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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

Human Rights Council
48th Session Agenda Item 5
Geneva, 29 September 2021

Madam President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am grateful for the opportunity to again engage in an interactive dialogue with you on the urgent topic of intimidation and reprisals for cooperation with the UN.

We are thankful for your continued attention and for your, Madam President, dedication to this issue.

A sign of this commitment is the biannual resolution on reprisals, expected to be adopted at this session. We welcome that the growing importance attached to reprisals and intimidation across the UN continues to be seen also at the General Assembly and the Security Council. Last year, a cross-regional group of a record 75 countries in the Third Committee called on all States and the UN to prevent, respond to, and ensure accountability for intimidation and reprisals.

Despite this momentum, however, and as the report before you makes clear, the scope and severity of cases of intimidation and reprisal persist – and in unacceptably high numbers.

Of particular concern this year, I wish to draw your attention to four key trends that emerge from the report:

First, in close to half of the countries mentioned in the report, we have received allegations of monitoring and surveillance, both online and offline, of individuals and groups who cooperate, or attempt to cooperate, with the UN.  Numerous cases include hacking of accounts, travel bans and other movement restrictions.

Second, as several UN actors have addressed repeated or similar allegations of intimidation and reprisals to those raised in this and earlier reports, we see signs of a possible pattern in several countries.  They include China, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Viet Nam, as well as India, Israel, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Venezuela.  In the first five we have identified serious issues with the detention of victims of reprisals and intimidation, as illustrated by the multiple cases included in the report.  In addition, UN entities have yet again identified instances where they believe the detention “systemic”, such as in the United Arab Emirates. 

Third, some cases concern the use of restrictive legislation that prevents or punishes cooperation with the UN, notably on grounds of national security, including counter-terrorism measures, or based on laws governing activities of civil society organizations. Let me be clear: claiming women’s rights before a UN body is not an act of terrorism and speaking up in UN fora on the rights of minorities or indigenous peoples is not a threat to national security.

Fourth, the increasingly challenging, or even at times repressive, environments for victims, human rights defenders, journalists and other civil society actors are indicated by the fact that many are deterred from providing specific details about a case – or decline to draw the UN’s attention to their circumstances altogether.

We also see a worrisome trend where we are requested to report on a case anonymously, out of fear for additional acts of reprisal. A large number of these concern women.

The numbers speak for themselves. Out of a total number of 240 individuals referred to in the report, more than 100 are not mentioned by name due to protection issues.

This signals a high level of risks affecting cooperation with the UN in contexts where fear can inhibit such cooperation. As emphasized by the Secretary-General, we are deeply concerned that any individual or group would exercise self-censorship and refrain from engaging with the UN for fear of harm or retribution.


Victims of acts of reprisal and intimidation for cooperation with the UN continue to be subjected to serious human rights violations – in particular arbitrary arrests and detention, but also torture and ill-treatment, and even death in custody, killing and enforced disappearances. 

We have also received reports of individuals being questioned about their UN engagement prior to being detained, or while in detention, including during interrogation.  Some have been charged with offences for activities related to their cooperation with the UN, such as engaging with foreign entities and tarnishing the image of the State.

We note conditional releases of individuals in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela during the reporting period.  However, this year’s report includes the cases of close to 50 individuals who experienced detention during the reporting period, while others involve house arrest. Several individuals are serving long prison sentences.  Others remain in detention despite having served their sentences, or are detained in contravention of court decisions ordering their release.

As the report highlights, we are also concerned about access-related issues for UN spaces, activities and operations, which obstruct our work and cooperation with partners to monitor human rights violations and collect testimony, including in situations to which the Human Rights Council and Security Council have drawn attention. 

As a result of improved monitoring, the report documents incidents and issues related to access in more Security Council-mandated missions than ever before, including in the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Mali and South Sudan. Access issues are also highlighted in relation to Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Syria and Yemen.


In the digital sphere, activists and journalists have been attacked on social media after speaking at UN meetings, and victims targeted for submitting information to, or communicating electronically with, us. New risks have emerged, including through expanded digital surveillance and coordinated online attacks by State and non-State actors, increasing the potential vulnerability of individuals and organizations to intimidation and reprisals.

But the digital era has also brought new opportunities.  As the report highlights, we are seeing greater access for some civil society actors who are now able to engage and participate online in UN debates from all around the world. 

Many, however, still lack access to secure digital technology. We must do more as a system to ensure that the digital divide is addressed to facilitate a more meaningful – and safe – engagement.

We are concerned that human rights defenders under threat, but whose cases are under-reported, include those who also face barriers related to their age, gender or sexual orientation, and those who represent indigenous peoples or minorities or who advocate for land and resource-related rights

Additional efforts are underway to document their cases and trends to facilitate disaggregated reporting and more nuanced analysis, and to improve our response. Notably, we are closely coordinating with different UN field presences to ensure increased awareness about reprisals, safe interactions with victims, witnesses and human rights defenders, and accurate collection and verification of data and testimonies.

I remain very concerned that the trend of publicly reported allegations of reprisals against women victims and defenders highlighted in last year’s report has continued in this reporting period.  While the report notes that more women are increasingly cooperating with the UN, including by using on-line opportunities, the price of such interactions for some has included arrests and detention, harassment and intimidation, as well as stigmatization and vilification. 

Madam President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Going forward, we can only achieve a more coherent and effective response by all actors in the UN system if we work closely together not only to protect victims, but also to improve and strengthen our capacity to prevent reprisals.

We welcome improved reporting from our colleagues across the UN system, with increased vigilance to incidents and possible trends, especially in conflict settings.  In addition, a few good practices to mitigate and respond to cases were identified in UN missions in Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mali.

We have also collected some good examples of State accountability and protection measures.  In addition to the emerging good practice of some Security Council members for the advance consideration of the risks that briefers face and preparation of tailored contingency plans, some States also mobilize resources to ensure timely emergency assistance for victims of reprisals.  

Importantly, States’ responses to allegations presented to them in the preparation of the report are encouraging. This enhances our dialogue and engagement, which is indispensable for effectively addressing and preventing all forms of intimidation and reprisal.  I thank those States who provided detailed written responses, which we take care to reflect in the report. 

Ultimately, I wish to reiterate our shared responsibility to address intimidation and reprisals for cooperation with the UN and express my most sincere gratitude and appreciation to those individuals and groups who place their trust in us by sharing their testimonies, insights and recommendations. 

As the Secretary-General has underlined in Our Common Agenda, people must participate in decisions that affect them.  We, at the UN, are committed to ensure that we build on recent innovations to listen to, consult and engage with people around the world. This enhanced participation is also a core dimension of the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights.

We cannot tolerate those who bring critical perspectives to us being silenced.   We need to do more and better to provide safe and open spaces for interaction, where those who speak up can be heard without fear of any sort of retribution. 

Thank you.