OHCHR’s work on reprisals

By supporting the Secretary-General and Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, OHCHR leads UN efforts to prevent and address intimidation and reprisals against those who cooperate with the UN.

What is the role of the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights?

In 2016, the Secretary-General announced that he had designated the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights to lead the efforts within the UN system to address intimidation and reprisals. These build on and complement existing efforts by UN actors, and include strengthened engagement with Member States and other key interlocutors.

Andrew Gilmour first served in this role (2016-2019), followed by Ilze Brands Kehris (2020-present).

The Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, with the support of OHCHR, engages with the United Nations system, Member States and other stakeholders to improve the collection of information on such abuses, and identify good practices, challenges and opportunities. He or she also advises the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner how to ensure coordinated and strengthened UN system-wide action to prevent and address reprisals.

The Assistant Secretary-General focuses on the following areas to:

  • Develop and implement a more comprehensive system to prevent and address intimidation and reprisals throughout the UN system, including by providing guidance as well as improving and coordinating the UN response;
  • Enhance high-level engagement on reprisals, including on how to prevent reprisals, and ensuring action on urgent cases. This is pursued through a constructive dialogue with all stakeholders, in particular with Member States and civil society;
  • Ensure cooperation with all actors involved. Recognizing and welcoming ongoing activities by various actors on reprisals, the work of the Assistant Secretary-General is integrated into, complements and strengthens efforts already underway

Why is the issue of reprisals important for the UN?

The UN – and particularly its human rights bodies and mechanisms supported/serviced by OHCHR– relies on the cooperation of the people it serves. Individuals and groups engaging with the UN provide valuable on-the-ground insights and information, alert the UN system to evolving situations, and push for relevant action to be taken.

The freedom to engage with the UN is a basic exercise of fundamental freedoms and human rights of all, and must be respected and protected. When those engaging with the UN face intimidation, threats, imprisonment and worse for doing so, we all lose, and the credibility of the UN is damaged. The UN as a whole has a collective responsibility to stop and prevent these reprehensible acts.

In 2016, the Secretary-General publicly noted his concern over the increase in reprisals and intimidation against people cooperating with the UN on human rights, stating the following:

“Such acts undermine the effectiveness and credibility of the UN, and are an attack on the Organization itself. These courageous individuals are often our only eyes and ears in extremely tough environments – and we owe them our best possible support.”

- Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, Press conference

How is the UN system addressing reprisals?

"More than ever, this issue should be a priority and a core responsibility of the Organization. I reiterate my call on all United Nations entities to be vigilant and engaged on this issue."

-UN Secretary-General, A/HRC/42/30, para. 93.

The UN is stepping up its efforts to ensure a firm, coordinated and coherent response to reprisals. UN actors, especially principals and heads of field presences, play a key role, as they are the primary interlocutors and voices of the UN at country level. Many are already vigilant to trends and cases of reprisals, and engage when incidents occur to ensure protection, remedies and accountability for victims. 

In December 2019, former Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, addressed a letter to the UN system inviting the consideration of the following:

  • To encourage more systemized analysis and response, designate a UN staff focal point in UN entities, departments or missions for the sharing of information/experiences. 
  • To better capture the work of the UN system on this issue, share policy developments and good practices in seeking to prevent and respond to intimidation and reprisals.
  • To better prepare the annual reports of the Secretary-General, keep documenting trends and cases, and action taken at country level to protect individuals and groups. (See guidelines for submission of information on cases and patterns)

The OHCHR reprisals team stands ready to support efforts towards a more comprehensive and coordinated UN system wide response. Internal guidance for UN staff to better prevent and address intimidation and reprisals globally has been produced.