UN Organizations Discuss Reprisals this October

October 20, 2021

Reprisals against human rights defenders were at the core of the United Nations Human Rights Council 48th session, held from September 13 to October 11, 2021. Following a report from civil society organizations, the UNHRC based in Geneva adopted a strong resolution by consensus, the first over the last decade, on the topic of reprisals. Member States meeting at the UN General Assembly 76th session in New York were then called upon to support a cross-regional joint statement on reprisals, which 80 countries signed committing themselves to ensuring the engagement of all civil society organisations and human rights defenders at the UN without fear of intimidation and punishment. So, does this mean the end of reprisals for HRDs? Not yet, but these milestones should pave the way for renewed attention and commitment to the topic.


Protecting essential voices

Human rights defenders (HRDs) work to make a fairer, more sustainable and just world by promoting and protecting human rights. In considering human rights situations around the world, the UN system is profoundly dependent on the information and testimonies provided by human rights defenders who document situations, abuses and violations. They are essential voices from our communities that need to be part of the conversations at the United Nations.

This pivotal role is a one of the reasons why some States seek to prevent defenders from engaging with UN bodies and mechanisms.

A report on reprisals

While everyone in theory has the right to access and safely communicate with the UN, States often engage in tactics to repress and discourage contact between civil society and the UN architecture. Reprisals symbolize an attack on the perspectives and efforts of HRDs and those collaborating closely with them, as sargued in the report submitted by civil society organizations to the UNHRC early October 2021.

Tallying up past cases with newly reported cases, the report reveals that, 31 countries have taken part in reprisals against HRDs operating in their territories. These reprisals committed by State or non-state actors range from imprisonment and killings of defenders to physical attacks and assault, arbitrary arrests, torture, sexual violence, smear campaigns in the media, surveillance and stalking, denial of basic medical amenities, travel bans, financial embargoes, administrative and legal hurdles. As a deterrent, States use reprisals against family members and close colleagues and friends of HRDs as well.

Furthermore, the report reiterates proposals made over the past ten years, such as the mechanisms of protection to victims of reprisals, “good practices” for States, the effect of reprisals on women and children and contributes a new discussion about digitized avenues to safely access the UN and digital security in the light of COVID-19.

Every reprisal diminishes our ability to deliver to the people we serve.”

Joint Statement, Third Committee, October 19, 2020.


Five Martin Ennals Awardees as emblematic cases

The report highlights approximately 159 organizations and HRDs who faced some form of reprisal, including five former Martin Ennals winners.

Venerable Luon Sovath, a Buddhist monk from Siem Reap, Cambodia has creatively advocated for rights against forced evictions since 2009. Delegates of Cambodia, Vietnam and other countries interrupted his oral statement in a coordinated fashion at the Interactive Dialogue on Cambodia during the 45th UNHRC session on October 1st, 2020, challenging his presence there on grounds of the legitimacy of his accreditation. Not intimidated, Venerable Sovath was able to deliver his statement after all, in large part thanks to the leadership of the session.

Loujain Al-Hathloul, a leading figure advocating for gender equality and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, was arrested by the Saudi Arabian government because of her engagement with the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). In February 2021, after several dedicated efforts by her relatives and human rights groups, she was released from prison. But she remains under probation which heavily restricts her freedom of speech and movement. “Loujain’s years-long imprisonment has ended, but she is not free… Banned from travel and coerced into silence by a suspended sentence hanging over her, Loujain’s ordeal remains a flagrant miscarriage of justice.”, said Adam Coogle, the deputy director for the Middle East at Human Rights Watch.

Ahmed Mansoor  promoted democratic reforms to guarantee freedom of expression, civil and political rights in his home country, the United Arab Emirates. He remains imprisoned, since January 2019, serving a ten-year sentence under dreadful conditions at Al-Sadr prison and subjected to routine torture. Since 2014, Ahmed had also received death threats, was constantly surveilled and had travel bans imposed on him in part because of his collaboration with the Human Rights Council. The Government remains silent on the status of his health and conditions of detention.

Reprisals against Adilur Rahman Khan, a leading human rights lawyer in Bangladesh, have also extended to his organization, Odhikar. Adilur and his team have been subjected to state repression and punishments since 2009, when they engaged with the Universal Periodic Review of Bangladesh, experiencing routine threats, harassment, surveillance. One member of the Odhikar staff was even killed.

The report highlights the ordeals faced by Xu Yan, the wife of MEA Laureate Yu Wensheng, who has been unlawfully detained since January 2018. Xu accessed UN human rights mechanisms as part of her campaign for the release of her husband. She was not informed where he was imprisoned for eight months during June 2020 and February 2021. She was able to visit her husband on March 15, 2021, for the first time since his detention. Xu remains under constant surveillance by authorities, preventing her participation during key public events.

A grim reality?

States continue to engage in reprisals against HRDs and often deny or silence its occurrence. UN Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmore, expressed that little has changed in the past decade about States’ responses to address issues of reprisals— “we have sadly seen the form reprisals take on an annual basis since the report was first published in 2010, and we have heard governments named in those reports gaslight the Human Rights Council every year since in their responses to the report.”

Furthermore, the results of the Human Rights Council election held in Geneva on October 14 echo a potentially grimmer reality. The results revealed that out of the eighteen states who competed for membership to the Council for the 2021-2024 term, more than half (10 countries) have been cited by the Secretary-General in the last 11 years for engaging in acts of intimidation or reprisals in retaliation for, or to discourage cooperation with, the UN.” The election results, therefore, are not in line with the renewal of commitments to ending reprisals against HRDs, amongst other aspirations emerging from the 48th session.

…or glimmers of hope?

The HRC elections point towards a more hopeful future as well. Although states like Cameroon, India and the UAE now possess membership to the HRC, their election symbolizes a potential step forward in the process of ending reprisals. The HRC elections also hold the promise of providing a platform wherein elected members could be scrutinized more thoroughly and demand answers to questions that have previously been silenced or avoided. As for future elections, one of the ways to promote an end to reprisals against defenders would be to make a Member State’s record on the topic one of the key criteria for consideration when running for election to the Human Rights Council. This would contribute visibility not only to acts of reprisals that States might quietly engage in, but also to the work of human rights defenders and the everyday challenges that they face.

October 14th also saw 80 states sign a joint statement committing themselves to ending reprisals against HRDs in New York – no small feat in the current climate for multilateralism. It symbolizes that particularly on the question of reprisals, countries have been able to compromise on their narrow political groupings, which often defined the atmosphere at the UN headquarters of New York.

So, whether these were developments that emerged in Geneva or in New York, these events are key in the process to ending reprisals. It remains to be seen whether these renewed debates will have an important effect on the dynamics of the UN system.

Featured Image by Maina Kiai, flickr.com.