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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

Human Rights Council, 42nd Session
Agenda Item 5
Geneva, 19 September 2019

Mr. President, Excellencies, colleagues,

Thank you for the opportunity to address in an interactive dialogue the worrisome issue of intimidation and reprisals for cooperation with the UN. We greatly appreciate the Council devoting particular attention to this alarming subject, especially you, Mr. President.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of resolution 12/2, when this Council requested the UN to take urgent steps to address intimidation and reprisals. Two years ago, this Council decided to dedicate additional attention to the report of the Secretary-General to ensure the sharing of good practices, challenges, and lessons learned. It is in that spirit that I begin this dialogue.

Today’s discussion should be seen in the context of a seriously worrying global crackdown on civic space and freedoms. The Secretary-General referred to this trend in his remarks to you this February, noting that harassment and attacks were on the rise as measured in the number of human rights defenders, environmental activists, indigenous people, and journalists killed in the last three years. “We must do more to defend defenders and end reprisals against those who share their human rights stories”, he stressed. This includes victims of human rights violations who share their testimonies with the UN.

In the report before you, the Secretary-General underscored that reported allegations over the years demonstrate that intimidation and reprisals are “more than isolated incidents, but can signal patterns.” In the past year, intimidation and reprisals have manifested themselves in three broad categories: (i) acts of violence; (ii) disproportionate legal and policy restrictions; and (iii) hostile public discourse. Far too often, they are framed as justified by arguments of national security and counter-terrorism strategies.

Acts of serious cruelty have continuously been reported against those who dare to come to the UN or share information with us – incommunicado detention, torture and ill-treatment, prolonged solitary confinement, and even deaths in custody. It is not just those making complaints who are being targeted, but also their family members, legal representatives, intermediaries, witnesses and interpreters.

This year’s report includes several cases of new and ongoing incidents of enforced disappearance or detention, some which have been deemed arbitrary by UN human rights experts. Many individuals languish in prison, some on terrorism charges and others still without trial, and with reports of sexual harassment and assault in detention.

Some are deeply punished for having cooperated with us, while others report being punished for seeking remedy. There are several cases where an official UN ‘opinion’ or a ‘communication’ written on an individual’s situation seems to have had a detrimental impact on their detention conditions, or spurred retaliation against their family.

In parallel, incidents of intimidation at UN meetings, trainings and conferences, continue at an alarming rate, and right under our noses. Individuals and organizations have been harassed at UN events, unwillingly filmed or photographed, or had their statements in closed sessions secretly recorded. This has created a climate of intimidation that is clearly intended to create fear and deter others from future participation.

We are aware of organisations affiliated with governments registering or being accredited as members of civil society. This misuse of civil society status undermines the role that groups not connected to the government play. It has been reported that individuals not identified as State representatives were in fact connected to certain governments and attended closed briefings to intimidate and carry out surveillance.

But we know that intimidation happens much earlier than on UN premises. Efforts to block or discourage participation at the UN – whether by surveillance, threats, or travel restrictions – are widespread. Retaliation is frequently reported against certain individuals when they return home.

A second trend that the Secretary-General highlighted last year and which remains prevalent is that reprisals are often linked to legal, political and administrative hindrances. Selectively applied laws and policies, or new legislation that restrict the operations of civil society organizations cooperating with the UN are being used in many countries to undermine their legal status, ability to operate, and funding.

Similarly, accreditation and security procedures have been used to block people from UN meetings, with the claim that an individual’s attendance would somehow threaten a country’s security.

We see hate speech, smear campaigns, and harassment reported against representatives of civil society, national human rights institutions, and journalists, but also public officials and members of political parties. And we see how gender plays a role in terms of stigmatization, including within an individual’s own community.

In addition, the immediacy and reach of online threats pose serious challenges to those speaking up. We are very concerned at the widespread misuse of the online space through cyberbullying, including against those who have pivotal roles in UN efforts.

We hear continually of online attacks and other harassment and threats directed at independent experts with UN mandates. This has a chilling effect on those seeking to work with us and share their stories. If even high profile experts with international backing can be attacked with impunity, this sends a threatening message to others at national or community level who are not afforded the same visibility.

Turning to the summary of cases, due in part to more systematic reporting and coordinated action on reprisals, this year’s report references 48 States from each of the UN’s five regions. This includes new cases as well as new developments in cases previously reported. Some of these States are members of this Council. Some have featured in this report nearly every year since 2010.

For comparison, from 2010 to 2016, an average of 15 countries were included in the annual reports. The 2017 report mentioned 29 States, the 2018 report 38, this year 48. As in the past, a number of cases have not been included due to security risks for the victims themselves and their families.

This year we made particular effort to compile alleged cases in advance and to provide States an opportunity to examine, investigate and share their views with us on the written allegations. Responses received have been summarized in the report. We are very grateful to those States who responded.

But even with this increased reporting, the Secretary-General remains particular concerned at the growing body of evidence of self-censorship. Some individuals decide not to engage with us out of fear for their safety, or in contexts where human rights work is criminalized or publicly vilified.

The past year shows an unprecedented level of allegations relating to cooperation with the UN human rights mechanisms, notably those mandated by this Council, as well as those with human rights components of peace operations or OHCHR field presences. But we are also seeing increased cases reported at Headquarters in New York: with intimidation of speakers at the Security Council, the ECOSOC, and the High-Level Political Forum this July.

Yet again, we are concerned at the use of accreditation procedures to block access to the Organization. DESA has reported a continual deferral rate of roughly 50% of civil society organizations trying to acquire consultative status with ECOSOC. Human rights NGOs are disproportionately affected. Such deferrals are increasingly seen, including by Member States, as attempts to hamper access to the UN and as a manifestation of shrinking civil society space.

In April, I addressed the widespread intimidation of and reprisals against indigenous peoples at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, in particular against those defending their traditional land and natural resources. Regrettably, intimidation was reported at that Forum, in the corridors and even in the plenary, and also after the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in July in Geneva.

On a positive note, the report also highlights some of the State responses to prevent and address these trends, as well as efforts at accountability or legislative reform. It is encouraging that some Governments addressed the allegations presented to them, including in the form of an investigation of a reported incident, an offer of support and protection, or an apology to those affected. The report also highlights some welcome developments in legal proceedings.

During the interactive dialogue on the 2018 report last year, it was suggested that the UN collect information on good practices to address and prevent reprisals. In February 2019, OHCHR issued a questionnaire and, on the basis of a limited number of replies received, the report highlights some of these practices to make reprisals a priority in multilateral fora and to increase accountability at the national level.

This session is my last as the senior UN official designated to lead efforts to end intimidation and reprisals for cooperation with the UN on human rights. Therefore, I want to offer some brief thoughts on what has been accomplished in the last 3 years and to highlight some challenges.

First, we keep seeing an increase in reported cases year after year. Somewhat dispiritingly, this year’s report references cases in what amounts to one fourth of all UN Member States. On the other hand, we recognize that some of the increase is due to improved collection of information. Thus, the UN’s ability to document allegations can be seen as a step forward, as we have enhanced our own capacities and are reaching more victims.

The content of the report depends on the information received and therefore the picture reflected in it is incomplete. We are aware that we receive more information in contexts where the security situation allows it, and where there is an active civil society network. Conversely, we may have few or even no cases to report in countries that are the most closed to civil society activities. Nevertheless, despite these limitations, at this point we had hoped that the numbers would be going down, and not up. Beyond the 48 States mentioned in the report, we continue to monitor cases in about a dozen more.

Secondly, we still observe a trend in denial by governments who insist almost invariably that the allegations presented to them are not reprisals – that the treatment of targeted individuals NGOs is not related to cooperation with the UN. If we are to move toward good practices and prevention measures, we must address this issue. One of the best signals of a State’s commitment to human rights is the seriousness with which it examines allegations of reprisals. On the other hand, the verbal violence with which we may be attacked for daring to report an alleged violation is often a reflection of the physical or psychological violence that was employed against the victim in question.

Which brings me to a related trend. Many individuals who have shared information with us, or come to our meetings, have been officially charged with “terrorism,” blamed for “cooperation with foreign entities,” or accused of “damaging the reputation or security of the State.” Others are dismissed as being mere “criminals.” In some cases organizations’ foreign funding has been cut or significantly reduced, undermining their ability to research and collect information, travel and advocate for human rights issues at the UN. The justification for such action is usually framed as being in implementation of a national law or a policy to respect security.

A healthy dose of skepticism on our part in the face of such justifications is, I would hope, understandable. The absence of any accountability, and the systematic refusal of Governments to admit that, yes, some state agent may indeed have carried out an act of reprisal, is a perpetually frustrating element of this mandate.

Finally, one of the goals three years ago when I was appointed, in order to promote an enhanced UN response to the issue of reprisals, was better understanding and more comprehensive and coordinated efforts to address cases and policy issues. Within the UN system, I am pleased that there have been notable initiatives to develop guidance, sensitize staff members, and improve reporting. In addition to OHCHR, there are several UN organizations addressing the issue with improved policy and protection initiatives, such as ILO, UN Women, the World Bank Group, UNDP and UN peace operations, leading to enhanced sensitization. On the ground and at Headquarters, we will continue to improve our ways of documenting, analysing and reporting on cases and trends.

After three decades serving in the UN, I am more convinced than ever that putting an end to reprisals should be a priority and core responsibility of the Organization: its Member States, inter-governmental bodies, agencies and staff. While the UN will continue to strengthen its system-wide response, the real onus is of course on the Member States. It is, after all, you who mandated various UN entities to collect information on human rights. And I would respectfully suggest it is you who need to ensure that brave human rights defenders are not cruelly targeted for cooperating with those same bodies you established.

Thank you again for considering this issue and – to many of you – for providing me with unstinting support in my efforts. My colleagues and I greatly appreciate that. 


Closing remarks  (watch video here)

Thank you. Today has been a very rich and fruitful debate and I would like to thank every speaker: those who have been totally supportive of what we are doing; those who are utterly opposed; and those who are somewhere in-between.

A number of countries have asked quite some big questions as to what more they can do to help, what more the UN can do, and what more the countries concerned can do. The Czech Republic, Denmark, Costa Rica, Croatia, Ireland, Moldova, Human Rights Watch and others have all asked. In the interest of time, I will answer them together.

What do we think could help contribute to a conducive environment? Cooperation with the UN includes a number of elements: freedom of movement to allow people to have access to the UN, and they are not restricted by travel bans; legislative environment that encourages people to be able to set up organizations and cooperate with us; freedoms of expression and assembly and association; and a form of internet freedom, but within limits so that it does not lead to anonymous smear campaigns, but enough freedom so that individuals and organizations may post opinions.

In addition, for accountability, we strongly believe that States should try to ensure prompt and impartial investigations of allegations, access to justice, and ensure that people can participate freely. Accountability for reprisals will only be improved if States take the issue seriously, including stating unequivocally that they have a no tolerance policy for reprisals, taking prompt measures to investigate allegations, engaging with victims, ensuring judicial independence, whether they are States or non-States that they can be brought to justice, providing remedies for victims, and creating a safe environment.

The representative of the European Union asked about self-censorship. This is a very important point as we established. And let us be under no illusions here, self-censorship is the aim. It is why States and others carry out reprisals and intimidation. Their ideal is that human rights defenders should self-censor and it is only when they refuse to self-censor that reprisals are taken. It is a very difficult issue because it is hard to prove if human rights defenders and organizations are so intimidated that they do not even want to engage with us to report on the reprisals that they have suffered, that of course is hard for us to put in. But it is an important point. We find it problematic that States that do these things should be rewarded for carrying out such reprisals, in the sense that we are then prevented from reporting on the reprisals themselves. It is something we are going to work harder on, but when we report on it please understand that that is exactly why reprisals take place. The people doing it want self-censorship to happen.

As I said, we received a number of very helpful questions today. On some of the more specific points raised, I would like to very quickly go through these. I entirely agree with, for example Belgium and others, who talked about Human Rights Council members needing to live up to the high standards expected of them, and the incompatibility of membership of the Council with frequent targeting of human rights defenders for reprisals. I thank Angola for stressing, and this is a very important point, the importance of us continuing to reflect the views of Member States in the report. For us this is a crucial form of engagement. We invest heavily in reaching out to Member States, and we very much welcome when Member States respond constructively, as most do.

I agree with the comments from the representative of Palestine about the restrictions of civil society in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but also the impunity for those who carry out attacks and intimidation against human rights defenders there. I note also comparable comments by the Pakistani representative regarding Kashmir.

The UK Ambassador rightly pointed out the threats that we see targeted at indigenous defenders, environmental defenders and land rights defenders. We have a particular concern on that.

I would like to thank Hungary, which is a strong member of the “core group,” for supporting our mandate and for its very robust engagement with us, despite our disagreement on the specifics of a couple of cases. We do not think that what is in the report is biased politically, or false or unchecked. It is certainly not the case that Hungary’s effort to engage was unanswered by us, nor were we judging it based on differences of opinion on migration. It is just that for the criteria that we have set on intimidation and reprisals, we think the examples meet that criteria.

A number of States gave very helpful and positive comments – including Fiji, Maldives, Montenegro, Costa Rica, Georgia, Ireland, Bangladesh. Bahamas was notable not only for its supporting comments, in general, but for its very specific case that it flagged, and it did so in a very constructive way, and we believe that that is an example of good practice and we are grateful to the Bahamas for that.

I thank Egypt for its cooperation as demonstrated by the representative here and also by the frequent written communications we have had. And we by the way agree, and this is the point made by both Egypt and India and others, that the fact that an individual or organization has cooperated with the UN does not automatically mean that that individual or organization deserves impunity for other crimes. We agree on that point in principle. Cuba rejected the mandate and also the way we carried it out; the “unfounded allegations”, the “double standards” and, like last year, it accused human rights defenders of being “mercenaries of a foreign power”. As I said last year in response to that exact phrase, I do believe that phrase says more about Cuba than it says about the human rights defenders that they are talking about. Iraq, Iran, Viet Nam and Venezuela all referred to the constructive dialogue we had, while making clear that they have differences with us over particular cases. Several delegations brought up gender, women’s rights, and LGBTI. This has been a priority for my office over the last 3 years, and I am absolutely convinced it will remain a priority for whoever takes on this mandate next.

Turning to NGOs, and I would like to thank GANHRI. Yes, we are very concerned about the National Human Rights Institution in the Philippines and the Ombudsman in Guatemala. Likewise, the Right Livelihood Award Foundation mentioned Guatemala and CICIG, Ivan Velazquez and Helen Mack. ISHR, which is a world leader in the issue of reprisals and we should all be grateful to ISHR for its role in this, but I do not accept the charge that the Secretary-General has been “pandering”, their word, to powerful Member States. We are concerned, like you are (ISHR), about Brazil, Russia and the United States. But I would like to point out that the case you raised regarding the United States and the threats by Mr. John Bolton, as it happens, against the ICC are not strictly within the mandate of this report because the ICC is not strictly a UN body [it is a related organization] and that is why it is not there. Alsalam, thank you for bringing further information about Bahrain, and Human Rights Watch and the Cairo Institute for raising issues about Egypt. A number of NGOs but also the German Ambassador mentioned the case of Ibrahim Metwally who is one of the emblematic, possibly the most emblematic, of all cases of reprisals, a man who two years ago was arrested at Cairo airport on his way to Geneva to engage with us and human rights mechanisms on human rights issues. I am glad that CIVICUS raised the issue of the cases of some Saudi women for whom we are deeply concerned about. I thank the Comisión Mexicana for the important point on her country and impunity.

To conclude, a number of countries accused us of having “unsubstantiated” allegations. I would like to point out that some of those countries prevent us having access to go and substantiate it, so I slightly feel you are having it both ways. You say that we do not substantiate our allegations but then you do not allow people to go and actually do the substantiating. Nevertheless, we do believe that even if we cannot be absolutely certain that an allegation is correct, we do believe that there are strong grounds for imagining that it is.

China pointed out that it thinks I have refused to listen, but I have not, I have listened very, very carefully to every meeting we have had, and also read all the communications. And, indeed, the report summarizes, in some quite substantial detail, China’s position on each of those cases.

A number of countries referred to the reflection of their governments’ submissions. Thailand said we did not reflect theirs at all, but actually we have an enormous contribution from Thailand in the report. The whole of paragraph 102 of Annex II and large sections of paragraphs 99 and 100 are detailed summaries of the Thai Government’s position. Similarly, Viet Nam felt that we did not give a balanced summary in paragraph 123 and that it was selective, but we do believe that it was an accurate reflection of their view.

I think part of the issue is that some States think that, after we have contacted them regarding a particular allegation, they believe that once they write back denying (as they unfailingly do) that it was a reprisal, that that should be the end of the story. But it is not, and we are very careful to show in the report that we are taking the allegation but we do not necessarily assume that the allegation is the undisputed truth, although we would not include it if we did not think that there was strong reasons for thinking that there was some truth in it. Similarly, when we hear the government’s position, which the governments concerned have provided us with, we also do not assume that this is the undisputed truth. We put down, and we believe in a balanced way, the two points of view.

Again, I would like to thank everybody. I think last year at the very end I pointed out that there are essentially three categories of interventions among Member States. There are those who are unequivocally supportive and whose questions go in the direction of what more can they or we do to combat the scourge of reprisals and intimidation. There are those who say they are supportive of the mandate but then are critical of us in varying ways of how we do it, by saying that the cases we have referred to are politicised or just inaccurate. And then there is a third category (of two Member States) who believe that what we are doing is counter to the Charter. Well, I can say that we very much reject that charge, that somehow we are doing is opposed to the UN Charter. I think it is fully in line with every aspect of the Charter. But in any case, as I have said I thank all three groups of States for their very helpful interventions.

Thank you, Mr. President.