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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

ARRIA formula meeting of the Security Council by Ilze Brands Kehris on “Reprisals against women human rights defenders and women peacebuilders who engage with the Security Council and its subsidiary bodies”Statement by Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights

21 February 2020

21 February 2020

New York


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank the Permanent Missions of the Dominican Republic and the United Kingdom for organizing and Belgium, Estonia and Germany for co-sponsoring this Arria formula meeting and for thus according priority to reprisals. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss our common concerns with you with a view to identifying ways to increase the effectiveness of our work in this area and to look for opportunities for synergies and collaboration.

As you know, the Secretary-General recognized in October 2016 that UN system-wide leadership and dedicated resources were needed to ensure a comprehensive response to this scourge and designated the ASG for Human Rights – my predecessor Andrew Gilmour – as senior official to lead such efforts.  The Secretary-General continues to prioritize this issue and I am honored to be given the chance to continue this important work. I hope we can continue to build on this initial period to further deepen our understanding and analysis of trends, to develop tools to not only effectively address reported cases to protect the victims and provide them with safety and redress, when appropriate, but also to prevent reprisals.  It is therefore a special privilege for me to embark on this work, including here today, together with you.

Over the past years, reported cases of intimidation and reprisals for cooperation with the UN have increased in both numbers and severity.  Women human rights defenders and women peace builders are often specifically targeted and subjected to gender-based harassment and violence.  Alarmingly, we see that these actions are not rare or isolated incidents, but reflect developing patterns, as emphasized by the Secretary-General in his report to the Human Rights Council on intimidation and reprisals last year. 

The essential role of civil society and specifically women in peace processes – throughout prevention, resolution and rebuilding after conflict – has by now been generally recognized, including through the regularity of the agenda item Women, Peace and Security.  In addition, the Security Council’s related resolutions and developing practice of inviting women human rights defenders and women peace-builders to brief the Council on relevant agenda items is a significant development that ultimately serves to include information and perspectives that are necessary for as fully informed decision-making at the Security Council (as in other parts of the UN) as possible.  Together with the positive contribution by increased inclusive participation, awareness of intimidation and reprisals has also been raised – and that is a pre-condition for effectively putting an end to this unacceptable practice.  The inclusion of language in Security Council resolutions – such as resolution 2493 last October – encouraging member states to create a safe and enabling environment for civil society and to address threats, harassment, violence and hate speech against civil society actors is a welcome development.  And initiatives supporting multilateral and multi-stakeholder efforts – such as this Arria meeting – by members of the Council provide the impetus we need for all-round advances on reprisals.  We all have a role to play, but pooling our efforts and finding effective ways of collaborating increases the effectiveness of our actions.

The starting point is, of course, the right of everyone, individually and in association with others, to unhindered access to and communication with the UN.  Interference with the exercise of fundamental freedoms in the form of engagement with the UN, through acts of intimidation and reprisals, violate established human rights norms and standards.  These reprisals also hinder the contribution that such engagement brings to the furthering, ultimately, of the goals set in the UN Charter in the various areas of multilateral action, such as protection of civilians, gender equality, development and the environment, peace processes, conflict prevention, humanitarian assistance and counter-terrorism.  In other words, reprisals harm not only victims, but also have a negative effect on our ability to further our common agreed objectives.

In his report on Women, Peace and Security, the Secretary-General last year expressed concern about reports of civil society members having been threatened after delivering briefings to the Security Council.  In his 2019 annual report to the Human Rights Council on reprisals, he called on the UN system to examine, investigate and document incidents and trends of intimidation and reprisals in a gender-responsive way.

We have documented cases of reprisals before, during and after cooperation with the Security Council and its subsidiary bodies.  We have seen intimidation, harassment and surveillance of partners in their country of origin or at UN Headquarters, online and offline.  We have documented travel bans and interrogation before and after travel.  We have also received information about detention and ill-treatment for cooperating with the Council.  The victims are frequently civil society actors and community representatives, but we also see cases of government officials and members of political parties suffering reprisals.

It is not surprising that victims of reprisals are precisely those who are active and essential civil society actors whose participation at the UN, and specifically the Security Council, effectively contributes to broadening the agenda and reaching informed decisions.  Indeed, it is often representatives of grassroots women’s rights organizations, who carry out fundamental life-saving work in conflict and humanitarian situations, and who play a critical role in peace-building and reconstruction efforts, who are targeted for their cooperation with the UN.  They are also often in particularly vulnerable situations, lacking funding and support.

Despite these challenges and obstacles to equal and effective participation, which means women remain underrepresented in many decision-making settings, we have seen the role of women grow, and ever more visible is the role of young women in various and new forms of participation. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that we also see the increased targeting of precisely women and young women.  The Secretary-General’s report on reprisals and intimidation notes that those working on women’s rights and the rights of LGBTI persons, including sexual and reproductive health rights, seem to be particularly targeted by intimidation and reprisals.  Threats of rape and other forms of sexual violence, online smear campaigns, online trolling, stigmatizing public discourse, sexual assault in detention and humiliating and degrading treatment have been reported in the context of engagement with the UN, as well as an increase in attacks against family members.  We have regrettably seen that the increased visibility brought by their engagement with the UN can increase their vulnerable situation, including in terms of further stigmatization and discrimination.  This can create a vicious cycle both rooted in and resulting in reinforcing discrimination and requires our urgent attention.

Women – just like men – are obviously not a homogenous group and to tackle this negative phenomenon, we need to understand it.  This means, first and foremost, that we must listen to a broad range of women human rights defenders and peace-builders in order to find how to best address the barriers they face to participation in the Security Council and other parts of the UN.  We need to ensure a safe place for their participation. We still need to better understand not only the situation in individual contexts, but also trends over time, which requires research and analysis.  This is a reminder that we need to ensure that our documentation of cases and data collection is disaggregated, including by gender, age, and diversity along such lines as ethnicity, belonging to minority and indigenous groups, etc.  This can involve the collection of sensitive personal data, and since reprisals are individual cases, care needs to be taken to ensure adequate protection of such data – but it can be done and will help us to develop appropriate responses.

But we also need to adopt and further develop our practical toolbox to help with both protection and prevention of retaliation.  Making the problem more visible and assigning priority to it is essential – as we are doing here – but we need to reach beyond the audiences and member states who already agree on this priority status.  In addition, sharing of information, coordination of responses – including provision of information and assistance to victims – and the collection and learning from good practices are steps in the right direction.  It is critical that the United Nations sends an unequivocal message of no tolerance to advance strategies to prevent reprisals and improve protection measures.

The Security Council – and the UN as a whole – can have a key role in strengthening protection of interlocutors at risk of reprisals, in enhancing accountability for such reprisals and in contributing to the development of effective prevention by assessing and mitigating risks.  OHCHR for its part will continue to develop the work in this area and stands ready to support the efforts of the Security Council as requested.

Thank you