Council will hold a general debate under Item 5. This will be another opportunity for States and NGOs to discuss the report of the Secretary-General on reprisals, and it will be interesting to observe if the concerned States heed the repeated calls from their peers to update the Council on the allegations contained in the report.

Then will be up to the Council to now follow-up on the basis of the many suggestions made. As the Secretary General stated, the panel should act as ‘a catalyst for robust and coordinated action throughout the UN system to systematically condemn and respond to persecution and intimidation’. Given that the next formal resolution on this issue is currently only planned for September 2013, it is to be hoped that the fate of individuals suffering reprisals will not be ‘shelved’ for 12 months, but that the increased levels of attention and concern will translate in concrete and protective action.

Broad support for first report by UN expert on transitional justice

19.09.2012
 

States in the Human Rights Council (the Council) overwhelmingly expressed support for the first report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence during a clustered interactive dialogue on 11 and 12 September 2012 at the 21st session of the Council.

The first Special Rapporteur, Mr Pablo de Greiff, commended the Council on its adoption of Resolution 18/7 establishing his mandate. Adopted by consensus, the resolution was the initiative of a cross-regional group of countries including Argentina, Morocco and Switzerland (with the support of Côte d’Ivoire, Uruguay, Peru, Maldives, France and Austria). Mr de Greiff reminded the Council that the diversity of the States establishing the mandate was appropriate given that gross violations of human rights and international law, issues to which the mandate seeks to respond, ‘know no boundaries’.

During the dialogue, States were willing to share their own experiences of conflict and transitional justice, especially Latin American States as well as Morocco, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, and welcomed the report’s comprehensive approach of strengthening the links between each of the four elements of the mandate. The Special Rapporteur highlighted that the elements are complementary and share the fundamental aims of providing recognition to victims as rights-holders, promoting trust in institutions, strengthening the rule of law, and fostering social reconciliation.

States widely approved of the Special Rapporteur’s proposal to enhance the links, not only between the four elements themselves, but also between the four elements and other areas of policy intervention, including security and development programmes. Mr de Greiff stated that the sustainable impact of his mandate depends on establishing external links of its core elements with concrete policy interventions.

The incorporation of a gender perspective to the issues in the report was supported by Switzerland, Belgium and Ecuador in particular. Most States, overwhelmingly from Latin America, warmly welcomed the adoption of a victim-centred perspective. Nevertheless, many requested practical guidance from the Special Rapporteur and a best practice model to effectively implement the approach.

Further comments from States, Sri Lanka, Paraguay and China in particular, reiterated the need to take into account the regional and historical context of a situation. States also requested further details on the Special Rapporteur’s intention to coordinate with other mandates, mechanisms and bodies in the United Nations system and other institutions and civil society organisations.

Among the few criticisms raised was Egypt’s claim that ‘some academic arguments in the report are region-specific, which falls outside the thematic mandate of the Special Rapporteur’. China noted the views of the Special Rapporteur and reiterated the need to guarantee a country’s independence and sovereignty in implementing the proposed measures.

Mr de Greiff clearly expressed that the hallmark of his mandate would be to focus on dialogue and engagement with the Council, States, and other relevant stakeholders, and to focus on establishing links with other special procedures where relevant.

Finally, the Special Rapporteur also announced that he would organise a series of regional consultations, two of which will be held by the end of 2012. This will from part of the process of translating the thematic areas described in the report into concrete activities. Such consultations will be a key opportunity for human rights defenders to engage with the mandate, and ensure the further work takes into account their specific challenges.

Human Rights Council's dialogue with COI on Syria: increasing calls for ICC referral

19.09.2012
 

Eighteen months after the beginning of the uprisings in the Syrian Arab Republic, Professor Paulo Pinheiro gave his sixth report of the Commission of Inquiry (the Commission) on 17 September 2012 detailing the deteriorating human rights situation in the country.

Mr Pinheiro’s remarks touched on many important issues: the indiscriminate killings of civilians and other violations of international humanitarian law and the current culture of impunity in the country were amongst the most prevalent. No Syrian delegate was present for the opening remarks, but the Ambassador came to the room later during the debate.

The dialogue was predominantly characterised by a growing consensus that the gross and systematic human rights violations in Syria by both the Government forces and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Many States recalled the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which defines war crimes and crimes against humanity; many of which appear to occur with frequency in the Syrian Arab Republic. Many States from all regions, including Austria, Botswana, Bulgaria, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Honduras, Ireland, Lithuania, Maldives, Switzerland and the UK, were adamant that the situation in Syria should be referred to the ICC. There was also consensus that any peace process would necessarily require a prior cessation of hostilities by both sides.

Morocco and Qatar have also started public informal consultations on a draft resolution on Syria. There was overall support for the extension of the Commission, with the several States pushing for an extension of the mandate of the COI and an expanded mandate placing greater focus on the refugee crisis that is spilling over into neighbouring countries. A large focus of the meeting was on the access – or lack thereof – that the Syrian government has given to the Commission. A group of States called for an independent investigation to look into abuses and violation of human rights, but no States explicitly reiterated the calls for ICC referral heard in the plenary.

Other States said that the current draft ‘felt unbalanced’ as it placed too little emphasis on the responsibility of rebels in the violence and human rights abuses. Together they expressed its disagreement with labeling that the crisis has emerged because of the 'failure' of the Syrian government. Their suggested changes to the draft focused on softening the overall document and placing greater emphasis on the responsibility of all parties to the conflict.

During the dialogue in the Council plenary, Mr Pinheiro was clear that the violations committed by the FSA are not of the same scale, frequency or gravity of those committed by the government forces, and that therefore they bear the primary responsibility for the cessation of violence. This sentiment was echoed by many countries.

The Commission’s report documented a series of violations including the bombing of civilians as they queued for bread, the use of inaccurate weapons such as homemade vehicle bombs and shelling. Vicious sectarian fighting has broken out between Shi’ite and Sunni groups, and self-defence groups being organised by Jewish and Muslim communities under threat.

The report estimates that 2 million people are now in need of emergency aid, with 1.6 of those internally displaced. Half of those fleeing are children, and due to the destruction of hospitals in the region, the humanitarian situation is worsening.

Mr Pinheiro regretted that information submitted in the Report could not be entirely validated, considering the consistent refusal of the Syrian authorities to allow the Commission access to the country.

The Syrian Ambassador, upon his arrival, criticised the inaccuracy of the Report. He accused Mr Pinheiro of violating the terms of State sovereignty in the UN Charter; and China and Russia notably supported the right of Syria to non-interference. While many countries concurred that a solution to the conflict must be indigenous, there was however some consensus that more pressure must be placed on the Syrian regime to allow space for such a democratic transition.

States also repeatedly urged the Syrian authorities to allow the Commission access to its territory; most were enthusiastic in their support for the Commission’s mandate and asked Mr Pinheiro to detail how States could best facilitate the Commission’s fulfilment of its aims. He replied that the gathering of information to bolster a future criminal case was a priority, through concerted efforts to document, monitor and report, and continued financial support.

Brazil, amongst other States, made it clear that for the international community to help create an enabling space for Syrian-led democratic processes, economic, military and political agendas must be removed from all efforts.

The issue of sanctions was divisive. Australia felt that a firmer stance should be taken on the imposition of sanctions; Malaysia, on the contrary, stated that sanctions have had little positive impact on the conflict, and that they serve only to deny basic rights to the most vulnerable. Mr Pinheiro’s Report supported the view that sanctions were no longer effective.

Reprisals and intimidation against human rights defender Mohammed Al-Maskati must end immediately

19.09.2012
 
Joint press statement by Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, International Service for Human Rights, and Gulf Center for Human Rights.
Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Geneva – The government of Bahrain must ensure threats against human rights defender Mohammed Al-Maskati are stopped immediately. After tweeting that he was in Geneva attending the 21st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Mr Al-Maskati, a human rights defender and president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, received more than a dozen anonymous phone calls threatening his life and the safety of his family. Threats to Mr Al-Maskati’s life have been made following an oral intervention he delivered during a panel discussion on intimidations and reprisals, where he informed the Council of the intimidations against him.

As highlighted in the Secretary-General’s report on reprisals, submitted to the current session of the Human Rights Council, attacks and intimidations against several Bahraini human rights defenders for engaging with the United Nations human rights system have increased in recent months. The report cites the cases of human rights defenders and co-founders of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab as clear recent examples of reprisals by the government of Bahrain, which include acts of harassment, intimidation, and physical attack due to their co-operation and engagement with the UN.

On 4 September 2012, the High Court of Appeal in Bahrain ruled to uphold all of the sentences against Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and 12 human rights defenders and political leaders serving time in prison, and the seven tried in absentia. All sentences against the prisoners of conscience were upheld, as well as charges such as breaching the Constitution, conspiring to overthrow the ruling regime, and having intelligence contact with foreign entities.

Until February 2011, Al-Khawaja was the Middle East and North Africa Coordinator with Front Line Defenders – the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. He is also a member of the International Advisory Network in the Business and Human Rights Resource Center chaired by Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. During all his human rights work, he has co-operated intensively with the UN system and paid a heavy price for that, tortured and imprisoned for life.

On 16 August 2012, human rights defender Nabeel Rajab was sentenced to three years in prison, for three cases relating to his national and international human rights work including cooperating with the UN system, after being abducted from his home by masked men in plain clothes. There are currently five legal proceedings against him in addition to other forms of persecution such as travel bans, tear gas attacks on his home, and harassment of his family. A Bahrain appeals court rejected on 16 September, 2012, Nabeel Rajab’s lawyers' requests to release him on bail and scheduled the next hearing for 27 September, 2012.

Mr Al-Maskati was part of a large delegation of prominent Bahraini human rights defenders and activists who attended the Universal Periodic Review of Bahrain last May. Following their return to Bahrain, the delegation was subjected to various forms of government-led intimidations, including a media smear campaign, for participating at the review.

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), and the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) call on the government of Bahrain to abide by its commitments to provide security and protection for human rights defenders who co-operate with the UN. The ongoing threats and intimidation must stop and authorities in Bahrain must respect and protect the legitimate human rights work carried out by human rights defenders.

GCHR, CIHRS and ISHR also call on the member states of the Human Rights Council to encourage the government of Bahrain to end all acts of intimidation or reprisal against human rights defenders cooperating with the UN, its mechanism and representatives in the field of human rights, and to publicly inform the Council of steps taken to do so.

This press statement is also available in Arabic.

Council adopts resolution on traditional values without considering expert input

27.09.2012
 

The Human Rights Council (the Council) adopted on 27 September 2012 a controversial resolution presented by the Russian Federation on traditional values and human rights.  This followed an interactive dialogue held with the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee (the Committee) on 18 September that focused on the work that has been done in preparation for the 21st session of the Council and the ongoing work of the Committee. 

Mr Ziegler emphasised the Committee's role as that of a think tank and that it can only act under the mandate of the Council. He added, however, that in the absence of additional substantive requests from the Council, the Committee had taken the initiative of developing five proposed areas in which it thought it could fruitfully contribute, and requested the Council to keep these in mind as it considered further work for the Committee.

On the issue of traditional values Mr Ziegler noted the distinction between universal human rights rights and traditional values. He stressed that human rights cannot be relativised, while highlighting that within the universal human rights framework, traditional values can be used to interpret and reinforce human rights. Mr Ziegler mentioned that the submission of the report on traditional values has been delayed until the 22nd Council Session in March.

During the interactive dialogue with Mr Ziegler, several States expressed concern about the concept of traditional value, and the unchecked assumption that they further human rights. The EU noted that the latest draft of the Advisory Committee on traditional values reflects more critically on the concept, but restated its persisting concern that the concept of traditional values could be misused. Switzerland supported this position. The Russian Federation, on the other hand, stressed that it is ‘impatiently’ waiting for the final report on traditional values which it hopes will make a significant contribution to the discussion on the issue of human rights and traditional values.

Despite this affirmation of the importance of the work of the Committee, Russia reiterated its intention to present another resolution on traditional values before the Council despite the Advisory Committee not having completed its own study. During the adoption of the resolution on 27 September 2012, the Russian Federation noted that it was ‘unfortunate’ that the Committee had not been able to prepare its study in time, and pointed out that it had included ‘an instruction’ in the resolution for the Committee to complete that work.

Norway, however, calling for a vote on the resolution, strongly criticised the Russian Federation for not waiting until the study was available to the Council. This position was echoed by other speakers, including Austria (on behalf of the EU), Chile, Uruguay (who stated that since the report had not yet been presented, the Council was in violation of resolution 16/3, which had called for the Advisory Committee to prepare the study), Peru, and Guatemala. While the EU States voted against the resolution, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, and Guatemala stated that they would await the final study from the Advisory Committee, and in the meantime would abstain. Their statements were however strong on the need to protect universal human rights from any attempt to undermine them, and Chile for example commented that if the resolution came before the Council again, and concerns on universality were not fully addressed, then it would re-evaluate its position. Other Latin American States (Mexico and Costa Rica) joined the EU States, Mauritius, and Botswana in voting against, while Nigeria and Benin also abstained.

The US, despite its criticism earlier in the week of some of the work of the Committee, made a strong statement citing many passages from the Committee's report that sound warning notes about the potentially negative impact of traditional values. It criticised the Russian resolution for presenting the conclusions of the Committee's draft study in a distorted manner.

The resolution was adopted by 25 votes in favour, 15 against, and 7 abstentions.

More generally, the interactive dialogue with Mr Ziegler also showed some disagreement as to the usefulness of the role played by the Advisory Committee. The United States (US) questioned the effectiveness of the Advisory Committee noting that it was expensive and duplicative. The US was particularly blunt in noting that the Committee is not functioning properly or effectively, a point it had made during the review of the work and functioning of the Council. The European Union (EU) supported the stance of the US on the role of the Committee, though with more restrained language.

Cuba and Venezuela noted their ongoing support for the work of the Committee and commended the work it had done on the right to peace, human rights education, rights of farmers, and traditional values. They encouraged the Council to make greater use of the Committee to promote and protect human rights, and ensure it has the resources to do its work effectively.

The Russian Federation also emphasised the importance of the work of the Advisory Committee as a think tank with specialised knowledge. Russia in particular called for greater use of the Committee by the Council, which sounded hollow given the disregard paid to the study in preparation by the Advisory Committee on traditional values.

Council fails to fully respond to gravity of country situations in Somalia and Sudan

28.09.2012
 

At its 21st session the Council held interactive dialogues with the Independent Experts on Somalia and on Sudan, and adopted resolutions on these country situations.

Somalia, following an twelve-year transitional period, has this year elected a new president, Mr Hassan Skeikh Mohamud. The country also has a new constitution as of 24 August. The country is however still unstable, and it was in the light of these developments that Mr Shamsul Bari, the Independent Expert on human rights in Somalia, gave his report to the Human Rights Council (the Council) on 26 September 2012.

Mr Bari’s statement was highly optimistic. He described the new democratic steps as ‘a wonderful thing for any country’, and for Somalia, ‘a dream come true’. The transparency of the election would have been unimaginable a year ago, and the 30% female Parliament is a hard-won victory.

He described the new Parliament as significantly more representative than previous efforts, and praised the adoption of a prioritised work plan on human rights. The fact that the Somali diaspora is returning to participate in the new Somalia was also an encouraging sign.

There are, however, challenges to be overcome. The people of Somalia, said Mr Bari, have suffered too long under authorities working to their own agendas; he called for technical assistance in the development of a human rights ‘road map’ which would help the new Government to strengthen its own work plan, with the aim of winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people.

Mr Bari emphasised that the new Somalia should be built by Somalis; the UN and the international community must give greater ownership to the people.

The Independent Expert’s statement was echoed by the Somali Ambassador. While there is confidence in the changes, he acknowledged that the Government must work hard to make people believe that their welfare is a priority. He also stressed that ‘Somalia must fix Somalia’; too many initiatives are still UN-led, and only convince the people that the international community is serving its own political agenda in the country, although he did not comment further on what these agendas were.

State responses were mixed. While almost all countries congratulated Somalia on the achievement of its democratic aspirations, many also highlighted that there is still work to be done on many issues. The United Arab Emirates was optimistic about Somalia’s political will to effect change, but urged the UN to continue to provide technical assistance to strengthen the rule of law, as did Spain, Djibouti, the United Kingdom (UK), and Egypt.

Human rights violations on a massive scale continue to take place, however. The United States (US) voiced its concern over the continuing use of child soldiers, and urged Al-Shabaab to immediately cease the killing of civilians. Spain strongly articulated its worries over a number of issues, including violence against Journalists, and the state of detention centres.

The often violent repression of the media was brought out by a number of States, including Switzerland, Norway, and Djibouti. All States stressed the importance of a free press in the consolidation of a new, democratic Somalia. This issue was also highly prevalent in the interventions of NGOs.

Thailand noted the on-going sexual violence against women and girls, as did Slovakia, although Slovenia was encouraged by the steps the new Government has made to outlaw female genital mutilation.

Morocco and Greece were particularly vocal in asking how the international community can best support Somalia at this critical point in its history. Mr Bari concluded that while Somalia’s democratic transition and the aspirations of the people must be led from within, the country continues to need international support, in terms of both financial and technical assistance in capacity building. Mr Bari urged that the UN-driven peace initiatives have not sufficiently taken into account the needs of the Somali people. The new authorities should build a clearer understanding of the experiences of their citizens to create a new Somalia.

The Council itself should facilitate the cooperation between special procedures and the Somali democratic process; fifty per cent of mandate holders have some relevance to the situation in Somalia, noted Mr Bari, and their expertise should be utilised to its fullest extent. The resolution on Somalia, adopted by consensus at this session, expresses serious concern at the human rights and humanitarian situation in the country and condemns grave and systematic human rights abuses perpetrated against the Somali population. It calls for all special procedures to engage fully and coordinate with the Independent Expert. It calls on the Independent Expert to work with a view to maximising the provision and flow and technical assistance to Somalia, and to support the efforts of the Government.

Despite the secession of South Sudan in 2011 and the appearance of greater cooperation between the new State and the Sudan, the human rights situation in Sudan remains troubling. On-going conflicts in the Blue Nile and Kordofan regions, as well as in Darfur, have highlighted continuing human rights abuses; the latest Independent Expert on the country, Mr Masood Baderin, presented his first report to the Human Rights Council (the Council) on 26 September.

Mr Baderin was critical of Sudan’s human rights record. He urged the government to more fully implement initiatives to strengthen the rule of law, judicial due process, political participation, and freedom of the press. He also asked the Government to allow him greater access to the more troubled regions. Sudan is still in a transitional phase, Mr Baderin stated. Technical and financial capacity building and aid are still necessary to allow the country to progress. He also emphasised that civil society organisations must be given the full support of both the Government and the international community, considering the important role they play in enabling accountability and democratic processes.

The Sudanese delegate’s response highlighted that the Government has progressively implemented a large proportion of the recommendations made during Sudan’s 2011 Universal Periodic Review (UPR), with new policies so far in 14 of the 17 provinces. However, Sudan strongly criticised civil society organisations; too many, the delegate felt, pursue agendas which are 'separate from the greater good of Sudan'. He claimed that their ‘refusal to cooperate’ with the Government should not be used as an excuse by the international community at large to ‘tarnish Sudan’s reputation’ or the positive steps that are being made.

The debate which followed highlighted several main concerns. The first was that the independent Expert should be give further access to the country to verify his information on the troubled border regions. States from all groups, including Canada, Bahrain, Slovakia, the UK, and Thailand, called both for a renewal of Mr Baderin’s mandate and for increased access for information-gathering. China, on the other hand, called for continued technical assistance for the Sudanese Government, but emphasised that the on-going conflicts must not be used to justify unwarranted interference in Sudanese domestic affairs.

Another important concern raised by Switzerland and Australia, as well as numerous NGOs, was the continued intimidation and harassment of both human rights defenders and journalists. Switzerland in particular was emphatic on this point, stating that threats to human rights defenders would not be tolerated, and questioned Mr Baderin on how these situations could best be stopped. Switzerland also took a strong stance against other human rights violations, such as reports of stoning, and strongly recommended not only the renewal but also the strengthening of the Independent Expert’s mandate.

Greece expressed concern over reports of repression of freedom of expression in civil society and the press. Spain too emphasised that the involvement of civil society actors and other stakeholders was essential to the support of the rule of law and the continuation of other peace processes. 

There was appreciation from all regions for the cooperation of the Sudanese authorities with the UPR process; the US, Morocco, Norway, and Nigeria congratulated Sudan on positive steps. However, Croatia warned that the outbreaks of violence could not be ignored; the situation in Syria, the delegate claimed, has made the international community profoundly aware of how quickly conflicts can explode, and urged both international and domestic mechanisms to take a strong stance on violations.

Mr Baderin’s concluding comments highlighted three main areas to be addressed by the Sudanese authorities: to provide greater access by the Independent Expert to areas experiencing violations; to improve cooperation with civil society organisations; and to immediately cease repression of the media to enable a space for civil society to work.

The resolution on Sudan, adopted by consensus later in the session, does call for more access by Independent Expert to all regions of the country. However it remains to be seen whether the Sudanese Government will grant that access. Austria, speaking on behalf of the EU at the adoption of the resolution, called for Sudan to ensure that the Independent Expert could carry out his mandate effectively by allowing him to have full access to all parts of the country, and to engage freely with all relevant stakeholders including civil society organisations. Sudan stated that it felt it had cooperated with the Council until now, and that it would continue to act in the same manner. The resolution was adopted by consensus, as was the resolution on South Sudan which calls for OHCHR to provide technical support and training, and to report on progress.

The Council also adopted a resolution on South Sudan, which focuses primarily on technical assistance, but also asks OHCHR to submit a report on South Sudan in June 2013 (23rd session of the Council). 

All resolutions adopted by the Council will be available shortly from the OHCHR Web site. 

Human Rights Council concludes 21st session

28.09.2012
 

The Human Rights Council has concluded its 21st session with the adoption of a series of disappointing country resolutions, including on Sudan, South Sudan, and Mali. Action on Syria again failed to include a call for the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. 

Important thematic developments at the session included the holding of a panel on reprisals, which affirmed the unacceptability of the targetting of human rights defenders who attempt to cooperate with the international human rights system. However the session also saw a continuation in the threats and harrasment faced by defenders attending the session in Geneva. Resolutions on the safety of journalists and on freedom of association and assembly were also adopted. Finally, and disappointingly, the Russian sponsored resolution on traditional values was adopted by the Council, despite significant substantive concerns with the concept, and despite the fact that the Advisory Committee has yet to submit its own mandated study to the Council. 

See a joint NGO statement delivered by ISHR on behalf of Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Human Rights Watch, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, CIVICUS, International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH), East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, Human Rights House Foundation, and the International Commission of Jurists at the end of the session for more details.

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Opinion:

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

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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