13 Feb

A Sudanese refugee activist held in the Australian immigration detention and processing system for over five years, Abdul Aziz Muhamat, is the 2019 Martin Ennals Award Laureate. He was among three finalists, selected by a jury of ten of the world’s leading human rights organisations, together with Marino Cordoba Berrio (Colombia) and Eren Keskin (Turkey). The three of them were honoured today during a ceremony organised by the City of Geneva.

02 Feb

120 independent Venezuelan NGOs are urging the UN to ensure its agencies operating in the country keep the promotion and protection of human rights to the fore in their work.

30 Jan

ISHR joined today with over 36 organisations to launch a call on governments to adopt a resolution addressing human rights in China, with particular focus on Uyghur and other ethnic minority regions. This is the first time in over a decade that an organised effort has been made to use the Human Rights Council to seek access and lay the groundwork for accountability for violations in the country.

28 Jan

A credible, accessible and effective Human Rights Council is vital to promote and protect human rights and to hold perpetrators to account for violations, wherever they occur. ISHR presents below a blueprint for States with recommendations to some of the key issues the Human Rights Council will and should address in 2019. 

29 Jan

After over 1,200 days in incommunicado detention, Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang has been sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment. Trials have been held, and sentences handed down, for other high-profile cases recently. Efforts to cross these pending cases off the list ahead of the March session of the Human Rights Council are 'not a coincidence', says ISHR. 

Opinion: "Reprisals against human rights defenders must stop"


By Remigiusz Achilles Henczel, President of the Human Rights Council

In my inaugural statement delivered on 10 December 2012 on the occasion of my election as the Human Rights Council’s President for 2013 I stressed the vital role played by civil society and national human rights institutions in enriching the Council’s work and exposing it to a vigilant reality check.

Indeed, civil society’s ongoing and strong engagement is of the utmost importance not only for the Council, but also for the whole UN human rights promotion and protection system. This special role is widely recognized in a number of the UN documents, including the Council’s founding resolution 60/251. As stipulated in this resolution the Council shall work in cooperation with Governments, regional organizations, national human rights institutions and civil society.

Civil society and national human rights institutions are essential in providing the Council with reliable and updated information directly from the ground. Without this information, the Council would not be as effective given its reliance on information provided by civil society. One ought not forget civil society’s engagement in the daily Council’s work through its participation in general debates, panels and informal consultations either. During my term as the Human Rights Council’s President, I will remain deeply committed to ensuring the fullest possible participation of civil society in the Council.

In that context, any instances of reprisals against persons or groups cooperating with UN mechanisms are unacceptable and must end. They not only violate human rights, but also undermine the UN human rights protection system, which in its work relies to a large extent on information provided by civil society and human rights defenders. All alleged cases of reprisals should be investigated without any delay and perpetrators should be brought to justice. It is the responsibility of the international community, particularly the Human Rights Council and the UN treaty bodies, to address this problem in a swift and effective manner. Building on the experience of my predecessor, Ambassador Laura Dupuy Lasserre from Uruguay, I will continue to speak out strongly against any cases of reprisals, particularly if they happen here in Geneva.

I shall count on civil society’s support and cooperation over the course of this year.

Human Rights Council must take an unequivocal stand against traditional values


(Geneva - 18 March 2013) - The UN’s peak human rights body must unequivocally clarify that under no circumstances can human rights be restricted to protect so-called ‘traditional values’, the International Service for Human Rights said today.

‘Traditional values often impose patriarchal, mono-cultural norms that discriminate against minority and marginalised individuals, be they indigenous people, persons with a disability, individuals with a non-conforming gender identity, or religious minorities’, said Heather Collister of ISHR. 

‘The Human Rights Council’s own expert advisory body has clearly set out that States have a responsibility to take sustained and systematic action to eliminate stereotypes and negative, harmful and discriminatory practices justified by traditional values’, Ms Collister said.

According to Ms Collister, the traditional values agenda represents one of the biggest threats to the implementation of universal human rights standards today.

‘The traditional values agenda is often promoted as one of inclusivity – it is far from being so. Instead traditional values are used by those who want to maintain the status quo at the expense of marginalised and disenfranchised groups’, Ms Collister said.

The traditional values agenda has been gaining increased traction at the Council and elsewhere. The Commission on the Status of Women has just ended in New York with difficult negotiations towards the adoption of an outcome document, including attempts by the Holy See, Iran, and Russia to remove language asserting that religion, custom, and tradition cannot be used as an excuse by governments to avoid their human rights obligations.

Meanwhile at the Council, Egypt together with cosponsors including the Russian Federation, last week tabled a resolution on ‘the protection of the family’, a clear attempt to promote one ‘traditional’ form of the family over others. Latin American and Western States emphasised that any resolution on the family must take account of the varied forms that family can take.

Ms Collister said, ‘The Human Rights Council, as the world’s peak human rights body, has a responsibility to ensure that it does not promote an agenda that further marginalises and harms vulnerable groups. The Council must take a strong stand for the universality of human rights and make clear that the notion of ‘traditional values’ has no place within the universal human rights framework.’

ISHR’s statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council is available here

Contact: Heather Collister +41 79 920 3805 •

UN adopts landmark resolution on protection of human rights defenders


(Geneva - 21 March 2013) - The use and abuse of national law to impair, restrict and criminalise the work of human rights defenders is a contravention of international law and must end, according to a landmark resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council today.

The resolution, which was led by Norway and adopted by consensus, calls on all states to support the work of human rights defenders and to protect them from harassment, threats and attacks.

'The work of human rights defenders is essential to uphold democracy and the rule of law,' said Michael Ineichen of the International Service for Human Rights.

Introducing the resolution, Norway's Ambassador to the UN, Steffen Kongstad, said he was 'gravely concerned by the serious nature of risks faced by human rights defenders' and called on all states to 'facilitate their work' and ensure it is not 'criminalised or stigmatised'.

'A safe and enabling environment for the work of human rights defenders should be a fundamental objective of any society,' Ambassador Kongstad said.

ISHR's Michael Ineichen welcomed the resolution and praised Norway's leadership on its development. ISHR was closely involved with the development of the text, spearheading input from human rights defenders from around the world.

'The adoption of this resolution is a strong response from the world's peak human rights body to an alarming global growth in the enactment and abuse of laws to restrict human rights activism,’ said Mr Ineichen.

'The resolution is a clear affirmation that national law must conform with international human rights law. The resolution demands the amendment of national laws which target human rights defenders, including laws which restrict NGOs from receiving foreign funding, which criminalise "homosexual propaganda", or which limit freedom of expression or assembly on discriminatory grounds.'

Mr Ineichen highlighted that the resolution is consistent with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, both of which impose legal obligations on states to protect human rights defenders and ensure that any limitations on their activities are strictly necessary, reasonable and proportionate.

Contact: Michael Ineichen, International Service for Human Rights, on or +41 78 827 7786

Council considers effectiveness of technical assistance provided to States


As part of the Council’s consideration of need for and effectiveness of its provision of technical assistance and capacity building support to States, the Independent Experts on Haiti and Côte d’Ivoire presented their annual reports to the Council. A report from the High Commissioner on the situation in Libya was also presented. The discussion reflected on progress made in the States, highlighted certain issues that remained outstanding, and left room for thoughts on possible ways to improve the provision of technical assistance in the future.

Progress through effective technical assistance

There was praise during the discussion for the effective way in which Libya and Côte d’Ivoire had engaged in technical cooperation, and the resulting improvements in the promotion and protection of human rights. Particularly with regard to Côte d’Ivoire several States mentioned the very effective reconciliation initiatives it had undertaken in cooperation with the Independent Expert on the situation in the country. However, despite the enthusiasm there was consensus that various challenges still had to be faced, in particular with regard to impunity for human rights violators and the fairness of the justice system. Côte d’Ivoire identified its low financial capacity as one major obstacle for further progress.

Human rights challenges still remain

While some States were praised for their progress, concerns were expressed about the fragile human rights situations in further countries considered. In this context, the case of Haiti was highlighted. The country still faces enormous problems, despite its continued engagement with the Council’s mechanisms. As in Côte d’Ivoire, the impunity enjoyed by human rights violators was identified as one major problem. The role of civil society in assisting States such as Haiti to make best use of technical assistance was raised as one possible area to explore further.

No cooperation without true efforts

The crucial importance of the will to cooperate with the Council if the technical assistance provided is to contribute to improving the human rights situation on the ground was a point made by several States. The United States in particular emphasised that while technical cooperation could provide significant benefits, if the will of the State was not engaged then these benefits would not result. Sudan, for instance, continues to undermine political freedoms and recently prohibited access of humanitarian aid to North Darfur. The United States urged the Council to provide technical support only to States that were willing to corporate, and to take actions against those who did not, stressing that genuine cooperation is fundamental if the Council is to be fully informed of the needs of the States and provide appropriate assistance.

Adoption of resolutions

The Council adopted by consensus resolutions continuing the international community’s provision of support to Haiti, Mali, and Libya. In the case of Mali, the Council established the post of an Independent Expert to provide dedicated support to the State to implement the recommendations coming from the Council. The Independent Expert will also inform the Council on progress made in the State. Particular emphasis is placed on the need to provide technical assistance to enable Mali to introduce judicial reforms through possible transitional justice mechanisms.

The Libyan resolution welcomes steps taken by Libya to address human rights concerns, including the drawing up of a national plan of action on human rights in cooperation with the High Commissioner. It draws particular attention to challenges in the areas of security, respect for the rule of law, and transitional justice. The High Commissioner is requested to continue her office’s provision of technical assistance and to report back to the Council on the progress made in this respect and needs identified. Contrary to demands made by human rights defenders from Libya, no broad human rights monitoring mandate is given to the High Commissioner.

Haiti expressed its gratitude to States who had drafted the text on its own situation, which extends the mandate of the Independent Expert for one year and encourages the mandate holder to work with NGOs and civil society organisations.

Heather Collister is a Human Rights Officer and Alena Jabarine is an Intern with the International Service for Human Rights. To follow developments at the Human Rights Council as they happen, follow us on Twitter: @ISHRglobal.

Key developments at the 22nd session of the Human Rights Council


Resolution on peaceful protests includes reference to specific threats faced by women defenders

Important language on women human rights defenders was included in a resolution on peaceful protests adopted unanimously by the Council. During negotiations on the text, this language had been deleted by the main sponsors, Switzerland, in the face of objections from some States. However, after numerous cosponsors expressed their disappointment on this amendment, the phrase on women human rights defenders was reinserted, acknowledging that the specific threats faced by women in the context of peaceful protests.  At the vote, Switzerland stated that the resolution calls for all States to foster a safe environment for the exercise of freedom of expression by all groups, in particular by ensuring that domestic legislation is in line with international human rights obligations. The resolution also calls for a seminar to be held on best practices for the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests.

Egypt postpones its overly narrow resolution on protection of the family

Consideration of a last-minute tabled resolution on the protection of the family was ultimately postponed by the lead State, Egypt. The announcement came after Latin American and EU States gathered support amongst Council members for possible amendments to the text. Those amendments would have responded to NGOs’ concerns that the resolution did not ensure respect for the rights of all individuals in different forms of families (including one parent families, families headed by children orphaned by HIV, or war).The controversial draft text called for a panel discussion on ‘protection of the family’ with the goal of addressing the obligations of States in this regard, and despite its postponement, can be expected to resurface at future sessions of the Council.

Council calls for Sri Lanka to make good on its committment to accountability

The latest US-led resolution on Sri Lanka was adopted with 25 votes in favour, 13 against, and 8 abstentions, in the face of strongly expressed opposition from Sri Lanka to the ‘disproportionate’ and ‘unwarranted’ attention to the situation in the country. India, however, voted in favour of the resolution, urging Sri Lanka to take measures to ensure accountability to the satisfaction of the international community, while Sierra Leone said it was ‘compelled’ to vote in favour of the resolution, on the basis of its own experience with civil war and its belief that the resolution serves the purpose of meaningful accountability and reconciliation.  

Cuba continues attempts to create Council oversight of OHCHR

During voting on a resolution on the regional balance of staff within the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Cuba, the lead State, dismissed claims that it is not the Council’s place to take up this subject. It also denied that the purpose of the resolution is to undermine the independence of OHCHR. The US and Ireland clearly set out that member States of the Council have no role in instructing OHCHR on its staffing. Despite such long standing concerns, the resolution was adopted with 31 votes in favour, 15 against, and 1 abstention.

Council establishes Commission of Inquiry into the situation in DPRK

The Council unanimously agreed to establish a commission of inquiry for a period of one year to investigate the human rights situation in the Democratic Republic of Korea, to ensure accountability including for crimes against humanity. The creation of the commission comes after the Special Rapporteur on the situation in the country, who has not been granted entry, recommended such a mechanism as a means to carry out more comprehensive investigations into the violations ongoing in the country, attribute responsibility, and make recommendations for effective action to the international community. The DPRK made clear its ‘resolute resentment’ at the ‘political’ resolution.

Syria, Iran comdemn Council's focus on their countries

The extension of the commission on inquiry into the situation in Syria for 12 months, and of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur of the situation in Iran, saw confrontational responses by the countries concerned. Iran stated that the focus on itself was selective and a result of politicised motives, while Syria described the resolution on its own situation as an ‘abuse of the Council’s authority’. These reactions were echoed by other States, including Ecuador and Venezuela. The latter describing such initiatives as an attack on sovereignty and as ‘imperialist’. Venezuela was the only State to vote against the resolution on Syrian, with Ecuador joining Kazakhstan, India, the Philippines, and Uganda in abstaining. The resolution on Iran was adopted with 26 in favour, 2 against (Venezuela and Pakistan), and 17 abstentions.

Council holds its annual discussion on technical cooperation

The Human Rights Council held its annual discussion on technical cooperation, under the theme of promoting technical cooperation for the strengthening of the judicial system and the administration of justice in order to ensure human rights and the rule of law. The United States said that the key to success is that each technical cooperation programme must be as unique as the society and people it is designed to assist. Japan and Indonesia emphasised that the provision of technical assistance and capacity building should be based on close consultation with, and the consent of, the States concerned, taking into account their needs and respecting their ownership of the process. There was no conversation about establishing indicators and benchmarks to measure the results of technical assistance efforts.

ISHR's achievements at the Human Rights Council's 22nd session


The 22nd session of the Human Rights Council saw ISHR pursuing its goals to promote and protect human rights around the world by supporting human rights defenders and strengthening human rights systems.

The session was one of the most successful ever, with a landmark resolution on the protection of human rights defenders being adopted by consensus, the prevention of efforts to undermine universality of human rights through regressive appeals to ‘traditional values’, and steps towards accountability in Sri Lanka, Syria, and North Korea.

For ISHR, many of these outcomes marked the achievement of the advocacy goals we set for the session.

Supporting human rights defenders, including women human rights defenders

The adoption of a landmark text on human rights defenders, ably led through negotiations by Norway, marked many months of hard work and engagement by ISHR. Alongside working to spearhead input into the text from human rights defenders around the world, ISHR’s own expertise on the subject of human rights defenders enabled us to provide Norway with advice and support throughout the resolution negotiations.

The resulting resolution calls for an end to the use and abuse of national law to impair, restrict, and criminalise the work of human rights defenders, noting that this is in contravention of international law. All States are called upon to support the work of human rights defenders and to protect them from harassment, threats, and attacks.

Crucially, both this text and a text on the protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests, include reference to the specific threats faced by women human rights defenders.

One of ISHR’s advocacy goals is to ensure that human rights laws and mechanisms protect women human rights defenders, in recognition of the specific vulnerability that women human rights defenders face, something made even more apparent during events of the ‘Arab Spring’. As a result of ISHR’s championing of this issue, lead States ensured that the final texts include this important reference to the particular vulnerability of women defenders and the need for States to pay particular attention to the protection of women.

The Council adopted both resolutions by consensus.

Responding to threats of regress to the universality of human rights

ISHR continued to call for the Council to unequivocally clarify that under no circumstances can human rights be restricted to protect so called ‘traditional values’.

It became apparent at this session, however, that the push to promote a ‘traditional values’ agenda is by no means slowing down. Not least, Egypt presented a draft text on ‘protection of the family’. This text was met with grave concern by human rights defenders who felt that it represented neither the diversity of family forms nor the rights of particular individuals within the family.

Conveying our concerns to States, ISHR highlighted the dangers that such a resolution could pose if not well-framed to ensure protection of all individuals’ human rights. Following sustained advocacy by a coalition of NGOs as well as concerned States, Egypt ultimately announced its decision to postpone consideration of the text.

ISHR will continue to work to develop strategic ways to respond to this issue, both in this particular case, with Egypt likely to re-introduce the text at the June 2013 Council session, but also the general ‘traditional values’ agenda.

Conducting advocacy to develop and strengthen human rights laws and mechanisms to prevent and respond to reprisals

ISHR’s longstanding efforts to urge States to take steps to protect human rights defenders from reprisals continued as we rallied States to join their voices to a Hungarian-led statement condemning reprisals. 54 States endorsed this statement, sending a strong signal that the Council is expected to act on this issue, and that political momentum towards a stronger response is building.

ISHR campaigned to have this statement delivered, and success ensured that the issue remained high on the Council’s agenda in anticipation of the adoption of a further resolution at the September 2013 session of the Council.

ISHR has been in the lead on advocacy calling for the systematic address acts of reprisal within both the UN and regional systems. At UN level, this includes coordination within the framework of the UPR, treaty bodies, and special procedures, and for more coordination among these mechanisms, a call that was endorsed in the joint statement. States specifically called on the Council to react to, and follow up on, cases of reprisal that are brought to its attention. More broadly, ISHR has also pushed for consistent approaches of the UN and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights.

The statement anticipates a further resolution on reprisals, to be led by Hungary at the September session of the Council. ISHR will continue to work closely with Hungary and other States to push for a systematic response from the Council to reprisals, to prevent and protect against reprisals, and ensure accountability for defenders who suffer reprisals.

Contact: Michael Ineichen

Council Alert: Human Rights Council action due on sexual orientation and gender identity


States will gather in Geneva in one month for the Human Rights Council’s 23rd session, to be held from 27 May – 14 June. High on the agenda, and likely to be the subject of considerable controversy, will be how the Council should follow up to its 2011 resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity. The issues of business and its impact on human rights, violence against women, and the freedoms of assembly, association and expression will also receive considerable attention, with experts reporting to the Council on key developments in these areas. The Council's programme of work for the session can be accessed here once available.

Sexual orientation and gender identity

In 2011 South Africa led the first resolutoin ever adopted by the Council on sexual orientation and gender identity. Two years later follow-up to this resolution is an urgent requirement, to ensure it does not fall off the Council’s agenda. With this in mind, a series of regional meetings have been held, in Kathmandu, Brasilia, Banjul and Paris, with the aim of identifying the challenges faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons (LGBT), and to discuss what tools would be the most useful for an effective response. A meeting in Olso earlier this month brought together the findings of those regional meetings, and key among the conclusions was the need for the UN to create a mechanism to systematise attention on violations and discrimination against LGBT people.

On such a sensitive issue, the creation of an expert mechanism charged with regular reporting to the Council on developments in the area of LGBT rights would be a huge achievement. It remains to be seen whether South Africa will choose to pursue this goal at the coming session. It is noteworthy, however, that the political composition is the most favourable it has ever been on this issue. ISHR will be engaging closely around this issue, with the goal of ensuring that the UN, including its main human rights body, give sustained attention to and undertake concrete efforts to ending discrimination and violence on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, and ensuring human rights for all.

Violence against women

Women’s rights will receive attention at this session, with the special rapporteur on violence against women presenting her latest report to States, a report from the Working Group on discrimination against women in law and practice, and a whole day discussion on women’s rights.  

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will also present for discussion a report that examines ways to link the mechanisms of the Council with other relevant intergovernmental processes on the issue of violence against women and girls. Amongst other recommendations the report notes the importance of ensuring that violence against women is adequately addressed in Council resolutions, both country specific and thematic, a goal ISHR pursues in the particular context of violence against women human rights defenders. The report also calls on the General Assembly to ensure that relevant Council experts such as the expert on violence against women, and the working group on discrimination against women in law and practice, are included in its thematic work and debates.

Threats to universality

Following on from Egypt’s aborted attempt at the last session of the Council to have a resolution on ‘protection of the family’ adopted by member States, it is likely that this issue will come up again in next month’s session. The last resolution was worryingly narrow, failing to acknowledge that, while the family is important, the rights of individual members of the family must not be subsumed to the family as a group. The resolution also did not take into account that families can take many forms, and a so-called ‘traditional family’ of husband, wife, and children excludes myriad other cases such as orphaned children being raised by guardians, or one-parent families. As at the last session, ISHR will engage around such initiatives with a view to preserving and bolstering universal human rights standards.

Business and human rights

With the endorsement, in 2011, by the Council of the ‘guiding principles on business and human rights’, attention has shifted to the implementation of these standards. At this session the working group on business and human rights (composed of five experts from different regions of the world) will present its latest update on implementation of the principles. The experts particularly recommend that States protect human rights defenders from harassment, persecution or reprisals when they seek to access remedies for human rights abuses in connection with corporate activities. The experts noted that they had received many reports of defenders being harassed and persecuted in situations of conflict between businesses and local communities, including instances of arbitrary detention, threats, violence and killings, targeting by armed groups, disappearances, and restrictions of the freedoms of assembly and expression. The experts stress that they are keen to continue to receive such information as they develop recommendations to States, businesses and other actors.

A panel will also be organised with UN programmes and agencies during the session to examine how the United Nations system can contribute towards advancing this agenda.

Since its last report the members of the working group carried out their first country visit to Mongolia, and they will update the Council on the recommendations made. The Council will also hear a report back from the 2012 forum on business and human rights, where the need to protect the human rights of defenders was also discussed. ISHR will work towards ensuring that future work of the Forum and the Working Group give meaning to the rhetoric of concern about human rights defenders working on corporate accountability by including specific focus on their work and the specific violations and threats they face.

Country situations and other issues

Other debates of interest include those on peaceful assembly and association, and freedom of expression, with the Council’s experts on both these issues presenting their reports, while for country situations, the experts on Belarus, Eritrea, the Occupied Palestinian territories and Cote d’Ivoire will update States on the latest situation. The mandates on Belarus, Eritrea, Cote d’Ivoire, and Somalia are all up for renewal at this session.

Contact: Michael Ineichen,
ISHR will provide regular updates in the run-up to the 23rd session of the Human Rights Council and throughout the session on and @ISHRglobal.
Photo: ©Human RIghts Council Archive Photo

UN Human Rights Council must act to protect human rights defenders


(Geneva - 27 May 2013) – The UN Human Rights Council must act to protect human rights defenders, said the International Service for Human Rights as the 23rd session of the Council starts in Geneva today.

‘The work of human rights defenders – including journalists, lawyers and advocates – is crucial to uphold human rights and the rule of law,’ said ISHR Director Phil Lynch.

‘Despite this, around the world we witness an increase in attacks and reprisals against human rights defenders, together with an expansion of laws which restrict and impair the work of non-government organisations,’ Mr Lynch said.

The killing of independent journalists in Sri Lanka, the enactment of so-called ‘homosexual propaganda laws’ in the Ukraine, and restrictions on access to foreign funding for NGOs in Russia, Ethiopia and Egypt are all examples of this trend.

In addition to being alarmed by restrictions and reprisals, ISHR is concerned that selective appeals to culture, religion and ‘traditional values’ are being used to undermine the work of women human rights defenders and those working on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.

ISHR’s concerns are shared by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navi Pillay, who will today tell the Council that it is ‘particularly depressing to observe policy debates and legislative measures – in many countries, across all regions – which may severely undermine non-governmental organisations that are vital to the healthy functioning of democracy.’

In her statement Ms Pillay will tell assembled diplomats that, ‘civil society remains vital to advancing the human rights agenda, both at the national level and internationally, and I must speak out to warn you of the real setbacks to human rights protection that will follow if civil society is threatened or restricted.’

Welcoming Ms Pillay’s remarks Mr Lynch said, ‘In March the Human Rights Council adopted a landmark resolution on protecting human rights defenders. It was co-sponsored by 77 States and adopted by consensus. We must close the gap between what States commit to here in Geneva and the reality of their laws and policies on the ground.’

The resolution on human rights defenders urges States ‘to create a safe and enabling environment in which human rights defenders can operate free from hindrance and insecurity’ and calls on States to review and amend legislation affecting human rights defenders to ensure compliance with international human rights law.

‘If Council is to fulfil its mandate of “promoting universal respect human rights”, and if Member States are to meet the requirements of “upholding the highest standards in human rights”’ and “fully cooperating with the Council”, it is imperative that this resolution is observed and fully implemented at the national level,’ Mr Lynch said.

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

Contact: Phil Lynch, Director, International Service for Human Rights, on or + 41 76 708 4738.

Syria top of the Council’s agenda at opening session


The situation in Syria dominated the opening session of the 23rd Human Rights Council. The UN’s human rights chief, High Commissioner Ms Navi Pillay, urged States to take ‘tangible action to stop escalating bloodshed and suffering in Syria’. Ms Pillay expressed her deepest concern at the current situation in Al Qusayr where hundreds of civilians have been injured or killed by indiscriminate shelling and aerial attacks by Government forces. Once again, she urged the Security Council to refer the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court and reminded the international community of its responsibility to protect civilian populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Later in the session, at the request of Qatar, Turkey, and the US, an urgent debate was held on the situation in Syria, in particular in Al Qusayr. While there was general support both for Ms Pillay’s remarks and the request for an urgent debate, some States, including Venezuela, Cuba, and Syria itself, criticised the focus on this issue, with Syria claiming that there are more important issues to discuss.

Ms Pillay expressed particular distress at the fact that the violence continued unchecked in this 20th year anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA). Member States in Vienna had made ‘powerful statements about the struggle against impunity’ in the context of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. While she noted progress in this area, in the case of Syria, she said, ‘we in the international community are failing to meet our fundamental obligations to the victims’.

Ms Pillay underlined the crucial role that civil society played in developing the VDPA. She described it as ‘particularly depressing’ that today policy measures were being enacted across all regions that could severely undermine the ability of non-governmental organisations to carry out their work. She expressed concern too at continuing reports of reprisals against human rights defenders.

Her comments were echoed by many States. The US drew attention to the Russian NGO law that requires NGOs to register as ‘foreign agents’ if they receive funding from abroad, and a draft law in Egypt that would also restrict NGO operations. The US urged the Governments of Russia and Egypt to consult with civil society on this type of legislation and to guarantee the right to freedom of association.

Norway expressed particular concern about systematic discrimination and violence faced by women human rights defenders and those working on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. It called for States’ attention and guidance from the Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) on how a gender perspective can be integrated into efforts to create a safe and enabling environment for the defence of human rights. Norway also noted the high number of submissions to the working group on business and human rights relating to harassment, persecution and reprisals faced by human rights defenders. In this context Norway called for the speedy implementation of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, including by protecting human rights defenders working in this area.

Chile, adding its voice to the concerns around restrictive NGO legislation, also joined Ms Pillay in reminding States that the international community committed itself 20 years ago in Vienna to advancing a pluralist civil society and that States need to guarantee security to human rights defenders.

Ms Pillay drew attention to the work that OHCHR has done in achieving progress in societies in transition. She pointed to the now well-established country office in Tunisia, which has contributed to a national dialogue in the country involving all key elements of society. In contrast, she noted that in several other States in the region there has been a failure to include a wide range of actors from civil society in a constructive and respectful dialogue.

Ireland on behalf of the EU also commended the country office in Tunisia, but questioned why there had been no progress towards establishing an office in Egypt. It also called on Bahrain and Myanmar to establish country presences, noting in the case of the latter that a country office with full mandate could assist the Government to address its human rights challenges, including in Rakhine State. Pakistan, on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), joined the High Commissioner in strongly urging the Government of Myanmar to take resolute steps to stop violence and resolve this long-standing issue.

The US noted challenges to the independence of OHCHR and called for all States to cooperate with and facilitate visits from OHCHR, to ensure that it can continue to provide its technical assistance and expertise to States. Further, while Norway too commended the High Commissioner and her office for efforts to follow up on the mandates given to her by the Council, it also highlighted the uncertain financial situation of the office, and proposed that the 20th anniversary of the VDPA to be used as an opportunity to establish a sustainable economic based for ‘a strong and effective office, capable of facing the challenges of the next decades’.

Heather Collister is a Program Manager and Ana Kapelet is an Intern with the International Service for Human Rights

Council must denounce rape and other forms of sexual violence against women defenders


Sexual violence against women is pervasive in our societies. When directed against a woman human rights defender, it has a particular potency.

Women defenders are attacked for both who they are and what they do. Sexual violence against women defenders aims at intimidating and overpowering them as women. It also aims at crushing what they represent – the dismissal of traditional, subordinate roles for women, and the assertion of rights in the public and political space. Acts of sexual violence against women defenders are not isolated incidents but are facilitated by a broader social order that seeks to keep women on the margins.

Frequently the experience of women defenders foreshadows what other women may experience. Their visibility can make them vulnerable. Impunity in cases of rape against women defenders encourages sexual violence as a repressive tactic against the population more broadly. Impunity is further embedded as women defenders frequently don’t report cases of sexual assault for fear they won’t be taken seriously or because the authorities themselves were involved in the attack. Furthermore, taboos around sexual violence, create a dual stigmatisation which adversely affects women defenders’ ability to seek justice and protection.

Sexual violence, including rape, is used against women defenders in many different contexts. During demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Cairo, commemorating the second anniversary of the January 25th revolution, women defenders were sexually assaulted and raped, including with the use of metal rods. Parliamentarians were later to imply that women that attended such a demonstration were not ‘decent’ women.

The Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition has documented several cases of sexual violence, including a case in Iran where a woman defender was raped by a State official, whilst being held in solitary confinement. The condition placed on her being moved from solitary confinement to the public prison was that she agree not to report the rape to the prison doctor.

Sexual attacks, and the threat of such violence, is a tactic commonly used against lesbian and bisexual defenders. Rape is supposedly designed to ‘cure’ the woman of her homosexuality. It is used to compel her back in line with both heternormative and patriarchal norms. It is an attempt to silence her activism. The Coalition documented a case in Uganda where, following a series of threats of sexual assault, a woman defender was forced to move house for her own safety.

In militarised contexts, sexual violence can be used against women as a means to assert or reassert particular social and political orders, with women defenders as visible targets. In conflict situations, rape is a common tactic against those who raise awareness about state and non-state perpetrators of sexual violence.

Important steps are being taken by international and regional human rights bodies to confirm women’s right to defend rights without fear or attack. For example, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights recently handed down its first decision confirming the duty of States to protect women from violence. The risk of experiencing sexual violence faced by women defenders has also been acknowledged by mechanisms of the Human Rights Council and by other UN bodies, including recently by the Commission on the Status of Women.

The Human Rights Council must continue to focus attention on the issue. With a resolution on violence against women led by Canada due to be considered at the current 23rd session, the Council must denounce the use of rape and all forms of sexual violence against women, including women human rights defenders, perpetrated by State and non-state actors. States must redouble efforts to prevent such violence; and to ensure appropriate redress and the provision of gender-specific medical and counseling services to victims of sexual violence.

All women have the right to claim and defend rights without fear of sexual violence. States must effectively challenge the structural discrimination and violence that facilitate these most egregious attacks against women including in their legitimate and crucial work to advance human rights in our communities.


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