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Speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Oral presentation by Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ilze Brands Kehris of the report of the Secretary-General on cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights

30 September 2020

Human Rights Council, 45th Session
Agenda Item 5
Geneva, 30 September 2020




Madam President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to discuss, in an interactive dialogue, intimidation and reprisals for cooperation with the UN. We greatly appreciate the Council’s continued attention to this gravely worrying subject, and I thank you, Madam President, for your dedication to this issue.

This year, the Secretary-General renewed his commitment to addressing intimidation and reprisals by dedicating UN leadership and resources to this end. I am honored to continue the work of my predecessor, Andrew Gilmour, as designated UN senior official. A positive sign of this Council’s commitment is that, in its resolution last September condemning all acts of intimidation and reprisal and urging States to take action, Member States also recognized the importance of this role.

In addition to the significant contribution of this body to the issue, I am encouraged by the increased attention last year by the General Assembly and the Security Council. This growing global momentum needs to be retained and expanded, despite the context of competing urgencies, and I look forward to continuing the efforts to ensure that it does.

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed the way we work and interact, and it has brought new challenges, but also opportunities. Regrettably, however, as the report before you makes clear, acts of intimidation and reprisal are reported in similar scope and numbers as in the past. Given the considerable change in the engagement with the UN during the reporting period due to the pandemic, and the cancellation of many UN activities since March, we hoped the number of allegations received would also have decreased, but that has unfortunately not been the case. This is a worrisome sign that may signify that such acts are increasing in the wake of the pandemic.

In his February Call to Action for Human Rights, the Secretary-General underscored that the UN depends on the active engagement of civil society actors, and that we must counter narratives that seek to discredit and undermine our partners. He noted in the report that “(w)ith 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.”

Now is the time to rethink how we ensure effective and inclusive participation. The new circumstances in which we find ourselves require more people at the table, not fewer. Intimidation and reprisals are unequivocal and unacceptable violations of the targeted individuals’ rights. They also are an obstacle to participation and good governance. We cannot tolerate that voices are silenced.

Madam President, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The report before you is a compilation of action taken by multiple UN actors, although we acknowledge it is not the full picture. Alarmingly, we see that in a number of countries, acts of reprisals and intimidation are not rare or isolated incidents, but reflect evolving patterns. This was emphasized by the Secretary-General last year, and again this year.

This year action taken by many UN actors over time to address intimidation and reprisals highlighted the following serious violations in particular: arrests, detention and other deprivation of liberty, criminal charges, torture and ill-treatment and, even deaths in custody and enforced disappearances. Many of these cases occur in a context of pervasive misuse of national security and counter-terrorism measures and legislation. It is our collective responsibility as UN actors to address these violations.

Among the most egregious is that an individual 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. In particular, the report includes references to three situations identified by UN actors in which the allegations “indicat[e] [that] arbitrary detention is a systemic problem”– China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. There is concern that detention may have been used to punish those who cooperate with us and, while these are three key examples, we believe there are others.

A number of individuals repeatedly feature in the reports after being targeted year after year, underscoring our fear that once someone has appeared at the UN, seen or perceived to be cooperating in some way with us, or had their case brought before a UN body, this exposure can lead to more harm. The pattern we see is clear: people are intimidated or punished to deter them from speaking out or on behalf of others.

We are also aware that in restrictive environments some individuals and groups do not dare engage with us, which is indicative of the shrinking of civic space in those countries. The report identifies instances where the High Commissioner has drawn particular attention, including in Libya, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Russian Federation, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela. Further, the worrisome trend of self-censorship has been highlighted by the Secretary-General.

Multiple UN actors have raised individual allegations in repressive environments over a number years which are included in this year’s report, for example in Bahrain, Burundi, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Iran, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, and Viet Nam, among others. Given these many worrying situations, we must work together to preserve and expand UN spaces for interaction and participation.

In conflict settings, intimidation and reprisals are reported by UN peace operations, but under-reporting remains particularly concerning in these environments. Examples where peacekeeping missions have documented trends highlighted in the report include in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and South Sudan.

Madam President, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The report clearly reflects that there is an online dimension of the challenges, as the targeting happens not only on UN or other physical premises. In the digital sphere, cases range from activists and journalists being attacked on social media after speaking at a UN meeting, to victims being punished for submitting information to or communicating electronically with us. A particularly troubling aspect is that some of these cases concern communications to us that were thought to be private and confidential. The targeting thus exposes the degree of monitoring and surveillance, as well as cracks in digital security, that victims, activists and journalists face.

The report highlights that those working on women’s rights and the rights of LGBTIQ+ persons, including sexual and reproductive health rights, seem to be particularly at risk. Threats of rape and other forms of sexual violence, online smear campaigns and trolling, stigmatizing public discourse, sexual assault in detention, and humiliating and degrading treatment have been reported in the context of cooperation with the UN, as well as an increase in attacks against family members.

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

As I underlined to the Security Council in February, we have regrettably seen that the increased visibility brought about by women’s engagement with the UN, in particular women defenders and peacebuilders, can increase their vulnerability to reprisals and further stigmatization. This can create a vicious cycle both rooted in and resulting in entrenched discrimination.

The report also identifies particular risks and challenges faced by other groups. Among the many under threat, it emphasizes the risks that youth activists and representatives of indigenous and minority communities face. We are now receiving more concerns from young people involved in protests and those using UN fora to speak up for their rights. Groups claiming rights to land and resources and speaking about environmental and development concerns, in particular from affected communities, are targeted year after year.

Madam President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

As we look into the future, I am grateful for the opportunity to follow on the work that my predecessor started in 2016, and I affirm my intention to continue all efforts in building and shaping a coherent and effective response by the UN system. But this can only be achieved if we work hand in hand. We need to not only protect and empower the victims, but also improve our ability and tools to effectively prevent these acts from happening in the first place.

We are already seeing signs of improved reporting from our partners in the UN system and increased vigilance to incidents and trends. We also have collected a few good examples of State accountability and protection measures. Importantly, the level of responses to allegations presented to States concerned in the preparation of the report this year has improved. We wish to thank those States who engaged for the detailed responses and additional information provided, which we take care to reflect in the report as well.

It is critical that the Human Rights Council and the broader UN system continues to send an unequivocal message of no tolerance, enhance accountability and contribute to mitigating risks, including related to cooperation with the thematic procedures and country monitoring mechanisms established by this Council. OHCHR for its part will continue to support the efforts of Member States and UN colleagues in this direction.

But in this we all have a shared responsibility. Those who bring their cases and testimonies to us place their trust in us. We deserve that trust only if we will stand up for them when needed, and work together to respond better to their cases. Thank you.