Secretary General | Step up UN response to reprisals


Faced with an increasing number of reprisals against those cooperating with or seeking to cooperate with the UN, and an inadequate response to such violations at the national and international levels, the Secretary General has announced he will step up the UN’s response across the system.

(Geneva) - In a long-awaited development, the Secretary General is set to strengthen protections for human rights defenders, witnesses, victims and others who provide vital information and testimony to the UN, and strengthen efforts to ensure accountability for those who perpetrate acts of intimidation or reprisals.

Faced with an increasing number of reprisals against those cooperating with or seeking to cooperate with the UN, and continued impunity in the vast majority of cases, the Secretary General has announced he will step up the UN’s response across the system. In his annual report to the Human Rights Council (A/HRC/33/19), Mr Ban Ki-moon notes that, in consultation with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, he ‘will make use of existing staff to take up the issue within the United Nations system and with Member States’. The cases highlighted in the report – both new and old – show how needed such action is.

‘This is a long-awaited but neverthless important and practical step by the Secretary General to ensure a more systematised, coordinated response within the UN to the scourge of reprisals’, said ISHR’s Madeleine Sinclair. ‘We strongly encourage the Secretary General to place this brief in the hands of staff at the highest levels of the UN to signal that this is an issue of the gravest concern for the United Nations.’

Expressing concern at the level of intimidation and reprisals, the Secretary General's report documents that reprisals affect individuals from all regions. They occur to those cooperating with, or seeking to cooperate with many different UN bodies and mechanisms including the Special Procedures, treaty bodies, the Human Rights Council, the UPR, and UN Commissions of Inquiry. The report also shows that reprisals take many forms, including travel bans, the issuance of arrest warrants on terrorism charges, detention and torture, surveillance, death threats, attempts to frame activists for criminal acts, defamation, and intimidation. In several cases defenders are tarnished as ‘terrorists’ or ‘traitors’, contributing to perceptions that engagement with the UN is an act of betrayal. In some cases reprisals have led to individuals fleeing their country, in others, to death.

One such case is that of Chinese human rights lawyer Cao Shunli. This case, first reported on by the Secretary General in 2014, is once again highlighted in this year’s report as one where the response of the State continues to be wholly inadequate. ‘It is of deep concern that there has not been an independent investigation into the death of Cao Sunli by the Chinese authorities or international actors. It is important that the Secretary General continues to report regularly on such cases, until it can be established that a State has responded adequately to the case and put in place measures to effectively prevent reprisals from re-occurring and to ensure justice for the victim and their family,' Ms Sinclair said. 

In the majority of the cases cited by the Secretary General, there has been no response from the government to the case.

During the period under review, there have been a number of  positive developments within the UN and regional human rights systems. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights addressed the issue of reprisals on several occasions. The President of the Human Rights Council noted that 'it is and will continue to be in our common interest to promote a culture of non-reprisals', highlighting that acts of intimidation and reprisal were taking different shapes and that social media, including Twitter, is now used as a means to intimidate human rights defenders. In addition, as of June 2016, eight of the ten human rights treaty bodies had adopted the Guidelines against Intimidation or Reprisals, known as the 'San José Guidelines' with only the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR) and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) yet to do so.    

In contrast, the Secretary General singles out the Committee on NGOs, a UN committee tasked with accrediting NGOs with consultative status with the UN, calling on the Committee to apply the criteria for assessing organisations in a fair and transparent manner and ‘to stop restricting NGO engagement’. 

‘We are pleased the Secretary General has foregrounded the negative practice of the ECOSOC Committee on NGOs in his report. Attempts to block NGOs applying for accreditation are clear cases of reprisals’, said ISHR's Eleanor Openshaw. 'We encourage the current and next Secretary General to dedicate greater attention to the practice of the NGO Committee over the next year and to include fuller recommendations on its reform in future reports.'

In other concrete commitments to improve the UN response to reprisals, the Secretary General notes that he plans to strengthen the collection of information on allegations of intimidation or reprisals by asking all parts of the UN system to report to him more regularly on such cases.   

‘The communications reports of Special Procedures to the Human Rights Council were originally annual and are now provided three times a year. We would welcome a similar periodicity for the Secretary General’s report on reprisals, thereby increasing accountability and ensuring a more timely response,’ said Ms Sinclair.

In conclusion, the Secretary General notes that the impact of reprisals is devastating to individuals and their families, but also may deter future cooperation, ultimately undermining the work of the human rights system.   

‘The chilling effect of reprisals on the willingness of human rights defenders to cooperate with the UN is something the system should be very concerned about. When defenders are put off cooperating with the UN, the system as a whole is severely undermined,’ added Ms Sinclair. 

The Secretary General calls on States to take immediate action to ensure cases of intimidation and reprisal are halted immediately and unconditionally, that effective remedies are provided and that preventive measures are adopted and implemented to prevent reoccurrence.

ISHR's full statement to the UN Human Rights Council in response to the Secretary-General's report is available in written form here and in video below:



Photo: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas


  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies