Democratic States must do more to protect democratic freedoms


Democratic States must do more to protect democratic freedoms, promote civil society participation, and prevent reprisals within multilateral institutions, writes ISHR Director Phil Lynch

By Phil Lynch, Director, International Service for Human Rights

One year ago this week I had the opportunity to speak with a group of Chinese human rights defenders in Geneva to advocate at the UN.

While I spoke with them news came through about a colleague, Cao Shunli – a Chinese human rights lawyer, pro-democracy activist and former ISHR trainee.

Cao had previously been intercepted at Beijing airport en route to Geneva where she was to participate in the UPR of China in September 2013. After being held incommunicado for eight weeks, she was then held for a further four months in a Beijing prison, during which time her health deteriorated significantly. The news was not good. Cao had slipped into a coma.

Cao’s colleagues were shocked and distressed by this news, but also undeterred in their resolve to continue their advocacy on China at the UN.

For them, the ability to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and association at the international level – rights denied at home – and to advocate for accountability and reform through human rights mechanisms – mechanisms which did not exist at home – was worth the risk.

For me, their response was a powerful reminder both of the extent of civil society repression in China, but also the faith and responsibility that human rights defenders and other civil society actors working in such repressive contexts vest in international institutions.

One week later, on 14 March 2014, having been detained and denied access to adequate medical treatment for a period of over six months, Cao Shunli died. When NGOs sought to pay tribute to her through a moment of silence in the Human Rights Council, China, together with States such as Cuba, Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia mobilised to pass a procedural motion seeking to close NGOs down.

China’s efforts to silence Cao Shunli are grimly exemplary of the efforts of many States to silence dissent and restrict civil society participation and space, both at home and at the UN. Paradoxically, those very efforts also demonstrate the importance and impact of civil society engagement at the UN.

One year on from Cao’s passing, there has been no adequate investigation or accountability in relation to her death, either within China or internationally. Manifestly, more needs to be done to prevent reprisals and to ensure accountability and justice where they occur.

I recall that story to illustrate three key issues.

First, the importance and the impact of the work of NGOs and human rights defenders within the Human Rights Council and the UN more broadly. Second, the threats and challenges that they frequently face in association with this work. And third, the role that democratic states do and could play to strengthen NGO participation and protection.

Importance and impact of NGOs at the Human Rights Council

NGOs play a vital role at the Human Rights Council, assisting to put both thematic issues and country situations on the agenda, to provide vital information about the human rights situation on the ground, and to represent and give voice to the experiences, violations and demands of rights holders and victims.

NGOs also play a vital role in assisting to implement, and monitoring the implementation of, the decisions, recommendations and resolutions of the Council – together with the treaty bodies, Special Procedures and Universal Periodic Review – at the national level.

To give one example, NGOs such as Amnesty International, FORUM-ASIA, Human Rights Watch and ISHR played a vital role over almost five years in pushing the Council and its Members to conduct an inquiry into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka. Following the mandating of such an inquiry in 2014, those NGOs provided vital support to victims, their families and witnesses to give evidence and testimony.

NGOs played a similar role in pushing for a commission of inquiry into the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea, with Human Rights Watch, ISHR and others supporting escapees from labour and prison camps to give the Human Rights Council a first-hand account of the atrocities witnessed and experienced in those gulags. Ultimately, this led to a referral of the human rights situation in North Korea to the Security Council.

Threats and risks faced by NGOs and human rights defenders

Regrettably, such work is not without major risk. Human rights defenders and their organisations frequently facing acts of intimidation and reprisal for their work to expose and seek accountability for human rights violations through the Human Rights Council and the broader UN.

Such acts of intimidation and reprisal range from defamation and smear campaigns, to arbitrary arrest and detention, to disappearances and even death.

In the last few months alone, human rights defenders from Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Russia and Sri Lanka, who have submitted information or otherwise sought to cooperate with the Council or its mechanisms, have experienced threats and attacks. The High Commissioner noted this trend with concern during his opening statement to the current 28th session of the Human Rights Council when he said, ‘in recent months I have been disturbed deeply by the reprisals and smear campaigns that are all too frequently exercised against representatives of civil society, including those who engage with the Council and its bodies’.

The case of Cao Shunli is one of the most egregious cases, but it is certainly not isolated, with the incidence and severity of reprisals worsening.

Democratic States must do more

Against this backdrop, I’m pleased to advise that many States do play an active and positive role in supporting NGOs and human rights defenders at the Human Rights Council and within the UN human rights system more broadly.

States like Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, the UK and the US provide substantial diplomatic and financial support to NGOs. They frequently take the floor to defend challenges to NGO statements and participation, and consult closely with NGOs in the development of positions and resolutions, such as in relation to the protection of civil society space, and the right to peaceful protest.

There is always scope to do more, however, and much more could be done by like-minded democratic States from all regions both to prevent and promote accountability for reprisals and to lead action by the Council on country situations where human rights defenders and civil society organisations are under attack.

In the case of reprisals, I would call on such States to make strong public and private representations, both in a bilateral and multilateral context, to push for proper investigation and accountability, and to follow up on action taken. We need to increase the political cost of committing reprisals if we are to reduce their incidence and intensity.

In the case of country action at the Human Rights Council, States such as Canada, the UK and the US should be congratulated for their concerted push to promote accountability and support civil society in Sri Lanka. EU States deserve credit for their work to promote freedom of expression, association and assembly through a resolution on Burma. And Switzerland should be acknowledged for its role in shining the spotlight of the Council on Bahrain, where human rights defenders are routinely imprisoned and ill-treated for exercising basic democratic rights and freedoms.

Much more needs to be done, however, on more countries and by more countries. States such as Azerbaijan, China, Egypt, Russia and Saudi Arabia – all States in which civil society faces existential threats – are simply not on the Human Rights Council’s main agenda and they should be. It is imperative that democratic States speak out to condemn attacks and restrictions on human rights defenders in such States and not self-censor or become mute because of the perceived economic, political or security costs.

Cao Shunli risked and paid with her life to stand up for the human rights of others. Democratic States should be prepared to risk and pay much more to protect the basic human rights of brave people like her.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered to the Community of Democracies at the Permanent Mission of Canada in Geneva on 4 March 2015.

Phil Lynch is Director of the International Service for Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter: @PhilALynch


  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • Human rights defenders
  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • United Nations
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • Australia
  • Azerbaijan
  • Bahrain
  • Canada
  • China
  • Denmark
  • Egypt
  • Myanmar
  • Netherlands
  • North Korea
  • Norway
  • Pakistan
  • Russia
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Sri Lanka
  • Switzerland
  • United Kingdom
  • United States