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UN experts: Bosnia must investigate attacks against woman aiding migrants

05 November 2020

GENEVA (5 November 2020) – UN human rights experts today called on the Bosnian government to investigate a smear campaign and death threats against a woman human rights defender working for the rights of refugees and migrants.

“Instead of criminalizing migration and human rights defenders who help migrants, the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina must guarantee the human rights of all individuals, without regard for their nationality or immigration status,” said Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

She spoke out after an online hate campaign intensified against Ms Zehida Bihorac, an elementary school teacher and woman human rights defender. She works in the northwest of the country, in Una-Sana Canton bordering EU member Croatia.

Authorities trying to stop the flow have ordered refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers to camps, where there are few services. Since 2018, Ms Bihorac has given them medicine, clothes, food and sleeping bags and has documented their situation.

“As a result of her activities, this brave woman human rights defender has been subjected to a concerted campaign by a Facebook group who have issued death threats against her and have branded her an ‘immoral woman’ and ‘unfit to teach children’,” said Lawlor.

“Women human rights defenders taking an active role against injustice often pay with personal attacks against themselves, their profession, their families or their decisions,” Lawlor said, while adding that “These defamatory messages portray those who defend the human rights of migrants as criminals instead of recognizing their legitimate work.”

Ms. Bihorac has also been filmed, followed and verbally assaulted while performing her legitimate human rights work. She filed a complaint with the local police, but no action has been taken.

“We urge the Bosnian government to conduct prompt, independent and impartial investigations on the attacks against Ms Zehida Bihorac and bring those responsible to justice according to international standards,” said Lawlor. 

It’s equally important that countries recognize the rights, needs and contributions of people on the move, she said.

“Migration is intrinsic to the history of humanity, and will continue to occur,” said Lawlor. “We need supportive societies who are ready to welcome migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. People leave their homelands to escape systematic violence, persecution, poverty, lack of employment, scarce opportunities, climate change and because they have no way to live a dignified life. These are the issues we need to address.”

Her call was endorsed by Felipe González MoralesSpecial Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants


Ms Mary Lawlor, (Ireland) is the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. She is currently an Adjunct Professor of Business and Human Rights in Trinity College Dublin. She was the founder of Front Line Defenders - the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. As Executive Director from 2001-2016, she represented Front Line Defenders and had a key role in its development. Ms. Lawlor was the Director of the Irish Section of Amnesty International from 1988 to 2000, became a Board member in 1975 and was elected Chair from 1983 to 1987.
The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact Adriana Zarraluqui (+41 22 917 9965 / [email protected]) or write to [email protected].

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / [email protected]) and Kitty McKinsey ([email protected])

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