17 Sep

In a devastating report, a group of independent UN experts on Venezuela outline evidence of crimes against humanity carried out in the country at the direction of high-level State authorities, with the active participation of President Maduro and Ministers of the Interior and of Defence.  What will the Human Rights Council now do to ensure accountability for such crimes and justice for victims?

15 Sep

The right to non-discrimination and the right to life are essential to all societies. At the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council, ISHR and ten Swiss-based NGOs* called today on Switzerland to ensure accountability in police violence cases.

15 Sep

Denmark delivered a cross-regional joint statement today at the UN Human Rights Council on behalf of 32 States* raising their concerns over the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.

14 Sep

The UN Secretary-General released his annual report today on reprisals and intimidation against individuals and groups seeking to cooperate with the UN on human rights. Once again, the report identifies a very concerning number of threats and attacks aimed at silencing human rights defenders in retaliation for engaging with the UN, with evidence that a number of States have a strategy or systematic approach to obstructing and punishing those who give information, evidence or testimony in relation to human rights.

14 Sep

This week in an online event, nine candidate States publicly spoke to an audience of around 250 people on their pledges as incoming Human Rights Council members for 2021 – 2023. They also faced questions on pressing human rights issues from both States and civil society organisations.

High Commissioner emphasises need for accountability to protect victims of human rights violations


The Human Rights Council (the Council) held an interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navanethem Pillay, on 2 March. Ms Pillay presented her annual report, outlining the key areas in which the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has undertaken work in the past year.

The High Commissioner’s report was met with widespread support from States and OHCHR was commended for its efforts in coping with an extraordinarily large workload. Work towards treaty body strengthening was generally supported although some States expressed concerns with the format of the consultations. The planned panel discussion on discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity raised serious objections from some Council members. The report of the Sri Lankan Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was praised by some States, however the High Commissioner stated that it fell short in its recommendations.

In the interactive dialogue, States expressed support for the ongoing treaty body strengthening process and recognised the need for the initiative. A second round of State consultations on treaty body strengthening will be held in New York on 2 and 3 April 2012. The High Commissioner explained that she hopes the New York consultations will build on the consultations that took place in Geneva earlier this year, which sparked a ‘lively debate’ from the 108 States that participated. The High Commissioner will be launching her report on the recommendations to come from the treaty body strengthening process in June 2012.

Emphasis was placed by some States (Malaysia, the Arab Group, and Cuba) on the importance of keeping within an intergovernmental framework. This is in reference to the recent resolution adopted in the General Assembly to create an intergovernmental process to work on treaty body strengthening, a process which threatens to exclude other parties, and to undermine the recommendations that have come from the broad consultations facilitated by OHCHR.

With the treaty body system continuing to grow and a significant increase in the tasks requested of OHCHR by the Council, the High Commissioner reiterated her concerns that her Office’s ability to support the treaty body system has become unsustainable. She explained that without sufficient resources, the protection offered by the treaty bodies will become weakened and appealed to the Council for a commitment to ensure that there are adequate resources available to enable OHCHR to continue to efficiently carry out its mandate. Support was overwhelmingly expressed to the High Commissioner in her call for adequate resources in order to fulfil her mandate.

Strong objections were made by Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC), Mauritania (on behalf of the Arab Group), Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia to the panel discussion on discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Mauritania (on behalf of the Arab Group) stated that it would ‘have preferred that the High Commissioner should not refer to subjects of sexual preference’ due to the subject being ‘incompatible with its values and principles as well as its moral and religious precepts’. Malaysia warned of the sensitive nature of the discussion and that ‘moral consensus and values in the community are rooted in cultural and religious beliefs’. It stressed that it is ‘important to respect and take into account the views of the majority as far as values and morality are concerned’. Pakistan stated that ‘such controversial issues put into doubt the credibility of human rights and undermine the promotion and protection of human rights around the world’.

The High Commissioner was criticised by some states for not covering certain situations in her statement, most notably, (Pakistan on behalf of OIC, Mauritania on behalf of Arab Group and Turkey) for failing to include in her report the recent burning of the Holy Koran. Similarly, (Pakistan on behalf of the OIC, Egypt on behalf of NAM, Thailand, Maldives, Bangladesh, Syria and Turkey) expressed that they felt the dire human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Syrian Arab Golan had not been addressed and they stressed that the situation should be given due attention by the international community. In an apparent effort however to deflect criticism that her report did not take into account human rights violations in all parts of the world, the High Commissioner did look to Guantanamo Bay and expressed her deep disappointment at the failure to close the facility. In addition she expressed her concerns about the rights of the detainees being held there.

The High Commissioner welcomed Sri Lanka’s publication of the report of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission but stated that the report fell short in relation to a comprehensive accountability process as recommended by the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts. She recognised the important recommendations made but encouraged the Government of Sri Lanka to engage with the Special Procedures and her Office on follow up to the report. Pakistan on behalf of the OIC, Egypt on behalf of NAM, and Cuba welcomed the LLRC report published by the Government of Sri Lanka but emphasised that Sri Lanka must be left alone to achieve its objectives without external pressure. Egypt on behalf of NAM went as far to say that Sri Lanka’s commitment to reconciliation and open engagement with international community renders any action by the Council unwarranted.

New report to launch on Women Human Rights Defenders: 8 March 2012


A new report on the situation of women human rights defenders will be launched this week during the Human Rights Council.

Entitled Global Report on the Situation of Women Human Rights Defenders, the research has been produced by the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRD IC).  It offers an essential insight into the work of the coalition’s members and the risks they have faced since the coalition was established in 2005.

The launch of the Global Report will take place as a side-event to the Human Rights Council, on Thursday 8 March, from 12 noon to 2pm at the Palais des Nations in Geneva (room XXIV). The event is organised by the International Service for Human Rights.

A panel discussion will feature Sunila Abeysekera, the Executive Director of INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre; Fikile Vilakazi, Programs Director for the Coalition of African Lesbians; and Christina Ellazar Palabay from Tanggol Bayi, an association of women human rights defenders in the Philippines. Ms Ellazar Palaby is also part of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development.

The Global Report contributes to an ongoing project of increasing awareness of the nature of the experiences of women human rights defenders.

It features 43 case studies, which demonstrate the links and differences in women human rights defenders identities, working environments and the violations they face. The report analyses their experience through the examination of several contexts, such as militarization, and through particular thematic areas of work, such as reproductive rights.

The report points to the urgent need for increased, systematic and more thorough documentation of human rights violations against women human rights defenders. Documenting these violations and explaining how the context in which they take place facilitates such violations to occur is essential in defining effective means to address them.

It also underlines the importance of recognising that the risks women’s rights defenders face differ from those of human rights defenders in general; risks can be gender-specific and often have gendered consequences, such as threats or violence of a sexual nature, verbal abuse which targets women rights defenders’ gender, or exclusion due to their gender.

In order to ensure the effective, long-term protection of the rights of women human rights defenders, the report recommends that these defenders participate in the planning and application of strategies designed to protect and assist them.

The WHRD IC is a resource and advocacy network for the protection and support of women human rights defenders worldwide. The coalition involves defenders and groups committed to the advancement of women's human rights and sexual rights including rights related to sexual orientation and gender identity. 

For further information on the work of the WHRD IC and a list of members, please see:

You can download a flyer regarding the side event here.

International human rights defenders experts to launch new reports on Latin America


United Nations and Latin American human rights experts will come together in March to launch new reports on the conditions of human rights defenders working in the Americas.

The launch will feature the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ (IACHR) on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, together with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the same issue.

It is being organised by the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) as a side-event to the 19th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, and will take place on Tuesday 6 March at Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The IACHR’s Special Rapporteur, Mr José de Jesús Orozco, will present the regional body’s latest report on human rights defenders in the Americas. The report highlights an increase in assassinations, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances of human rights defenders in the region since 2006.

It shows this problem to be particularly true in those countries where democratic rule is interrupted, where there is internal armed conflict, or where clashes occur between defenders and organised crime groups or powerful economic actors.

In response, the IACHR has ordered many American States to take specific action to protect defenders. These protection measures have been issued primarily to Colombia (27 percent), Guatemala (24 percent), and Honduras (9 percent).

IACHR Executive Director, Mr Santiago Cantón will also speak at the side-event, and will present the recent work of the IACHR in furthering the concerns of human rights defenders. 

At the same event, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Ms Margaret Sekaggya will present ISHR’s report on the situation of defenders in Colombia.

The findings are the result of research into whether recommendations made by the Special Rapporteur have been effectively implemented in Colombia, following her visit to the country in 2009.

The report portrays a Colombian Government showing a more constructive attitude in its dealings with human rights defenders. However, it also identifies a failure to mainstream this attitude among local authorities, a worrying increase in attacks on human rights defenders in the past year, and the limited success of State authorities in investigating and addressing such attacks.

Executive Director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, Mr Gustavo Gallón will go on to provide a civil society view on the ISHR report and the situation of defenders in Colombia.

Further information about the event can be downloaded here. The event will take place from 12h00 – 14h00 in room XXIII of Palais des Nations.

Advisory Committee discussing problematic study on traditional values and human rights


The Human Rights Council Advisory Committee (the Committee) will meet for its 8th session from 20 to 24 February 2012. The 18 member Committee, whose role is to act as a think-tank for the Human Rights Council (the Council) and consider issues at its request, will consider various reports and form recommendations for submission to the Council in the week prior to its 19th session. The draft programme of work and annotated provisional agenda are available here on the Advisory Committee Web site.

The report which is of greatest concern and which has drawn criticism from a number of NGOs is the report on ‘promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms through a better understanding of the traditional values of humankind’, set out as ‘dignity, freedom and responsibility’. At its 7th session, following Council resolution 16/3, the Committee established a drafting group to prepare this study, comprising Ms Boisson de Chazournes, Mr Chen, Ms Chung, Mr Karakora, Mr Kartashkin (Rapporteur), Mr Okafor, Ms Reyes Prado, Mr Seetulsingh and Mr Soofi (Chairperson). The drafting group’s final report is to be submitted at the 9th session, for submission to the Council at its 21st session, however the preliminary research on the study will be presented to the Committee in February (see here for official languages other than English).

The preliminary report begins by stating that there is ‘as yet no accepted definition of the term “traditional values of humankind”’. One of the main criticisms of the report is that in trying to formulate a definition, the drafting group has interpreted ‘values’ as being inherently positive, while nevertheless acknowledging that ‘tradition’ can be an obstacle to development and change and thus have a negative impact on human rights. The Russian Federation, who originally proposed the study at the Council sought to remove the negative connotations of tradition. However this denial of the existence of any negative values, such as racism and xenophobia, could add to the problem of states using traditional values as an excuse for human rights violations.

Another problem identified is the possible misuse of the concept of ‘dignity’ as a traditional value, particularly in reference to women. Unless the report affirms the language used in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) referring to ‘the inherent dignity and worth of the human person’, there is a risk of the dignity concept being used to justify traditional roles for women, contrary to human rights.

This is also an issue with the concept of ‘responsibility’ as a value, which is not clearly defined. The placing of this ambiguous concept on an equal footing with the inherent dignity and worth of the human person has drawn concern, as the principle of universality of human rights does not allow these to be contingent on an ill-defined notion of responsibility.

The report also includes a section on the importance of families and communities in the promotion of human rights, and the role of the family in forming a person’s values. References to ‘the family’ have been criticised as being based on assumptions about its positive moral influence. The use of the word ‘the’ does not acknowledge different forms of family, which could for example exclude same-sex relationships. Equally, in making these assumptions about family, the report fails to recognise that families are often sites of human rights abuses, including FGM and honour killings.

In light of these serious concerns, it is hoped that the 8th session of the Committee will provide a forum for thorough discussion of these issues, and perhaps be the basis a new and more critical approach to the report on traditional values. NGOs are able to make written and oral statements on substantive issues at the session. The relevant information on the procedures for this can be found here.

Other items that will be under consideration at the 8th session include a draft declaration on the right of peoples to peace (as revised following comments at the 7th session); proposals on the enhancement of international cooperation in the field of human rights; a study on the issue of terrorist hostage taking and its impact on human rights, the interim report of which will be submitted to the Council at its 21st session; and the outcome of the work of the drafting group on human rights and international solidarity. The Committee will also be considering a series of studies from the drafting group on the right to food, specifically its completed study on the rights of peasants, its completed study (following the input of stakeholder views collected by the OHCHR) on severe malnutrition and childhood diseases, focusing on children affected by Noma, and a preliminary study on promoting the human rights of the urban poor.

ISHR launches report on human rights defenders in Colombia


A new report on the implementation of United Nations human rights recommendations in Colombia was launched on Friday 27 January by the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR).

The report portrays a Colombian Government showing a more constructive attitude in its dealings with human rights defenders. While acknowledging these efforts, it also identifies a failure to mainstream this attitude among local authorities, a worrying increase in attacks on human rights defenders in the past year, and the limited success of State authorities in investigating and addressing the incessant attacks on human rights defenders. 

The report is the result of research into the status of implementation of recommendations made by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Ms Margaret Sekaggya, following her visit to Colombia in 2009.

Entitled Human Rights Defenders in Colombia: How is the Government protecting their rights?, it summarises the main views of human rights defenders, representatives of the Colombian State, and the local United Nations human rights office.

An event to mark the launch of the report was held at Rosario University in Bogotá, Colombia. The findings were officially presented by ISHR Board member, Mr Gustavo Gallón. Presentations were also made by representatives of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, and the Government of Colombia.

The report’s findings include observations of a clear change in the Government’s attitude towards human rights defenders since August 2010 during the administration of President Santos, including greater openness and willingness to dialogue and a proposal to formulate a State policy on human rights. Public officials have been instructed to more positively engage with human rights defenders and with civil society organisations, including by respecting their opinions and activities, even when they criticise Government or State action. 

However, the research highlights a lack of understanding and agreement amongst authorities at the regional and local levels about these new government policies. Information from non-governmental organisations indicates that individual attacks against human rights defenders during the first half of 2011 increased by 126 percent over the same period in 2010. 

It further reveals that there has been little progress in the area of investigations into attacks on human rights defenders and illegal wiretapping of their communications. Arbitrary detention of defenders and break-ins and theft of their research materials are said to continue. Also, defenders express concern that, despite efforts to reform the government protection programme for human rights defenders, the programme is still not providing timely and effective protection for threatened defenders, including women defenders, leaders of land restitution processes, and indigenous leaders.

You can download a copy of ISHR’s report, Human Rights Defenders in Colombia: How is the Government protecting their rights?, in English or Spanish.

In addition to the report’s launch in Colombia, an ISHR side event will be held at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland on 6 March (13h00 – 15h00 local time). The side event will address the theme of human rights defenders in the Americas, and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders will be present to speak about ISHR’s report on Colombia.

New report on Women Human Rights Defenders is launched


A new report on the situation of women human rights defenders was launched on 5 March 2012 at a side event to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The Global Report on the Situation of Women Human Rights Defenders has been produced by the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRD IC).

The key speakers of the side event were Ms Sunila Abeysekera, the Executive Director of INFORM and ISHR board member; Ms Fikile Vilakazi, the Programs Director of Coalition of African Lesbians; and Ms Christina Ellazar Palabay from Tanggol Bayi, an association of women human rights defenders in the Philippines. Ms Eleanor Openshaw from ISHR was the moderator for the panel discussion.

The report analyses the challenges faced by women human rights defenders in different contexts. Through the prism of over 40 case studies, the connections between the context in which a woman human rights defenders works and the nature of the violations she experiences are explored.

 The Coalition began the project of writing the report having identified a lack of systematic coverage of the gender specific nature of violence against women human rights defenders. It started from an understanding that that the experience of women human rights defenders is frequently silenced, ignored or misrepresented.  The Coalition’s hope is that the report will become an advocacy tool for women defenders, to highlight the need for consistent documentation to surface the experiences of women defenders and build effective responses to the violations they face.

At the side event, each of the panelists stressed the importance of recognising and understanding the wider context in which violations against women human rights defenders take place, as has been done in the Global Report. Ms Abeysekera affirmed that if the context is not taken into account, effective solutions for combatting such abuses are unlikely to be found.  

The main areas of contextual analysis in the report are fundamentalisms; militarization and situations of conflict; globalization; crises of democracy or governance; and heteronormativity. According to Ms Abeysekera, all abuses of women rights defenders should be understood in relation to the overarching ideologies - patriarchy and heteronormativity, which inform all these contexts.

The panelists’ presentations also highlighted the challenge of documenting violations in a gender-sensitive manner. Ms Palabay asserted that there are often few indications in human rights documentation of the gender specific nature of a violation.  This echoed one of the Global Report’s key calls to mainstream human rights organisations that they enhance their capacity to identify and articulate issues from a gender perspective.

Panelists highlighted violations at the hands of non-state actors, including private security organisations and multinational corporations, and the absence of effective mechanisms to hold them to account. Discussion also focused on the fact that a country's economic prosperity does not mean it respects women’s human rights, as is often assumed. A final point that was addressed was the need to make existing human rights mechanisms work for women human rights defenders, rather than creating new ones.

When the floor was opened for discussion, the panelists were asked to give advice to women human rights defenders regarding bad documentation. The panelists underlined the importance for documentation to be sensitive and respectful, taking people into consideration, rather than just presenting them as a number.

 A further question was raised about how to document violations when victims are too scared to register their abuse. Ms Palabay advised finding creative ways of documenting such information whilst respecting a victim's anonymity. One example given was to film them talking about their experience in the shadows so that they could not be identified.

Other recommendations made by the panelists included the need for women human rights defenders to write their stories and make them public; and the need for further discussion on gender sensitive methods of documentation.  Ms Vilakazi noted that future reports should include a discussion of the wellbeing of women human rights defenders, which is essential to a process of documentation and to sustaining human rights movements.

Human Rights Defenders in Latin America are still at grave risk, new reports show


A special focus on human rights defenders in Latin America was the theme of an ISHR side event held during the Human Rights Council on Tuesday 6 March.

The event marked the launch of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ (IACHR) Second Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in the Americas. The IACHR Rapporteur on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders, Mr José de Jesús Orozco, and the IACHR Executive Secretary, Mr Santiago A. Canton were hosted by ISHR in Geneva to present the report.

It follows up on the IACHR’s 2006 report on the same subject, and highlights an increase in assassinations, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances of human rights defenders in the region. It shows this problem to be particularly true in countries where democratic rule is interrupted, where there is internal armed conflict, or where clashes occur between defenders and organised crime groups or powerful economic actors.

Mr Orozco said the new report is structured into four parts: (1) problems faced by human rights defenders in the region; (2) human rights defenders at particular risk; (3) independence and impartiality of justice operators as a guarantee of access to justice; and (4) protection mechanisms for human rights defenders.

Mr Orozco said the protection of human rights defenders is fundamental to the protection of human rights in the continent. He pointed to problems such as legal measures that criminalise the work of human rights defenders, and other forms of arbitrary control of human rights organisations, as being among the biggest challenges faced by defenders in Latin America. He also highlighted evidence of impunity and impartiality in judicial processes, and reiterated the need for better, more transparent and more consistent investigations to counter these problems.

The ISHR side event also featured the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Ms Margaret Sekaggya, and Executive Director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, Mr Gustavo Gallon.

Ms Sekaggya and Mr Gallon spoke about a newly launched ISHR report on the situation for human rights defenders in Colombia. The findings are the result of research into whether recommendations made by the Special Rapporteur have been effectively implemented in Colombia, following her visit to the country in 2009.

Ms Sekaggya said Colombia is a very difficult environment for human rights defenders. Her report in 2009 had highlighted cases of illegal surveillance, illegal arrest and detention, judicial harassment, human rights organisations’ premises being raided and records stolen, together with violence and other threats. Many violations had been attributed to guerrillas and paramilitary groups, or the acts or neglect of the Colombian authorities.

Two years later, ISHR’s report shows that some positive steps have been taken by the Colombian Government: such as public statements by officials recognising the legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders; the work of the ‘National Guarantees Roundtable’ and the issuance of new decrees aimed at reforming and strengthening the protection programme for human rights defenders.

However, Ms Sekaggya highlighted that there are still many obstacles for human rights defenders in Colombia. The ISHR report shows preventative measures have not been satisfactorily implemented, mainly due to the lack of knowledge by local authorities of official national policies in regard to human rights defenders, and the lack of appropriate action on early warnings by the Ombusman’s Office.

The report also found that the National Guarantees Roundtable process was insufficient; that illegal wiretapping of human rights defenders conversations was continuing; and that criminal investigations into violations against defenders had produced few, if any results.

Ms Sekaggya highlighted the need for the Colombian Government to increase its human and financial capacity to deal with these problems, including through the establishment of a permanent unit dedicated to this.

Mr Gallon said 55 human rights defenders in Colombia had lost their lives in 2011; 49 of them murdered, and six disappeared. This presented an increase in lives lost compared to previous years. In addition, some 140 threats against defenders had been recorded.

He added that paramilitary groups, though no longer recognised by the Government as existing, were still very much active and had grown in number since the Special Rapporteur’s 2009 report. The Government’s lack of recognition of these groups – now simply referred to by the State as ‘criminal gangs’ – means it cannot adequately address the threat they present to human rights defenders.

Mr Gallon highlighted the responsibility of the State to ensure the protection of human rights defenders, including through ensuring that protection mechanisms and justice were effectively managed.   

At the side event Ms Sekaggya also presented preliminary findings following her visit to Honduras. The discussion was also opened to the floor for additional comments and questions.

The panel discussion was moderated by ISHR Director Mr Bjorn Pettersson, who expressed satisfaction that the panelists and the reports had drawn Human Rights Council participants’ attention to the plight of defenders in the Americas, a region not sufficiently highlighted in the Human Rights Council context. 

He said transitions to democracy and the end of several conflicts in the region, coupled with the existence of an effective regional human rights system, have left the human rights situations of most Latin American countries off the priority list of concerned Human Rights Council members and observers.

At-risk human rights defenders draw attention at ISHR side event


A panel discussion on the issue of human rights defenders who are most at risk took place on Monday 5 March at PaIais des Nations in Geneva. The side event was co-hosted by ISHR and other human rights organisations, with the aim of drawing attention to the challenges experienced by the most vulnerable groups of defenders.

The discussion coincided with the presentation of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders’ report to the Human Rights Council on the same day.

The key speakers at the ISHR side event were Mr Davi Kopenawa, leader of the Yanomami indigenous group from the Amazonia, Mr João Paulo Charleaux, a Brazilian journalist from Conectas Direitos Humanos, and Mr Kim Smeby, speaking on behalf of Ms Margaret Sekaggya, the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders. The panel was moderated by Ms Idun Tvedt, of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The event particularly focused on the key groups of defenders highlighted in Ms Sekaggya’s report:  journalists, environmental, student and youth rights defenders, and those working on land issues. The Special Rapporteur described these defenders as being significant need of protection, and faced by risks that ‘directly affect their physical integrity and that of their family members, but also involve the abusive use of legal frameworks against them and the criminalization of their work.’

Mr Kopenawa explained at the side event that, as an environmental and indigenous human rights defender, he had faced numerous threats and attacks, the target of gold diggers and farmers who want to exploit the land. The vital role that environmental, land rights and indigenous defenders play was highlighted; one attendee of the side event recognised the significance of Mr Kopenawa’s work, as he was said to be the only person able to represent the Yanomami people due to language barriers.

Mr Charleaux emphasised that media reporting was an essential element in giving visibility to violations of human rights. The Brazilian journalist said this work remained a struggle in many Latin American countries, where the three most common risks for journalists and other human rights defenders are murders committed by criminal groups, repression by security forces, and judicial and political pressures against individuals.

Mr Charleaux recommended that journalists work in networks to support each other, so that if one journalist or newspaper received threats they could call on their colleagues to research the same topic or publish the same article. He also recommended that private media companies acknowledge their responsibility and adopt measures to better protect their journalists and media workers.

Also discussed were the importance of the new technologies such as blogs and mobile phones in exposing human rights abuses, and the great risks that youth defenders and students face in speaking out against human rights violations, such as threats, violence or being refused the opportunity to continue their studies.

Following presentations by the panellists, the discussion was opened for questions from the floor. A representative of Journalistes sans Frontières reiterated how crucial it is to protect journalists and media workers, as to kill the messenger is to kill the message. The difficulty of establishing support networks for defenders of indigenous groups was highlighted, given their sometimes remote and dispersed locations and lack of modern technology to facilitate communication. The Special Rapporteur’s secretary drew attention to the central role that youth have had in defending human rights and placing human rights issues on the agenda and the importance of protecting this vulnerable group.

The panel discussion was co-sponsored by the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Conectas Direitos Humanos, Human Rights House Foundation, International Service for Human Rights, and the OMCT-FIDH Observatory on the protection of human rights defenders.

Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders presents report on defenders at particular risk


On 5 March 2012, the Special Rapporteur (the SR) on human rights defenders (HRDs), Margaret Sekaggya presented her fourth annual thematic report to the Human Rights Council (the Council). The report focused on HRDs at particular risk, including journalists and media workers, defenders working on environmental and land issues, and youth and student defenders.

The interactive dialogue that followed Ms. Sekaggya’s presentation saw States divided along familiar fault lines. A large number of States welcomed the report,[1] echoing the SR’s concerns regarding the violations experienced by the highlighted groups. Others were more critical of the report,[2] with a number of States saying that the rights of HRDs need to be balanced against their responsibilities and that HRDs must act in accordance with national legislation. India, Senegal, Cuba, and Algeria went as far as to accuse the SR of overstepping her mandate by including new categories of HRDs and duplicating the work of other special procedure mandates.

During the presentation of her report, Ms. Sekaggya noted that , during the last year, the vulnerable groups highlighted in her report suffered both physical and legal harassment by State and non-State actors. “Journalists and media workers have been targeted because of their reports on human rights violations or because they were witnesses to human rights violations themselves”, said Ms. Sekaggya. Violations included killings, arrests, arbitrary detention, torture, and harassment. Furthermore, legal frameworks and tools such as censorship have been “used and abused” to restrict the work of HRDs. Stigmatization of HRDs’ work by state officials or the media can foster a climate of intimidation, harassment and violence by non-State actors. Defenders working on land and environmental issues are particularly vulnerable to violence suffered at the hands of multinational corporations and private security companies. Lastly, youth and student defenders, especially those active in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), have been attacked and abused by security forces in the context of public demonstrations. Judicial and legal harassment of young people is also frequent and tied to legislation that prohibits them from participating in public assemblies. Ms. Sekaggya said that there is a tendency to consider “young age and alleged lack of maturity […] as grounds for not giving them a say in public affairs”. This limits the perception of youth and student movements as simply ‘trouble-makers’.

The issue of what falls under the definition of a HRD once again rose to the foreground of the debate. China, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, among others, voiced their concerns about the lack of a precise definition. These States consider the definition overly broad and therefore at risk of being abused and wielded to protect individuals viewed as HRDs by some but as criminals or terrorists by others. Bangladesh noted that politically motivated actors should not be confused with ‘real’ HRDs. Similarly, Sri Lanka characterized the term HRDs as one that is very ‘amorphous’ and warned the SR “not to fall prey to those who masquerade behind the readymade cloak of HRDs creating political havoc wherever they are”. Algeria expressed concern that the lack of a specific definition can lead to a broadening of the mandate and duplication of the work of other mandates. In her reply, the SR explained that the groups covered in her report are clearly HRDs. She clarified that anyone who promotes and protects human rights in a peaceful manner is entitled to the protection accorded to HRDs.

Senegal, India, and Cuba also spoke on the question of the SR’s mandate, reminding the SR of the requirement to act in accordance with the Code of Conduct for special procedures mandate holders. India chided that the special procedures are not “special prosecutors” and should be broad and thematic rather than focused on individual incidents. Senegal, speaking on behalf of the African Group, expressed concern that the HRDs mandate might overlap with other special procedures and become “omnibus” in nature. In that respect, Senegal warned the SR to be “more vigilant” and to respect the scope of her mandate. Cuba insisted that adherence to the Code of Conduct was needed to reinforce the authority and credibility of the Council.

Negative statements also focused on the issue of national legislation. Although this issue has been raised during previous dialogues with the Special Rapporteur, detractors may have been further emboldened by the additional reference they succeeded in getting in the last General Assembly resolution on HRDs[3] regarding the requirement that HRDs operate in the framework of national legislation.[4] Senegal, Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC), Malaysia, China, Algeria, and Egypt all raised this issue in their interventions. Addressing the issue head-on in her concluding remarks, the SR clarified that while there is no disagreement that HRDs must respect national laws, those laws must in turn comply with international human rights standards.

Several NGOs present raised the issue of reprisals against those cooperating with the UN human rights system. The SR specifically addressed the issue of reprisals against those HRDs cooperating with her mandate. Specifically, the SR noted that she has “once again” been alerted that HRDs in Sri Lanka have been threatened with reprisals should they seek the protection of her mandate. Sri Lanka responded during the dialogue, saying this was “pure conjecture”. Also on the subject of reprisals, Senegal (on behalf of the African group) claimed that the risk of reprisals was increased as a result of HRDs not complying with their ‘responsibilities’. Presumably as an attempt to deflect attention from reprisals by State actors, Senegal also noted that the report highlighted reprisals by non-State actors but did not make any recommendations in that regard.  On this issue, the SR recalled that her 2010 report to the General Assembly addressed State responsibility for violations by non-State actors. She reminded States that they bear the primary responsibility for protecting HRDs under their jurisdiction against rights violations not only by State agents, but also private persons or entities.

[1] Including Belgium, Honduras, the US, the EU, Chile, Norway, the UK, Australia, Spain, Poland, Ireland, Uruguay, Austria, Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, France, Switzerland, and Armenia.

[2] Including India, Morocco, Senegal, Pakistan, Cuba, Malaysia, China, Algeria, Egypt, and Belarus.

[4]   See ISHR stories on the 2011 session of the General Assembly here and here. The General Assembly began adopting resolutions on human rights defenders in 1998 with the adoption of the Declaration on human rights defenders. Though the Declaration included a reference to the requirement that human rights defenders should operate within the framework of national legislation, it was not until 2005 that a similar reference was made in the resolution. This was due to threats by Cuba that it would call a vote on the resolution otherwise. States opposed to civil society engagement seek to include such references in order to limit the rights of defenders to those prescribed by domestic law, which are often not in line with international human rights law.

Two references to national legislation appeared in the General Assembly resolutions on human rights defenders in 2005, 2007 and 2009. One is contained in a preambular paragraph that is based on the reference to national legislation in the Declaration. The other is contained in an operative paragraph that refers to registration requirements. In the last session of the GA in 2011, detractors such as China, Russia and Iran were able to gain an additional reference to the requirement that human rights defenders operate in the framework of national legislation, this time in a new paragraph on peaceful protests. It is worth noting  that the references to national legislation are somewhat mitigated by corresponding references to the requirement that national laws be consistent with international human rights law.


GA adopts 60-plus Third Committee resolutions, including on Iran, North Korea and Syria


Third Committee strives for relevance in context of Arab Spring

As the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ turned to summer and then to fall, the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee struggled but ultimately succeeded in giving a nod to the popular uprisings. Beyond the breakthrough resolution on the situation of human rights in Syria, which represented the first new country situation to be examined since 2007,[1] the Third Committee also referred to current events in a handful of thematic resolutions on human rights.

Despite sharp opposition, the bi-annual human rights defenders resolution[2] calls upon States to “ensure that human rights defenders can perform their important role in the context of peaceful protests” and refers between the lines to the role of social media by recognizing that “new forms of communication can serve as important tools for human rights defenders”. Though these timely references are notable achievements, it is regrettable that detractors were also able to gain additional references to the requirement that human rights defenders operate in the framework of national legislation in this year’s text. [3]  By pushing to include such limitations, these States sought to restrict  the role of defenders in peaceful protests  rather than to protect and support their work.

This year’s resolution on torture[4] mentions current events by expressing deep concern at acts that can amount to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment committed against “persons exercising their rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression”.

A resolution on women and political participation,[5] last seen at the General Assembly in 2003,[6] includes numerous references to situations of political transition. Despite staunch resistance from hardliners,[7] the US-sponsored resolution was adopted by consensus. Notably, the new language was supported by States currently undergoing significant transitions, including Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Finally, the bi-annual resolution on the role of the United Nations in enhancing periodic and genuine elections and the promotion of democratization included new preambular language highlighting the importance of fair, periodic and genuine elections in “new democracies and countries undergoing democratization.”[8]

General Assembly split on Human Rights Council report

Several recommendations in the Human Rights Council report[9] were addressed individually in separate resolutions by Third Committee, including the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training[10] and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the child on a communications procedure.[11] Both standard setting instruments were adopted by consensus.  In addition, the Committee considered a general resolution sponsored by the African group that generated a fair amount of controversy, as it has in previous years. The resolution (A/C.3/66/L.64/Rev.1) initially "took note” of the report of the Human Rights Council (Council) and “noted with concern some of the recommendations contained therein”. This was revised to "note the report … and some of its recommendations" and orally amended before the vote in Third Committee to "notes the report … and its recommendations." The changes reflected the African group’s decision to comply with behind-the-scenes requests from members of other regional groups that the resolution not send a negative message about the Council’s work. 

At the request of Belarus,[12] the draft general resolution on the Council report was put to a vote in the Third Committee and adopted with 94 in favour, to 3 against (Belarus, Syria and DPRK), with 62 abstentions.[13] Most states in the Western Europe and Other Group (WEOG) except Turkey abstained, with most statements expressing that the plenary—and not the Third Committee—should consider the report. Eastern European countries also abstained with the exception of Belarus, who voted against, and the Russian Federation and Armenia, who voted in favour. In addition to the African Group, overwhelming support came from the Asian Group and the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC) countries,[14] providing a clear North versus South divide to the voting pattern. Many statements on YES votes qualified their position by citing the politicisation and double standards within the Council, particularly the issue of country specific resolutions.[15]

Ongoing debates on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) also surfaced in the discussions on the HRC report resolution in Third Committee and the General Assembly plenary. In Third Committee, Russia and Pakistan expressed concern at the Council’s request that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to commission a study and convene a panel on discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their SOGI. On the other side, Israel and the US voiced support for the initiative on SOGI taken by the Council in HRC/RES/17/19.  In the plenary, the African Group and the Holy See also registered their concern about the Council’s resolution on ‘sexual preferences’ and ‘undefined’ notions such as SOGI. 

Two resolutions threaten mandate of Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict

This session of the Third Committee saw a number of new initiatives, including a resolution put forward by Thailand on “Strengthening of the coordination of the United Nations system on child protection”.[16] This initiative was widely viewed as a rebuke of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, for mentioning Thailand in the annual report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict.[17] Framed by Thailand as an initiative to strengthen the UN child protection system, the resolution came across to many states and NGOs as a thinly veiled attempt to undermine the independence of UN mandate holders working on child protection[18] through a new evaluation mechanism and a focal role for UNICEF in coordination.

In the end, a much watered-down text was adopted by consensus. A number of states[19] expressed concern at the duplicitous intent of the resolution and clarified their interpretation that, where the resolution calls for mandate holders “to continue to exercise their functions in a fully independent manner and to act in full observation of their respective mandates”, that the "continue to" applies to the second part of the sentence as well, i.e. that mandate holders have been and will continue to observe their mandates. This reading reinforces the notion that Ms Coomaraswamy’s decision to include and scrutinize Thailand in her annual report is fully in line with her mandate.

The controversy also spilled over into the rights of the child resolution, in which the initial draft “took note with appreciation” of Coomaraswamy’s work and extended her mandate for a further four years. However, the sponsors of the resolution succumbed to pressure from Thailand and other states that objected to the mandate being extended beyond the usual three years. The draft was later revised to merely “recognize” the work of her office and to recommend that her mandate be renewed for three years only. Despite these concessions, Pakistan proposed an amendment in Third Committee to “reiterate that it is incumbent upon all mandate holders to perform their functions in strict observance of their mandates upholding the principles of impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity as well as avoiding politicization.” The amendment was defeated by a vote of 78 against to 48 in favour, with 21 abstaining. The resolution was later adopted without a vote by the General Assembly plenary.

General Assembly maintains Council gains by dropping defamation of religion text

The General Assembly did not adopt a text this year on the defamation of religions, in line with the breakthrough in the March 2011 session of the Council when the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) decided not to run its polarizing resolution on the topic. Instead, the General Assembly adopted by consensus an OIC-sponsored text[20] similar to the one put forth at the March 2011 Council session on combating intolerance and incitement to violence against persons based on their religion or belief, [21]  which has no references to the defamation of religion.

The new OIC-sponsored General Assembly resolution  requests the UN Secretary-General to submit a report at its sixty-seventh session on steps taken by States to combat intolerance. It also calls on States to consider reporting to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on their efforts to combat religious intolerance, stereotyping and violence.  

As in previous years, the General Assembly also adopted an EU-led resolution on religious intolerance.[22]

Europeans soften positions on follow up to Durban

This year’s resolution on the “Global efforts for the total elimination of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance and the comprehensive implementation of and follow-up to the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action” prompted a significant change in the voting pattern among European states. The following states switched their votes from NO to Abstain: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and United Kingdom. Switzerland, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway changed from abstaining to voting in favour. The final vote in the General Assembly was 138 in favour to 6 against (Australia, Canada, Israel, Marshall Islands, Palau, and United States), with 46 abstentions. This was reportedly the result of concerted engagement by South Africa and Argentina (on behalf of the G77) to work with European states on the text. The G77 took on a number of their concerns, including explicitly mentioning the primary responsibility of States in the fight against racism. However, the EU did not ultimately support the text as several operative paragraphs -- related to incitement and to the media --included restrictions on the freedom of expression not in line with international law.

Country-specific resolutions

Despite ‘in principle’ objections raised by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and others (DPRK, China, Kazakhstan) to the consideration of any country specific resolutions by the Third Committee, the General Assembly this year adopted four country-specific texts. The vote in the General Assembly plenary on the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) resolution was 123 in favour, 16 against with 51 abstaining; on Iran was 89 in favour, 30 against with 64 abstaining; and on Syria was 133 in favour, 11 against, with 43 abstaining. The text on Myanmar, which was adopted by vote in the Third Committee, was deferred pending review of its programme budget implications by the Fifth Committee. The resolution has costs associated with political missions and good offices. In all cases, the votes in favour of the resolutions increased from Third Committee.[23] ISHR published an earlier article analysing the voting patterns of the resolutions in Third Committee.[24]

Comparing this year’s General Assembly Plenary votes to last year’s, the resolution on Iran gained 11 additional YES votes and the resolution on the DPRK gained an additional 17. The margins also increased significantly for both Iran (from 33 to 59) and the DPRK (86 to 107).

NO votes continued to decrease in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in all cases, despite continued statements on its principled position against country-specific resolutions in the Third Committee.More than half (62) supported the resolution on Syria.

Only the resolution on Syria faced a no-action motion in the Third Committee, which was defeated by an overwhelming majority of 118 to 20, with 29 abstentions. Only the resolution on Iran faced a no-action motion in the General Assembly Plenary, which was defeated 100 to 35 with 42 abstaining.

The resolution on Syria passed with the largest margin of YES to NO votes (122) compared to DPRK (107), and Iran (59). The vote on Syria was marked by strong regional support with Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar and Saudi Arabia cosponsoring. No Arab country voted against the resolution. Russia and China, who vetoed the earlier Security Council resolution on Syria, abstained from the vote despite voting against all other country-specific resolutions. Between the Third Committee and the General Assembly Plenary, Bolivia and Vietnam changed their votes from NO to Abstain and six countries changed their votes from Abstain to YES.[25] No country changed their votes from YES/Abstain to NO but Chad and Mauritania changed their votes from YES to Abstain.

This year’s resolution on Iran includes additional language on the continuing and systemic targeting of human rights defenders and calls on Iran to allow access to the newly appointed Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran. In addition, this year’s resolution calls on the Government to release all those arbitrarily arrested and detained for exercising their right to peaceful assembly and participating in peaceful protests. The resolution also strongly urges the Government to ensure free, fair, transparent and inclusive parliamentary elections in 2012 and calls on the Government to allow independent observers, but stops short of calling for international observation.

The resolution on Myanmar was softened this year, reflecting recent developments such as talks between the Government and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the release of prisoners of conscience. The resolution welcomed a number of positive steps by the Government, acknowledged commitments made by the President to implement reform, and encouraged the continued cooperation of the Government with the international community. However, NGOs remained concerned that the text fell short of calling for an independent, international investigation into grave crimes that would determine the facts and hold perpetrators accountable.[26]

Mirroring the themes focused on by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK in his report and statement to the Third Committee, this year’s text on the DPRK places greater emphasis on the issues of food security, the reuniting of families, and the protection of asylum seekers. The resolution also reiterates serious concern at the refusal of the Government to articulate its position on which recommendations included in the outcome report of its universal periodic review in March 2010 enjoy its support, and regrets the continuing lack of action to implement the recommendations contained in the report.

See further analysis of the voting patterns for the DPRK, Iran and Syria.

Other developments

The General Assembly also adopted numerous other resolutions recommended by its Third Committee, including on the girl child, people with disabilities, indigenous issues, national  human rights institutions, counter terrorism and human rights, and the interdependence of human rights.

An analytical article covering this year’s General Assembly Third Committee session will be available in the January 2012 edition of the Human Rights Monitor Quarterly.

[1] The last time the Third Committee considered a new country situation was in 2007 when it passed a resolution on the situation of human rights in Belarus A/RES/62/169. Since then, the Committee has only considered resolutions on Iran, Myanmar and the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea.

A/C.3/66/L.44/Rev.1 The draft resolution is available at

[3] China, Russia, Iran.

A/C.3/66/L.28/Rev.1 The draft resolution is available at

A/C.3/66/L.20/Rev.1 The draft resolution is available at

A/RES/58/142 available at

[7] Syria, Russia, China, Cuba, Yemen, Venezuela, Pakistan, Iran, Nicaragua, Belarus, Vietnam.

A/C.3/66/L.43/Rev.1 The draft resolution is available at

[9] A/66/53(Supp.) This year's annual report before the General Assembly covers the 16th and 17th regular sessions as well as the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th special sessions. The addendum (A/66/53/Add.1) to the report covers the 18th regular session. The Council’s annual reporting cycle was previously 1 July to 30 June. During the Review of the Human Rights Council, concluded in June 2011, States decided that the new reporting cycle would run from 1 October to 30 September, thus ensuring that the September session is included in the report to the General Assembly.

A/C.3/66/L.65 The draft resolution is available at

A/C.3/66/L.66 The draft resolution is available at

[12] Belarus was the subject of a county-specific resolution at the Human Rights Council in June 2011.

[13] DRC and Iraq changed their respective NO and YES votes to Abstain after the vote. Last year the report was adopted by a vote of 123 in favour, to 1 against (Israel), with 55 abstentions. The report was adopted by consensus in 2009.

[14] Exceptions include Honduras and Panama, who abstained.

[15] In the General Assembly, the voting patterns across regions were similar though more states voted in favour of the resolution, and less abstained (122 in favour, to 3 against, with 59 abstentions).

A/C.3/66/L.22/Rev.1 The draft resolution is available at

A/65/820–S/2011/250 available at

[18] The resolution cited specifically “[t]he Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, the Special Rapporteur on the right to education, the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography and other relevant actors”.

[19] The US, Norway on behalf of Lichtenstein and Switzerland, Poland on behalf of the EU, Costa Rica and Chile.

[20] A/C.3/65/L.32/Rev.1, available at

A/HRC/RES/16/18 available at

A/C.3/66/L.48/Rev.1 The draft resolution is available at

[23] The vote on Syria went from 122YES:13NO:41Abst in Third Committee to 133 YES:11NO:43Abst in General Assembly Plenary; The vote on Iran went from 86 YES:32NO:59Abst in Third Committee to 89YES:30NO:64Abst in General Assembly Plenary; The vote on the DPRK went from 112YES:16NO:55Abst in Third Committee to 123YES:16NO:51Abst in General Assembly Plenary.

 All country-specific draft resolutions are available at

[25] Antigua & Barbuda, Comoros, Congo, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Thailand.




If the United Nations (UN) is to effectively monitor State compliance with human rights obligations and protect victims from abuse globally, it is crucial that human rights defenders and victims of human rights violations can access and communicate with the UN freely and safely. Unfortunately, ‘free’ and ‘safe’ are not hallmarks of the experience for many defenders and victims who seek to engage with the UN. 

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