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Human rights: Reported reprisals continue unabated, says UN

30 September 2020

NEW YORK/GENEVA (30 September 2020) – The UN Human Rights Office said Wednesday that it is consistently receiving information on intimidation and reprisals against victims, members of civil society and activists for cooperating with the United Nations, even as many UN activities have been cancelled since March 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions.

In a new report of the UN Secretary-General, presented to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Office says it has documented alleged reprisals in 45 countries, but that these represent only a fraction of the actual number of incidents committed, mainly by States but also by  non-state actors.

“Given the vast change in the engagement with the UN this year due to the pandemic, we imagined the numbers would be going down, but that has unfortunately not been the case,” said UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ilze Brands Kehris, presented the report and held a virtual discussion with member States on Wednesday.  “On the contrary, I am worried this may even be a sign that cases have actually increased.”  Some repressive or restrictive environments leading to self-censorship, and thus diminished cooperation with the UN, are also noted in the report.

The report demonstrates the clear online dimension involving those who cooperate with the UN, showing the targeting does not just take place on UN premises. In the digital sphere, the cases range from activists and journalists being attacked on social media after speaking at a UN meeting, to being punished for submitting information to or communicating electronically with the UN.  Some of these communications to the UN were thought to be private, exposing the degree of surveillance and cracks in digital security that activists and journalists face.

The Secretary-General notes in the report that “With our work being increasingly carried out online as a result of COVID-19, we should ensure participation remains meaningful, effective, easily accessible, and free from intimidation or reprisals of any sort.”

The report details the many cases of activists suffering prolonged detention and prison sentences, including some particularly severe cases of ill-treatment and torture.  “One of the most egregious violations is that individuals can suffer prolonged deprivation of liberty for exercising their right to communicate with the UN, all the more so when this detention has been declared arbitrary by UN experts,” said Brands Kehris.

Many individuals have been repeatedly featured in the annual UN reprisals reports after being targeted year after year, as detailed in Annex II of the report.   The Secretary-General reasserts in the report his concern that “repeated incidents can signal patterns”, and patterns in certain countries have been identified by multiple UN actors in the report.

The full report, with annexes detailing the cases country by country*, is available online. It is the eleventh such annual report of the Secretary-General on reprisals.

Trends in the targeting of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, and those working on protecting their rights, including on sexual and reproductive health, seem to be particularly sharp.  Threats of rape, online smear campaigns, sexual assault in detention, and humiliating and degrading treatment have been reported. 

The report notes that between 2017 and 2019 there was an increase in allegations of reprisals publicly reported concerning women or those working on women’s human rights and gender-related issues.  At the same time, cases not publicly reported or kept anonymous due to protection or other concerns are predominantly women. 

The risks that youth activists and representatives of indigenous and minority communities face are also emphasized.  “Among the many groups under threat, we are now receiving more concerns from young people involved in protests and those using UN fora to speak up for their rights,” said Brands Kehris.  “Groups claiming rights to land and resources and speaking about environmental and development concerns, in particular from affected communities, are targeted year after year.”

The report notes the Secretary-General’s regret that “the use of national security arguments and legislation, and counter-terrorism strategies by States as justification for blocking access to, or punishment for engaging with” the UN continues at “alarming levels.”  It includes examples of sweeping anti-terrorism laws at the national level, which inhibit international engagement.  And it details cases of individuals charged with terrorism, blamed for cooperation with foreign entities or accused of damaging the reputation or security of the State.

“The new circumstances in which we find ourselves require more voices at the table, not fewer.  If we are to rise to the occasion, we must be creative in the development of new ways, or the transformation of existing methods, for our partners to cooperate freely and safely with the UN,” said Brands Kehris.  “I am committed to doing this in a proactive manner with Member States, civil society actors and other stakeholders.”


* The 45 countries linked to cases listed in the main report and in Annex I and II are:
Algeria, Andorra, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, China, Colombia,  Comoros, Cuba, Djibouti, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, India, Iran, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Laos People’s Democratic Republic, Libya, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, State of Palestine, Thailand, Turkey,  United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Viet Nam and Yemen.

See the UN Human Rights Office video on reprisals
For more information and media requests, please contact:
In Geneva Rupert Colville - + 41 22 917 9767 Marta Hurtado - + 41 22 917 9466 / [email protected] or Ravina Shamdasani - + 41 22 917 9169 / [email protected].
In New York: Jonathan Fowler - WhatsApp +41 76 691 0314 / [email protected]
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