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Impunity for killings of human rights defenders remains a key driver for more murders, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders tells Human Rights Council

MORNING

5 March 2021

Council Concludes Interactive Dialogues with Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Special Rapporteur on Protecting Human Rights while Countering Terrorism

The Human Rights Council this morning started an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. It also concluded its interactive dialogues with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and the Special Rapporteur on protecting human rights while countering terrorism.

Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said that in 2019, at least 281 human rights defenders, including 38 women human rights defenders, had been killed in 35 countries, and unless radical action was taken the killings would continue. Impunity for killings remained a key driver for more murders. Since it began 20 years ago, this mandate had cited the issue of impunity more than 30 times in recommendations to United Nations Member States, and had repeatedly noted how a failure to properly prosecute perpetrators fuelled further killings. But impunity persisted, and the murders continued. States should not only end impunity but also publicly applaud the vital contribution that human rights defenders made to help build just societies based on the rule of law.
Ms. Lawlor spoke about her predecessor’s mission to Peru. Peru spoke as the country concerned, as did the Defensoria del Pueblo de Peru.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers emphasised that there could be no impunity for the killings of human rights defenders, sharing the view of the Special Rapporteur that businesses must also act when threats against human rights defenders were made. Many speakers expressed profound concern over the increasing murder rates of human rights defenders, especially of environmental defenders. Other speakers noted that the Council must respect the principle of non-interference, expressing regret that the label “human rights defenders” was used by groups with ties to terrorism who exploited the good faith of the international human rights mechanisms.

Speaking were Honduras, European Union, Iceland on behalf of Nordic and Baltic countries, Belarus on behalf of a group of States, Liechtenstein, Canada, Germany, Brazil, State of Palestine, Australia, Slovenia, France, Philippines, Mauritania, Libya, Ecuador, Russian Federation, Iraq, Indonesia, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Armenia, Colombia, Netherlands, Marshall Islands and Venezuela.

Also this morning, the Council concluded its interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

In the discussion, speakers noted the trend of increasing Islamophobia and hate speech at the government level in many countries. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims found themselves caught between deep Islamophobia in Western societies and rejection from Muslim societies. Speakers welcomed the report’s recognition that othering Muslims drove Islamophobia, noting that it was often linked to near official supremacist nationalist narratives in countries where Muslims formed a minority.

Ahmad Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, in his concluding remarks, said it was important to consider the views of victims with a consistent human rights approach. Addressing xenophobia did not require new tools or frameworks, but rather a diligent implementation of those that already existed. Combatting Islamophobia did not require limiting free speech. On the contrary, it required defending the freedom of expression, to ensure all could speak freely.

The following civil society organizations took the floor: Federatie van Nederlandse Verenigingen tot Integratie Van Homoseksualiteit - COC Nederland; European Coordination of Associations and Individuals for Freedom of Conscience; British Humanist Association; World Evangelical Alliance; Universal Rights Group; Minority Rights Group; and Freemuse - The World Forum on Music and Censorship.

The Council also concluded its interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

In the discussion, speakers stated that they shared the Special Rapporteur’s concern that women and girls bore a heavy and unseen burden resulting from the impact of counter-terrorism laws and practices. Governments were misusing vague and over-broad anti-terrorism legislation across the world to oppress minority and opposition voices and silence artistic freedom. Such policies only created conflict and fed further radicalisation rather than combat it.

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, in her concluding remarks, applauded speakers who had called for viewing artists as an integral part of society and making sure they were not unduly targeted by anti-terrorism measures. National action plans could address the diversity crisis that was ongoing in security services. Turning to the root causes of terrorism and violent extremism, the Special Rapporteur said structural factors had to be tackled, notably poverty, economic gaps and education attainments. In that context, it was paramount to address inequalities faced by women.

Morocco took the floor, as did the following civil society organizations: Amnesty International; International PEN; Freemuse - The World Forum on Music and Censorship; World Organisation Against Torture; and Lawyers' Rights Watch Canada.

Iran spoke in point of order.

At the beginning of the meeting, Nazhat Shameem Khan, President of the Human Rights Council, addressing the issue of the reports of the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, said the Bureau had decided to cancel the presentation by the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy of his annual thematic report and country visit reports and the related interactive dialogue at this session. The Bureau had further agreed that the Special Rapporteur would be urged to submit the outstanding country visit reports prior to 15 April 2021, and the Bureau would reconvene on this matter following that deadline to discuss and decide on next steps. The Council would have the opportunity to engage in an interactive dialogue on the Special Rapporteur’s reports, but just not at this session. Ms. Khan stressed that the matter would not be swept under the rug.

Speakers noted that this issue had been discussed a number of times over the last few years, as States sought action from the Bureau, which did not occur until this year. The Special Rapporteur had committed systematic violations of his mandate and the Council had protected the Special Rapporteur and covered up his actions - this was scandalous. Other speakers expressed their support for the Bureau’s decision, thanking it for consulting with countries concerned and highlighting their support for the Bureau going forward. It was important that countries concerned were able to receive the reports four weeks in advance in accordance with the procedural rules.

Russian Federation, Venezuela, United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, Republic of Korea, Argentina, China, Japan, Poland, Austria, France and Fiji spoke with regards to this procedural issue.

The Council then agreed to the proposal to cancel the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy at this session.

Russian Federation, Venezuela, United Kingdom, Germany and China spoke in point of order.

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-sixth regular session can be found here.

The Council will next meet in public at 3 p.m. to resume the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, followed by the annual debate on the rights of persons with disabilities.

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

The interactive dialogue with Ahmad Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, started in a previous meeting and a summary can be found here.

Interactive Discussion

Speakers welcomed the report and its focus on combatting anti-Muslim hatred, noting the trend of increasing Islamophobia and hate speech at the government level in many countries. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims found themselves caught between deep Islamophobia in Western societies and rejection from Muslim societies. Speakers expressed concern over increasing connections between the criminalisation of blasphemy and the rise of anti-Muslim hatred. Interfaith solidarity was essential to combat religious stigmatisation, as speakers noted that non-Muslim religious groups must support Muslim worshippers. Moreover, States, civil society and the private sector, including social media companies, must work together in cooperation with the Council’s mechanisms. Speakers welcomed the report’s recognition that othering Muslims drove Islamophobia, noting that it was often linked to near official supremacist nationalist narratives in countries where Muslims formed a minority.

Concluding Remarks

AHMAD SHAHEED, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, in his concluding remarks, stressed that the report did not state there was a hierarchy of affected groups but rather highlighted normative and protection gaps. Islamophobia was part of the family of xenophobia and hate, with gender having an intersectional impact. Islamophobia undermined the participation of Muslims or those perceived as Muslims, and this affected all. It was important to consider the views of victims with a consistent human rights approach. Addressing xenophobia did not require new tools or frameworks, but rather a diligent implementation of those that already existed. Combatting Islamophobia did not require limiting free speech. On the contrary, it required defending the freedom of expression, to ensure all could speak freely. Interfaith dialogue was an important part of the way forward; the global community could contribute to this dialogue. The information included in the report was based on reliable, cross-checked sources, he added.

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism

The interactive dialogue with Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on protecting human rights while countering terrorism, started in a previous meeting and a summary can be found here.

Interactive Discussion

Speakers shared the Special Rapporteur’s concern that women and girls bore heavy and unseen burdens resulting from the impact of counter-terrorism laws and practices. Women were unjustly detained simply because they were related to individuals belonging to terrorist or armed groups. Sharing of good practices between States and training in the field of counter terrorism were important elements of international cooperation in this regard. Speakers asked the Special Rapporteur to propose possible ways to build bridges between mandate holders and the national institutions of ombudsmen. Governments were misusing vague and over-broad anti-terrorism legislation across the world to oppress minority and opposition voices and silence artistic freedom. Such policies only created conflict and fed further radicalization rather than combat it.

Concluding Remarks

FIONNUALA NÍ AOLÁIN, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, applauded speakers who had called for viewing artists as an integral part of society and making sure they were not unduly targeted by anti-terrorism measures. National action plans could address the diversity crisis that was ongoing in security services. Turning to the root causes of terrorism and violent extremism, the Special Rapporteur said structural factors had to be tackled, notably poverty, economic gaps and education attainments. In that context, it was paramount to address inequalities faced by women. Human rights abuses fuelled violent extremism. It was important to address the expertise of regional human rights systems, she said. Forced marriages were a crime under international law. But it was important to consider the status of the children and women affected by these forced liaisons, in light, notably, of the relevant provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Highlighting the negative impact of patriarchy on security, she emphasised that security measures must not be used to limit the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people.

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders

Reports

The Council has before it the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders A/HRC/46/35 on the death threats and killings of human rights defenders and A/HRC/46/35/Add.2 on her visit to Peru

Presentation of Reports

MARY LAWLOR, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said that between 1 January and 31 December 2020, the Special Rapporteur had sent 228 communications individually or jointly with other mandate holders to 77 States and 24 other actors. The human rights defenders mandate had led on 83 of these communications. Of these 228 communications, 204 had been sent to States. As of 31 December 2020, 110 replies had been received from State actors, including 10 acknowledgements of receipt not followed by a substantive reply. Regrettably, this was a drop in response rates of 10 per cent from the previous reporting period, from 56 per cent to 46 per cent. She then drew attention to a report on the situation of human rights defenders in Peru, following a country visit there by her predecessor Michel Forst in 2020. Large numbers of human rights defenders, and in particular environmental, land and indigenous peoples’ rights defenders, were unable to operate in a safe and enabling environment. The report also detailed worrying trends, which included: the stigmatisation and lack of recognition of defenders; the criminalisation of defenders; persistent problematic practices in the management of assemblies in the context of social protests; and a lack of effective protection responses for human rights defenders at risk.

In 2019 at least 281 human rights defenders, including 38 women human rights defenders, had been killed in 35 countries, and unless radical action was taken the killings would continue. The past months had seen a terrible surge in attacks and killings of human rights defenders in Afghanistan – and these killings even included members of the government appointed National Human Rights Commission. The killing of human rights defenders should be a red line which States and other non-State actors should not cross. The number of defenders killed was likely much higher than the figures that were available, and these statistics did not include deaths such as Azimjan Askarov, who had died in custody after deliberate neglect by the prison authorities and the Government of Kyrgyzstan in July 2020. Impunity for killings remained a key driver for more murders. Since it began 20 years ago, this mandate had cited the issue of impunity more than 30 times in recommendations to United Nations Member States, and had repeatedly noted how a failure to properly prosecute perpetrators fuelled further killings. But impunity persisted, and the murders continued. States should not only end impunity but also publicly applaud the vital contribution that human rights defenders made to help build just societies based on the rule of law. Many women human rights defenders were attacked with gendered threats, and targeted because of who they were, as well as what they did, the Special Rapporteur said.

Statements by Country Concerned

Peru thanked the Special Rapporteur’s predecessor and said the visit had provided the country with a diagnostic on pending challenges in the promotion and protection of human rights defenders, as well as an assessment of progress achieved. The road was long, but Peru was pleased to see that there was progress. In April 2019, in accordance with the National Human Rights Plan 2018-2021, which for the first time included human rights defenders as a vulnerable group, the “Protocol to guarantee the protection of human rights defenders” had been approved. It sought to coordinate measures that created an environment for defenders to carry out their activities without risk. In October 2020, the “Registry of Risk Situations for Human Rights Defenders” had been established, with the participation of civil society and business associations. Peru had been developing a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, the methodology of which had been elaborated with the participation of State actors, the private sector, civil society organizations, workers and indigenous peoples. It would include strategic actions to guarantee the protection of human rights defenders in the area of business activities.

Defensoria del Pueblo de Peru said that the Ombudsman’s function was to protect constitutional rights fundamental to persons and the community, as well as overseeing the implementation of duties by the State and the adequate provision of social services. The functions included promoting and monitoring human rights and helping implement policy in favour of human rights defenders. The Ombudsman recognized the work carried out by human rights defenders and provided follow-up on cases where the rights of human rights defenders were violated. It was the responsibility of the State to provide effective protection measures as well as timely measures when it came to threats against human rights defenders. The existing legislation to protect human rights defenders should be converted into law. The current law was not binding for public authorities and was thus sub-standard.

Interactive Discussion

Speakers emphasised that there could be no impunity for the killings of human rights defenders, sharing the view of the Special Rapporteur that businesses must also act when threats against defenders were made, abiding by international law and the United Nations Guiding Principles. It was a sad reality that human rights defenders were the victims of so many attacks, as speakers stated that women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender defenders often suffered from attacks that were gendered in nature. Many speakers expressed profound concern over the increasing murder rates of human rights defenders, especially of environmental defenders. How could the international community better support regional agreements that aimed to protect human rights defenders? States must ensure a safe environment for human rights defenders in their countries. Other speakers noted that the Council must respect the principle of non-interference, expressing regret that the label “human rights defenders” was used by groups with ties to terrorism who exploited the good faith of the international human rights mechanisms. Some recommendations of the report could be construed as interference in the internal affairs of States - the Special Rapporteur was advised to exercise care in that regard.

Link: https://www.ungeneva.org/fr/news-media/meeting-summary/2021/03/morning-impunity-killings-human-rights-defenders-remains-key

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For use of the information media; not an official record