Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Oral presentation by the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights of the report of the Secretary-General on cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives, and mechanisms in the field of human rights
29 September 2022
Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights of the report of the Secretary-General
Human Rights Council, 51st Session Agenda Item 5
Mr. President, Excellencies,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to present this year’s report of Secretary-General on reprisals and to engage in an interactive dialogue on this critical issue.
I thank this Council for your continued attention to reprisals and welcome the support of Member States to the role that the Secretary-General has assigned to me as senior official designated to lead UN system-wide efforts to prevent and address reprisals.
For the first time, as decided by this Council’s biannual resolution last year, the report in front of you will also be presented to the Third Committee of the General Assembly on 14 October. It is a welcome development which signals the global relevance of this report to the work of the United Nations.
This year’s report highlights good practices by Member States in different UN bodies emphasizing zero tolerance to reprisals and the importance of safe and meaningful participation in UN spaces and processes. It also points to the importance of providing concrete support to UN interlocutors, in particular to women peacebuilders and briefers to the Security Council.
The report identifies several UN activities and policy developments that illustrate a more robust and coordinated response to reprisals. We are proud to have supported these efforts and will continue to do lead on this mandate and strengthen the UN system’s response to all forms of intimidation and reprisal.
Despite these and other positive developments, the report notes, once again, the scope and breath of the issue and the persistence – across regions – of intimidation and reprisals against those who cooperate or attempt to cooperate with the UN. The number of reported acts of intimidation and reprisal by State and non-State actors remain high.
We note that cases and situations included over the years in Annex II are not isolated incidents. Recurring allegations reinforce the assertion that repeated similar incidents over several years can signal patterns. When multiple UN actors raise concerns during a period, it can be a sign of widespread and severe incidents of intimidation and reprisals for cooperation with the Organization.
The report includes 42 countries in all regions. Twelve are members of this Council. Several countries have featured almost every year in the annual report.
I wish to draw your attention to a number of global trends that emerge from the report.
First, surveillance of those who cooperate or attempt to cooperate with the UN continues to be reported in all regions. In 20 countries, UN actors addressed allegations of monitoring and surveillance, online and offline, with growing and worrisome evidence of online surveillance and cyberattacks.
UN actors documented individuals leaving UN compounds, being followed or facing arrest, beatings, threats and confiscation of mobile phones. They also addressed reports of individuals being photographed without their consent and followed at or during travel to UN meetings.
The report also includes cases of human rights defenders who reportedly have evidence of their mobile phones being infected with spyware marketed by companies to Governments. Non-governmental organizations have reported being regularly visited in their offices and at home, and facing questions about foreign contracts and international travel, including to UN events.
The massive digital shift caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has opened up new spaces and opportunities for engagement with the UN. However, it also brought critical challenges related to accessibility, cyber-security, and privacy, including confidentiality with significant impact on civil society actors’ ability to cooperate with the UN, increasing their potential vulnerability to reprisals.
Another concerning trend is the impact and use of restrictive legislation that prevents and punishes cooperation with the UN. In 40% of the countries included in the report, laws and regulations in place have been used to, or had the effect of, deter or punish individuals and organizations for their cooperation with the UN based on counter-terrorism, national security arguments, or laws governing activities of civil society. There are cases of NGOs designated or labelled as terrorist organizations and of individuals facing life-long or long-term detention for cooperation with the UN under counter-terrorism or national security legislation.
The report also refers to national security laws establishing criminal liability for sharing of information with international actors. Such laws may trigger, or be interpreted as triggering, criminal liability for those who share human rights-related information with the UN. In some cases, this led to civil society expressing fear of the consequences of cooperating with the UN, resulting in them discontinuing cooperation, or declining to engage with OHCHR.
Almost half of the countries in the report include allegations of individuals and groups facing legal proceedings, and/or being charged, sentenced, deprived of their liberty, or at risk thereof, for cooperation with the UN, also based on other charges not related to national security or terrorism.
Multiple UN actors have addressed the impact of laws and other measures regulating NGOs and their access to funding, including foreign funding, on NGOs’ ability to cooperate with the UN. NGOs have been audited, heavily fined, and sometimes forced into dissolution as a result of the application of such laws. In some cases, the ability or willingness of these organizations to cooperate with the UN has been compromised.
We are also concerned about a number of countries with repeated or similar allegations of intimidation and reprisals that feature in this and past reports, and with concerns by multiple UN actors about the application of restrictive legislation. In some of these countries, we are monitoring the continued detention of those who engaged with the UN. Several individuals serve long prison sentences or remain under house arrest. These could be more than isolated incidents and could signal possible patterns of intimidation and reprisals against those who cooperate, try to cooperate, or are perceived as cooperating with the UN.
Another global trend I wish to highlight is self-censorship, or the choice not to cooperate with the UN or to do so under conditions of anonymity due to fear of retaliation. We have concerns that the chilling effect of increased surveillance and monitoring as well as criminal liability, or the fear thereof, silences voices amongst those who cooperate with the UN.
In at least one third of the countries included in this report, UN interlocutors have either refrained from engaging with the Organization, requested that their identity be withheld, or exercised self-censorship for fear of further retaliation. During the reporting period, individuals declined to communicate, meet, or send information to UN entities, bodies, and mechanisms due to such fear. Many cases had to be reported anonymously due to protection concerns and to mitigate risks.
I wish to pay special tribute to those who place their trust in the UN by sharing their testimonies and first-hand information, and to thank those who help them connect with us. Many face enormous risks. I salute their courage and determination in the pursuit of rights, justice, accountability, and remedy.
The annual report of the Secretary-General on reprisals focuses on allegations that the UN has been able to verify in accordance with OHCHR’s methodology. We are aware that this does not provide the full picture. Intimidation and reprisals are generally reported from countries where a degree of space to cooperate with and report incidents to the UN exists. This is not the case where the level of intimidation and obstacles in place are such that individuals and groups simply refrain from cooperating with the UN, given the risks. The mere absence of retaliatory action or reports thereof does not mean that intimidation and reprisals do not happen.
We continuously work to improve our methodology, data collection and analysis, as well as the documentation and reporting on incidents and situations, including on self-censorship. We do this through constructive dialogue and engagement with Member States, with different parts of the UN system, and with victims and other key stakeholders.
As in the past, we are concerned that intimidation and reprisals disproportionally affect certain populations and groups of victims and human rights defenders whose cases are under-reported. This includes those who face barriers linked to their age (youth), gender or sexual orientation and those who represent indigenous peoples or minorities or who work on environment-related issues. We continue to work closely with relevant UN entities to ensure that everyone can safely engage with the UN and participate in UN spaces and processes without obstacles.
We are particularly sensitive to the risks affecting women victims and witnesses as well as women human rights defenders and peacebuilders, who share their testimony and cooperate with the UN both in the field and at headquarters. Of the nearly 350 individual cases included this year, about 60% are women and, of the cases reported anonymously, a large number concern women.
I am encouraged by the efforts by Member States in different UN intergovernmental bodies to support and protect the participation of women and address reprisals and obstacles for their cooperation with the Organization. However, the risks that they face remain daunting.
The report includes cases of women and girls facing violence and threats for their engagement with the UN, including for their testimonies or participation in court proceedings supported by the UN. In other cases, women were reportedly accused of crimes against the State for sharing information with the UN about incidents of sexual violence or threatened for denouncing a trafficking scheme they themselves were victims of.
We have a collective responsibility to do more and better to support the participation of women survivors and human rights defenders and peacebuilders in UN spaces and processes. It is not only their right to participate meaningfully and safely; we also need their voices and insights to achieve lasting peace and security.
Mr. President, Excellencies,
We are grateful to those Member States who engaged in the preparation of this report with detailed responses and additional information. I welcome that some Governments addressed the allegations presented to them, including in the form of an investigation into reported threats, provision of protection measures, and relevant changes in legislation.
The Human Rights Council and the whole UN system must continue sending a clear message of no tolerance for intimidation and reprisals and must take action to address the issue resolutely.
We need to better a support, empower, and protect those who engage with us, often in response to mandates established by Member States The impact of our work and our credibility depend on it and, first and foremost, we owe it to those who put their trust in us.