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Acts of intimidation and reprisal for cooperation with the United Nations in the field of human rights

Ilze Brands Kehris, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights

Addressing and preventing acts of intimidation and reprisals against individuals and groups seeking to cooperate with the United Nations on human rights have been a long-standing concern to the Organization. Over the past years, the reported number and severity of reprisals and intimidation have increased. They take on different forms, from travel bans, threats and harassment, including by officials, smear campaigns, surveillance, introduction of restrictive legislation, to physical attacks, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and ill-treatment, including sexual violence, denial of access to medical attention and even killings.

The United Nations – and particularly its human rights bodies and mechanisms – rely on the cooperation of the people they serve. 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.

Designation of the Assistant Secretary-General for human rights to lead UN efforts to put an end to intimidation and reprisals against those cooperating with the UN on human rights

The Secretary-General publicly expressed his deep alarm in October 2016 over the increase in reprisals and intimidation against people cooperating with the UN on human rights. He noted that “such acts undermine the effectiveness and credibility of the UN, and are an attack on the Organization itself” and that “these courageous individuals are often our only eyes and ears in extremely tough environments – and we owe them our best possible support.” The Secretary-General announced that, after consultations with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, he had designated designated the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights to lead the efforts within the UN system to address intimidation and reprisals against those cooperating with the UN on human rights. These efforts build on and complement existing efforts, 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).

Currently, multiple actors are engaged in responding to reprisals within the UN system, including OHCHR, the Human Rights Council, special procedures and treaty bodies. However, as successive reports of the Secretary Secretary-General have emphasized, more needs to be done to enhance prevention and respond to all cases of reprisals across the UN system and give this issue the attention it deserves.

Based on this assessment, the Secretary-General has urged UN entities to strengthen the collection of information on such abuses by asking all parts of the UN system to report more regularly on such cases and encouraging them to take appropriate measures. The Assistant Secretary-General engages the United Nations system, Member States and other stakeholders in this regard, and advises the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner how to ensure strengthened UN wide action for prevention of, protection against, investigation into and accountability for reprisals.

In expanding and strengthening the UN’s response to reprisals across the Organization, the Assistant Secretary-General focuses on the following areas:

  • Developing and implementing a more comprehensive system for preventing and addressing intimidation and reprisals throughout the UN system, including by improving and coordinating response by all UN actors;
  • Enhancing high-level engagement on reprisals, including on how to prevent reprisals from occurring and ensuring action on urgent cases and ensure appropriate action when reprisals occur, through a constructive dialogue with all stakeholders, in particular with Member States and civil society;
  • Ensuring cooperation with all actors involved. Recognising and welcoming ongoing activities by various actors on reprisals, the work of the Assistant Secretary-General is integrated into, complement and strengthens other efforts underway.

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