News

19 Apr

Just last week, child rights advocate Dora L Mesa’s planned travel out of Cuba to attend the pre-session associated with the United Nations Universal Periodic Review of Cuba was halted due to a travel ban imposed on her. This is not the first time Mesa has been restricted from travelling on account of her human rights work. We urge the government of Cuba to stop restricting the legitimate work of human rights defenders.

19 Apr

Authoritative new UN Principles and Guidelines on the protection of migrants in vulnerable situations provide clear and concrete guidance to States on implementation of the duty to respect, protect and support human rights defenders working in the field of migrant rights. 

16 Apr

More than twenty civil society organisations express their outrage at the latest death threats targeting the Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), Bahey el-Din Hassan, as a result of his human rights work on Egypt. European States and the US must take measures to protect Egyptian human rights defenders, both at home and abroad.

16 Apr

Since the adoption of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, UN bodies have developed approaches to promoting the work of defenders and ensuring their protection.  However, this response has been insufficiently robust or coordinated. Twenty years on, the situation for defenders in many countries around the world remains grave. 

11 Apr

Human rights defenders in Bangladesh live in fear of attacks and reprisals that are often conducted with impunity. As part of the upcoming Universal Periodic Review of Bangladesh, ISHR and the Center for Social Activism call on the Bangladeshi Government to protect defenders and repeal legislation restricting their right to freedom of expression.

Human Rights Committee adopts General Comment 34 on freedom of expression

10.08.2011
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Human Rights Committee advance draft General Comment on freedom of expression

29.04.2011
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other resources

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

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

08.12.2011
 

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

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

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

CAT questions Belarus on allegations of reprisals against human rights defenders

12.12.2011
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Joint statement on NGO participation in the GA intergovernmental treaty body strengthening process

12.03.2012
 

Joint NGO Statement: Four recommendations to ensure the effective participation of NGOs in the Intergovernmental process of the General Assembly on strengthening and enhancing the effective functioning of the human rights treaty body system

Twenty-four NGOs, including ISHR, have recently presented their recommendations on ensuring the effective participation of NGOs in the intergovernmental process of the General Assembly on strengthening the treaty body system.

The joint NGO submission was developed in response to a recent resolution passed by the General Assembly that mandates the President of the GA to establish an open-ended inter-governmental process to conduct open, transparent and inclusive discussions on strengthening the treaty body system. The resolution stipulates that the inter-governmental process shall be open to all Member States and Observer States of the UN, and to inter-governmental organizations and UN bodies.

It also requests the President of the GA to work out “separate informal arrangements...that would allow the open-ended inter-governmental process to benefit from the inputs and expertise of the human rights treaty bodies, national human rights institutions and relevant non-governmental organizations”. The resolution makes poor provision for engagement of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with the process and it will be important that the President of the GA and his two co-facilitators ensure that arrangements are put in place to ensure effective NGO participation.

To read the joint NGO recommendations, click here for englishspanish, and french.

Joint NGO Contribution - Treaty Body Strengthening Process

23.04.2012
 

Issues for the Inter-Governmental Process on Strengthening the Effective Functioning of the Human Rights Treaty Body System, a Joint NGO Contribution

Thirty-two NGOs, including ISHR, recently presented a joint contribution on issues related to the Inter-Governmental Process on Strengthening the Effective Functioning of the Human Rights Treaty Body System.

The joint NGO contribution was developed in response to a recent resolution passed by the General Assembly. The resolution recognizes the important, valuable and unique role and contribution of the treaty bodies to the promotion and protection of human rights. It mandates the President of the GA to launch an open-ended inter-governmental process to conduct open, transparent and inclusive negotiations on how to strengthen and enhance the effective functioning of the treaty body system. The inter-governmental process shall not start earlier than April 2012 and the President of the GA is to present a report to the GA on the deliberations and recommendations of the process by the end of its 66th session (17 September 2012) for further consideration, including a possible extension of the process. The President of the General Assembly recently appointed Iceland and Indonesia as co-facilitators of the intergovernmental process.

This document has been prepared by NGOs that regularly contribute to the work of the treaty bodies and that firmly believe that the treaty body system requires strengthening to improve its effectiveness. Efforts to enhance the treaty bodies and the system should aim to improve the fulfilment of States Parties’ obligations and strengthen the capacity of rights holders to enjoy their human rights. To meet this aim, the following issues should be addressed in the inter-governmental process: 1. universal ratification of the core international human rights treaties and their optional protocols; 2. compliance with reporting obligations; 3. implementation of recommendations and views; 4. annual meetings of states parties and reports to the GA; 5. enhancing the membership of the treaty bodies; and 6. providing adequate resources to the treaty body system. Click here to read the full paper in English, French and Spanish.

An earlier paper, endorsed by 24 international and regional NGOs, outlines four recommendations to enable the effective participation of NGOs in the intergovernmental process. To read the joint NGO recommendations, click here for English, Spanish, and French.

Important civil society forum on treaty body reform: deadline for participation 20 August

17.08.2012
 

A civil society forum on strengthening and enhancing the functioning of the human rights treaty body system will take place on Tuesday 4 September. The deadline for confirming participation in this event is Monday 20 August.

Follow this link to read an invitation from the Permanent Representatives of Indonesia and Iceland, the co-facilitators of the human rights treaty body strengthening process, to the civil society forum.

The forum will take place on Tuesday 4 September, simultaneously in Geneva and New York:

  • New York - 10am to 1pm, Room 4, North Lawn Building, UN Secretariat
  • Geneva (by video conference) - 4pm to 7pm, Room XXIV, Palais des Nations

All times are local. The meeting will be conducted in English.

According to the draft agenda, the plenary discussion will cover a range of topics including the proposed 'master calendar', methods of work, reporting process, and capacity to implement. More detail regarding the agenda items, including a 'non-paper' on the themes for discussion, can be found here.

In order to participate, your organisation must complete and return the last page of the document mentioned above to civilsociety@ohchr.org. The deadline for confirming participation is 20 August.

General Assembly extends intergovernmental process on treaty body strengthening

21.09.2012
 

In the final hours of the 66th session of the General Assembly on 17 September 2012, Member States adopted a consensus resolution extending the intergovernmental process of the General Assembly on strengthening and enhancing the effective functioning of the human rights treaty body system (66/295).

The intergovernmental process began with General Assembly resolution 66/254 on 23 February 2012. That Russian-led resolution and the intergovernmental process it created were marred with controversy and 66 States abstained from the vote. Click here for an earlier ISHR news story on the adoption of that resolution.

Part of the controversy stemmed from the fact that the intergovernmental process began as the OHCHR-initiated ‘Dublin process’ on treaty body strengthening was still ongoing. The Dublin process involved a series of multi-stakeholder consultations since late 2009 and was to culminate in a report by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights in early 2012. The report, which was to provide a basis for decisions by all stakeholders on which proposals to implement and how, was delayed to allow for further consultations with States.[1] In the meantime, the intergovernmental process was launched, leaving its relationship with the Dublin process and the High Commissioner’s report unclear. Ultimately the High Commissioner’s report was released at the end of June, following which the co-facilitators of the intergovernmental process (Iceland and Indonesia) held consultations with States on 2 July and again from 16-18 July 2012.

The July 2012 consultations

While States continued to argue about the relevance of the High Commissioner’s report,[2] the co-facilitators of the intergovernmental process essentially used it as the basis for drawing up a list of issues for discussion during the State consultations. The discussions amongst States covered four broad areas: the proposal for a comprehensive reporting calendar;[3] methods of work; the reporting process; and capacity to implement.

Several states supported the idea of a comprehensive reporting calendar in principle but voiced concerns that the proposed cycle of reporting would be unsustainable and very costly. A number of states also supported the High Commissioner’s suggestions to increase the visibility and accessibility of the treaty bodies through webcasting and videoconferencing.[4] Several NGOs, including ISHR, voiced their concerns with the suggestion in the High Commissioner’s report that formal sessions between treaty bodies and NGOs be public, as this would heighten the risk of reprisals against those cooperating with the treaty bodies. In that regard, many NGOs and States[5] welcomed the focus on reprisals in the High Commissioner’s report, in particular the suggestion to establish treaty body focal points on reprisals as a first step.

Several hard-lined States also put forward negative proposals. A group of States calling themselves “the cross-regional group” or “CRG”[6] presented a unified front in the consultations. Among other things, the CRG called for a code of conduct and accountability mechanism for treaty body experts, equitable geographical representation in the treaty bodies, and increased transparency of interaction between the treaty bodies and non-state stakeholders. Though States supportive of the independence and strengthening of the system were vocal in their opposition to such measures as a code of conduct, they were in general less coordinated in their response.

NGO participation

Another troubling aspect of the intergovernmental process from the start was the inadequate provision for the participation of key non-state stakeholders, in stark contrast to the broad consultations facilitated by OHCHR in the context of the Dublin process. Resolution 66/254 requested the President of the General Assembly (PGA) to work out “separate informal arrangements, after consultation with Member States” that would allow treaty bodies, NHRIs and “relevant” non-governmental organizations to provide input and expertise, “bearing in mind the intergovernmental nature of the process”. Several states who abstained from resolution 66/254 continued throughout the consultations to call for greater participation of other stakeholders.[7]

In the end, two NGO representatives were invited by the co-facilitators to participate in panels during the State consultations in mid-July[8] and NGOs were able to observe the discussions amongst States and take the floor during side events. Separate NGO consultations were also held on 4 September 2012. NGOs without ECOSOC accreditation[9] were subjected to a procedure whereby States could object anonymously to their participation without providing a reason or any recourse to the concerned NGO.[10] This was particularly controversial as language limiting participation to ECOSOC accredited NGOs was negotiated out of resolution 66/254 and NGO engagement with the treaty bodies has never been limited in such a way.[11]Alkarama, an NGO that regularly contributes to the work of the treaty bodies, was prohibited from participating because of an objection from Algeria. During the NGO consultations, USA, Canada, Switzerland, Israel and the EU challenged the ‘non-objection’ procedure, stating that there was no agreement on its use, while China, Russia and Algeria argued that the rule is well established for non-accredited NGOs in General Assembly proceedings.

Statements at the adoption of the resolution extending the intergovernmental process indicated that States were still divided on NGO participation. Russia on behalf of the CRG called for strict compliance with resolution 66/254 and the intergovernmental nature of the process while the USA stated that NGOs must continue to be included in all aspects of the discussion.

The way forward

The co-facilitators concluded their work in the 66th session with a non-substantive progress report to the PGA that describes the State and NGO consultations. In that report, the co-facilitators’ recommend that a comprehensive cost review of the treaty system be provided by the end of 2012.

Regarding the timeline, States were divided in the negotiations about whether the resolution should prescribe a fixed end to the process within the 67th session[12] or should not be constrained.[13] Reflecting the different State positions, the resolution rather vaguely “decides to extend the intergovernmental process … with a view to identifying” concrete and sustainable measures in the next session.

As the General Assembly is now gearing up for its intense Committee work during the autumn, the intergovernmental process has been put on hold until early 2013. In the meantime, the Third Committee of the General Assembly will be confronted by requests from several treaty bodies for temporary additional funding to deal with their backlogs. Language to the effect that the continuation of the intergovernmental process would not prejudice such temporary measures was negotiated out of the resolution, leaving the prospects for those requests uncertain.


[1] OHCHR held consultations with States in New York on 2 and 3 April in an effort to satisfy those that that felt States had not been sufficiently consulted in the Dublin process.

[2] In particular, hard-lined States responsible for creating the intergovernmental process argued that the High Commissioner’s report should be just one aspect of the basis for discussions.

[3] This proposal would organize the current reporting deadlines into a single comprehensive reporting calendar, based on a periodic five-year cycle. Within this five-year period, there would be a maximum of two reports per annum due for a State that is a party to all the treaties.

[4] Canada, Costa Rica, Ireland, El Salvador, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Thailand, Switzerland, USA, Liechtenstein, Colombia, the African group and CARICOM. States in the CRG were supportive of webcasting and videoconferencing only with the consent of the State Party concerned and suggested that all meetings, including those with non-state stakeholders be webcasted.

[5] Including the EU, Australia, Israel, USA, Thailand, and the African group.

[6] Belarus, Russia, Bolivia, China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, Cuba, Pakistan, Syria, and Venezuela.

[7] Including Switzerland, USA, Mexico, Liechtenstein, Costa Rica, and El Salvador, Canada, the EU, New Zealand, Australia.

[8] ISHR participated in a side event on “The role of the UN system and civil society in supporting Member States and their capacity to implement” and Amnesty International participated in a panel discussion on the “Capacity to Implement”.

[9] ECOSOC status provides NGOs with access to a range of fora at the UN and is granted by ECOSOC on the recommendation of the Committee on NGOs. The Committee has come under criticism in recent years as the Committee is known for excessive politicization and the balance of the Committee’s membership tends towards States that do not support a vibrant civil society at the UN. Click here for an earlier ISHR article about the ECOSOC NGO Committee.

[10] This procedure, whereby decisions to allow NGOs to participate are taken on a ‘non-objection’ basis has become prevalent in a range of meetings at UN headquarters in recent years.

[11] This also resulted in the co-facilitators having to reschedule the meeting from its original date on 31 July because the three working days’ notice they provided was insufficient for Member States to ‘vet’ the non-ECOSOC accredited NGOs wanting to participate.

[12] Including Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Canada, EU, New Zealand, USA, Australia, South Africa.

[13] Including China, the African group, Russia on behalf of the CRG, the Philippines.

 

66 States abstain on GA resolution creating treaty body strengthening process

24.02.2012
 

Following two months of negotiations, on 23 February 2012 the General Assembly passed a resolution creating the Intergovernmental process of the General Assembly on strengthening and enhancing the effective functioning of the human rights treaty body systemThe resolution was tabled by Russia and co-sponsored by Algeria, Bangladesh, Belarus, Bolivia, China, Cuba, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Indonesia, Iran, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Syria, Sudan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Venezuela, Viet Nam, and Zimbabwe.

The resolution requests the President of the General Assembly (PGA) to launch an intergovernmental process to conduct negotiations on strengthening and enhancing the effective functioning of the treaty body system. The resolution requests the PGA to appoint two co-facilitators to assist him in that regard. The process will commence “no earlier than April 2012” and the PGA will report on the “deliberations and recommendations” by the end of the 66th session of the General Assembly,[1] with a possible extension of the process at that point.

Though the resolution was passed with 85 votes in favour, 66 States made their procedural and substantive concerns with the resolution known by abstaining from the vote. No State voted against the resolution. Regional divisions were clear, with the vast majority of votes in favour coming from the African, Asian, as well as Latin American and Caribbean (GRULAC) groups. The Western European and Others (WEOG) and Eastern European (CEIT) groups abstained for the most part. Forty-two states were absent. Click here for the voting record and a breakdown of votes by region.

The initial draft resolution called for the creation of a working group, an idea originally raised by China in the General Assembly Third Committee in November 2011. However, several States were caught off guard when a resolution calling for the creation of such a working group was circulated by Russia in late December 2011. Negotiations on the text proved difficult from the beginning, with States deeply divided on key issues such as the mandate, participation and timing of an intergovernmental process.

Many were troubled by the fact that the initial draft completely ignored the ongoing treaty body strengthening process, known as the Dublin process,[2] and the upcoming report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (HCHR), which would compile the various proposals made during that process. Though the Dublin process is not Geneva-based, many States, particularly those without representation in Geneva, welcomed the opportunity an intergovernmental process in the General Assembly would provide for all States to consider the issue of treaty body strengthening. Though the resolution now decides to take into consideration the upcoming HCHR’s report (expected in June 2012), the timing of the intergovernmental process (set to start no earlier than April 2012) leaves the timing and relationship between the two processes unclear.

Other troubling aspects of the initial draft included inadequate provisions on the participation of key non-state stakeholders in the process. The paragraph on participation in the initial draft[3] left out National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and treaty body members entirely, and left the PGA to “work out arrangements” for the input of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The draft also limited the participation of NGOs to those in consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), despite the fact that NGO engagement with the treaty bodies has never been limited in such a way.

Though the final language on non-state stakeholder participation was improved by the fact that NHRIs and treaty body experts were included and NGO participation is no longer limited to those with ECOSOC status, in other respects the final draft is worse. The resolution now requests the President of the General Assembly to work out “separate informal” arrangements, “after consultation with Member States” that would allow treaty bodies, NHRIs and “relevant” non-governmental organizations to provide input and expertise, “bearing in mind the intergovernmental nature of the process”. Ahead of the vote, five international human rights organizations issued a statement calling on Member States to ensure that the treaty body strengthening process continue to provide for the direct contributions of non-governmental organizations. At the adoption, several states, including some who voted in favour of the resolution, affirmed the importance of ensuring the active participation of non-state stakeholders in the intergovernmental process.[4]

In addition to the issues outlined above, the initial draft of the resolution also suffered from a lack of clarity on the mandate and scope of work to be undertaken, as well as on the respective legal competence of the General Assembly, treaty bodies and States parties to the treaties to address issues related to treaty body reform. All of the States abstaining,[5] as well as some voting in favour[6] addressed the legal competence question, underlining the role of States parties to decide matters related to the treaties themselves, the treaty bodies to decide matters related to their working methods, and the General Assembly to decide matters related to funding.

In addition to Russia, 17 states spoke at the adoption of the resolution.[7] A number of States abstaining from the resolution regretted that greater efforts had not been made to achieve consensus. Co-sponsors rejected amendments put forward by a large, cross-regional group of states[8] the day before the vote. These amendments included revisions to address the participation of non-state stakeholders and the legal competence issue.

Only China, Indonesia and Belarus spoke out unequivocally in favour of the resolution. China’s statement seemed to validate the fear on the part of NGOs and some States that the independence of the treaty body members would be at stake in the coming discussions. Indicating that it was ready with proposals, China noted that “reforms should ensure that treaty bodies comply with the principles of objectivity and fairness, carry out their work in strict observance with existing mandates, promote constructive dialogue and collaboration between treaty bodies and States parties, avoid overlapping duplicating mandates, instances of encroachment, as well as tendencies towards politicization and selectivity.” In that regard, several statements made by other States[9] specifically emphasized the need to respect the independence of the treaty body members throughout the process.

Looking ahead, it is unclear when the intergovernmental process will begin its work, as the resolution stipulates that it is due to begin “no earlier than April 2012” but the HCHR is only expected to release her report compiling the various proposals from the Dublin process in June 2012. In the meantime, OHCHR has arranged a consultation for States parties on 2-3 April 2012 in New York. The PGA is expected to appoint the two co-facilitators in the coming weeks.

[1] September 2012

[2] The Dublin process began in 2009 when the HCHR called on States parties to human rights treaties and other stakeholders to initiate a process of reflection on how to streamline and strengthen the treaty body system. The process has been open to all relevant stakeholders, including treaty body members, National Human Rights Institutions, non-governmental organizations, academics and States parties.  It has involved formal meetings, including the annual inter-committee meetings of human rights treaty bodies and meetings of chairpersons, consultations within the treaty bodies, informal meetings and consultations held around the world, and written submissions. Thus far, a non-exhaustive list of emerging proposals has been compiled and the process was designed to culminate with the report by the HCHR compiling the various proposals.

[3] “Requests also the President of the General Assembly to work out arrangements that would allow the Working Group to benefit from the input and expertise of non-governmental organizations in consultative status with the Economic and Social Council”.

[4] Switzerland, USA, Denmark, Mexico, Liechtenstein, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Argentina, Norway, Chile, and El Salvador.

[5] Switzerland, the USA, Denmark (for the EU), Mexico, Liechtenstein, Costa Rica, Canada, Norway, Chile and Guatemala.

[6] Uruguay, and Argentina.

[7] Switzerland, USA, Denmark, Suriname, Mexico, El Salvador, Lichtenstein, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Argentina, Canada, Norway, Chile, Guatemala, China, Indonesia, and Belarus.

[8] Mostly from WEOG, CEIT and GRULAC

[9] Switzerland, USA, Lichtenstein, Costa Rica, Argentina

 

United Nations experts on torture gravely concerned about reprisals against Russian NGOs

07.06.2013
 

(Geneva – 7 June, 2013) – The UN Committee Against Torture, a body of independent experts tasked with holding governments to account for their international human rights obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture, has voiced grave concern about alleged reprisals against two Russian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provided information to the Committee in November 2012.

The Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial in St Petersburg and the Public Verdict Foundation in Moscow have recently been charged by Russian prosecutors with violating controversial new legislation that requires NGOs involved in advocacy activities to register as ‘foreign agents’ if they receive foreign funding. The cases cited information submitted to the Committee Against Torture as the basis for the charges.

“Unfortunately these charges reflect a broader trend in Russia in which freedoms of assembly, association and expression are being increasingly restricted and human rights defenders targeted and harassed for their work”, said Madeleine Sinclair of the International Service for Human Rights.

According to a recent Human Rights Watch Report, human rights defenders and NGOs are facing a crackdown in Russia that is unprecedented since Soviet times.

“The charges in the present case are a clear violation of Russia’s obligation under the Convention Against Torture to ensure that witnesses are protected against all ill-treatment or intimidation as a consequence of a complaint or any evidence given”, said Ms Sinclair.  

ISHR applauds the Committee Against Torture for addressing these allegations and seeking assurances that the NGOs will not face any reprisals as a result of their legitimate activities and cooperation with the Committee.

ISHR continues to call for the UN to consistently and effectively address reprisals.

“Human rights defenders must be able to communicate their concerns to the UN without fearing for their safety,” said Ms Sinclair “Fear of reprisal can hinder participation, depriving the UN of the information and experience it relies on to carry out its work and rendering the human rights mechanisms of the UN essentially inaccessible.”

Contact: Madeleine Sinclair, Legal Counsel, International Service for Human Rights, onm.sinclair@ishr.ch or + 1 212 490 2199.

Full text of the letters from the Committee Against Torture: 17 May 2013 and 28 May 2013

ISHR statement on the global trend towards restricting access to funds for human rights advocacy.
ISHR Manual on preventing and redressing reprisals against human rights defenders.

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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