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Statements Multiple Mechanisms

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

Reprisals against defenders

20 September 2017

Human Rights Council 36th Session

Geneva, 20 September 2017

Mr. President, Excellencies, colleagues

There is something grotesque and entirely contrary to the Charter and spirit of the United Nations, and particularly this Council, that people get punished, through intimidation and reprisals, for cooperating with the UN on human rights. Thank you for the opportunity to address this issue.

Alarmed by the growing number of cases, and recognizing the need for a more comprehensive approach, the Secretary-General last October designated me to lead efforts within the system on intimidation and reprisals.

We are working to enhance coordination with this Council and its Presidency, the special procedures, and the human rights treaty bodies for addressing cases and trends in reprisals.  We are also engaging other parts of the UN, such as UN country teams and peace operations, to ensure a more systematic and comprehensive response. 

The support by many Member States for addressing intimidation and reprisals has been heartening.  I would like to thank Hungary for its statement last March on behalf of the core group, in support of this work – including Uruguay, Ghana, Ireland and Fiji.  That the statement was signed by 67 Member States from across the globe is testament to the growing recognition that we need to address this issue.

In recent months, a number of Member States have offered additional resources to OHCHR for us to enhance our efforts to collect information and address cases, as well as to develop a coordinated response within the Organization. 

I am pleased to present to the Council the annual report of the Secretary-General on “Cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights.”  This year more information was received, which required additional verification. As a result, there were delays in issuing the report, which we regret. The report will be made available in all languages shortly.

The report is a compilation of cases where action has been taken by various UN actors – including the President of this Council, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, special procedures mandate holders, and treaty bodies. Where responses by concerned Governments have been received by 31 July 2017, they have been summarized in the Annex, due to the word limit. 

More cases are included in this annual report than ever before.  Twenty-nine States are mentioned.  The previous high was 20 States reported, while the yearly average has been 15. 

Even with this increased number of cases reported, the phenomenon of reprisals is much more widespread than the report indicates. Only cases that were raised publicly – whether in UN reports, press releases or written communications – and where we have the express informed consent of the victim are mentioned.  Many were omitted for reasons of confidentiality or security of the victim, or fall outside the cut-off date of the reporting period. 

For example, just last week the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances reported that an Egyptian member of civil society, Mr. Ibrahim Metwally, traveling to Geneva for a meeting with the Working Group was detained by authorities in Cairo just before traveling. The Working Group expressed concerns that he had been tortured. I have also heard a report that a letter confirming the meeting with the Working Group may have been included in the case against this man, who remains in custody. 

In another egregious case, since June 2016 Bahraini civil society groups attempting to cooperate with the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms have been interrogated, intimidated, subject 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. We are seriously concerned about the detention of Mrs. Ebtesam Abdulhusain Ali Alsaegh on charges most likely related to her participation in the March session.  She has reportedly been beaten and sexually assaulted, and remains in detention.

Since this report is limited to reprisals against people cooperating with the UN, a point which needs underlining, the cases covered in it represent only a small portion of a far more generalized backlash against civil society and others, especially human rights defenders.

Some States have been mentioned in several of the Secretary-General’s annual reports since 2010. China and Saudi Arabia have been mentioned in six of them; Bahrain, Iran and Sri Lanka in five; and Algeria, Israel, the Sudan, Tajikistan and Venezuela in four.        

Intimidation and reprisals undermine several human rights, in particular the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.  This is why we believe the significance of this report goes far beyond the individual cases contained in it. I think we should see these individuals as the canary in the coal-mine, bravely singing until they are silenced by this toxic backlash against people, rights and dignity – as a dark warning to us all.

Reprisals take many forms – including intimidation, harassment, threats online and off, and derogatory media campaigns.  We are aware of several cases of travel bans, asset freezes, and legislation aimed at penalizing organizations for engaging with UN human rights mechanisms.  Individuals have been disbarred or dismissed from employment, their homes searched, and their offices raided.

We are aware of cases where individuals we are communicating with have been abducted, detained, held incommunicado, or disappeared in the midst of our cooperation with them.  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. We know that some of our partners are suffering in solitary confinement, their punishment likely made worse due to their efforts to cooperate with UN mechanisms.  Some cases include sexual assault and rape in detention, against both women and men, as a method of torture. 

In some of the most severe cases, brutal measures imposed by States as reprisals have been “justified” by claiming that the individuals concerned were being charged with terrorism or cooperation with foreign entities  with the intent to damage the reputation or security of the state.

I have personally raised a large number of cases with concerned Governments, using a diplomatic approach, at least in the first instance.  While some Governments have been forthcoming and engaged with me promptly and constructively, others have not.   I thank those who have engaged with me on this important mandate and I hope we will find acceptable solutions on the cases discussed.

The United Nations relies to a large extent on information provided by our civil society partners and others.  We depend on them to highlight areas of concern, alert us to alarming situations, and make recommendations. I salute the extraordinary courage that it sometimes takes for the victims and their families to come forward and share their stories with us, and also the dedication of the civil society organizations who act on behalf of those affected. 

We have reason to believe there are many instances of intimidation or reprisals which have not been reported to the UN, including for fear of consequences.  I would welcome the further sharing of information on individual cases, and action taken at both international and country levels, to protect individuals and groups.  I encourage all of you to engage with me on this important issue.

Excellencies, we are all aware of how this Council has been criticized. I can conceive of no higher or self-evident duty – either of Council members or of Secretariat staff such as myself – for us to do more to defend the defenders of human rights.  It is frankly nothing short of abhorrent that, year after year, we are compelled to present cases to you, the UN membership, of intimidation and reprisals carried out against people whose crime – in the eyes of their respective Governments – was to cooperate with the UN institutions and mechanisms whose mandate of course derives from you, the UN membership.

Our slogan and task is to “stand up for someone’s rights today.”  I do not think there is any group of people for whom we have more of an obligation to stand up than those brave souls who have been harshly punished for cooperating with your institutions.

Thank you.