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Report highlights rising reprisals against human rights defenders cooperating with the UN

Rising reprisals

20 September 2017

GENEVA (20 September 2017) - A major new UN report warns that a growing number of human rights defenders around the world are facing reprisals for cooperating with the UN on human rights.

The report by the UN Secretary-General says individuals and groups have suffered reprisals and intimidation ranging from travel bans and asset-freezing to detention and torture.

“It is frankly nothing short of abhorrent that, year after year, we are compelled to present cases of intimidation and reprisals carried out against people whose crime – in the eyes of their Governments – was to cooperate with UN institutions and mechanisms,” said UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour, the senior UN official designated by the Secretary General to address the issue.

“We should see these individuals as the canary in the coalmine, bravely singing until they are silenced by this toxic backlash against people, rights and dignity – as a dark warning to us all,” Gilmour said, as he presented the report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We are aware of cases where individuals we are communicating with have been abducted, detained, held incommunicado, or disappeared,” he added. 

“There are also many cases involving prolonged arbitrary detention, as well as torture and ill-treatment, with some victims threatened, blindfolded and beaten. One case involved forcible psychiatric treatment; others have involved solitary confinement, sexual assault and rape in detention, against both men and women,” Gilmour said.

The report, the eighth of its kind, names 29 countries* where cases of reprisal and intimidation have been documented – significantly up on the previous highest number of 20.  Eleven of the States are current members of the Human Rights Council.  Some have featured in the annual report on reprisals nearly every year since it was instituted in 2010.

The cases are of “grave concern”, the report says, highlighting that many are perpetrated or condoned by State officials. Many other incidents go unreported due to fears of further repercussions, while details of some known cases have been withheld so as not to place victims at further risk.

“People engaging with the United Nations experienced intimidation, harassment, threats online and offline, derogatory media campaigns, travel bans, arbitrary arrests and detention, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment, disbarment, and dismissal from their posts, amongst other measures,” the report says.

“Beyond the grave impact on the life of persons concerned and their relatives, intimidation and reprisals also systematically undermine United Nations action on human rights and shake partners’ trust in the organization,” it adds.

All the cases highlighted in the report occurred from June 2016 to May 2017 and involved individuals and groups which have cooperated with UN human rights mechanisms, used UN procedures, submitted communications under procedures established by human rights instruments, or provided legal or other assistance to other people.  It also covers families or supporters of victims.

Gilmour told the Human Rights Council that the report was by no means exhaustive and the problem was much more widespread.

“Since this report is limited to reprisals against people cooperating with the UN, the cases covered in it represent only a small portion of a far more generalized backlash against civil society and others challenging State authorities, especially human rights defenders,” Gilmour said.

He highlighted a number of recent cases which took place after the finalisation of the report, including that of Egyptian lawyer Ebrahim Metwally, detained at Cairo airport on 10 September en route to meet the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances in Geneva, who was reportedly tortured and is still being detained.  Allegedly a letter from the Working Group was itself included in the case filed against him.

Gilmour also noted that since June 2016 members of Bahraini civil society attempting to cooperate with the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms have been interrogated, intimidated, subjected to travel bans, and even arrested or detained, causing an atmosphere of fear. Civil society representatives coming directly from Bahrain have significantly decreased over the last year, which is noted in the current session of the Council.

Gilmour also expressed deep concern over the ongoing situation of a Bahraini human rights defender, Ms. Ebtesam Abdulhusain Ali Alsaegh, who “has reportedly been beaten and sexually assaulted, and remains in detention”.

The report urges all States to stop reprisals, investigate existing allegations, provide effective remedies and adopt and implement measures to prevent recurrence.  It says governments which have been challenged about the cases either did not reply or failed to address the concerns in the responses they provided.

The patterns of cases suggest some States have a strategy to prevent people cooperating with the United Nations on human rights, the report adds.

Assistant Secretary-General Gilmour was assigned to his role in October 2016 by the Secretary-General after the UN noted an alarming increase in the number of cases of intimidation and reprisals and decided a more comprehensive approach was needed to tackle the problem.

* Countries named in the report (in alphabetical order) are: Algeria, Bahrain, Burundi, China, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Honduras, India, Iran, Israel, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Venezuela.


Read the report (A/HRC/36/31) online at:

For more information and media requests, please contact: Rupert Colville - + 41 22 917 9767 / [email protected]

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