Special Rapporteur faces criticism for including LGBTI defenders in her report
Sunday, 13 March 2011 14:04


(Cet article est également disponible en français).


On 10 March 2011 the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, presented her third annual report to the Human Rights Council (the Council) during a clustered interactive dialogue together with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. In her report Ms Sekaggya focused on the situation of women human rights defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues, since they are more at risk of suffering certain forms of violence, prejudice and repudiation. Her analysis, based on a survey and communications sent to governments during the 2004-2009 period, shows that women defenders are indeed those that are most exposed to rights violations. The overwhelming majority of States taking the floor welcomed the focus of her report. However, controversies arose because of the inclusion of defenders working on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity in the report. Furthermore, some States accused the report of being based on unfounded allegations and called for a clear distinction between violations committed by State and non-state actors.


According to Ms Sekaggya’s presentation, violations faced by women defenders are most commonly threats, death threats and killings. During the reporting period, 292 communications were sent to governments regarding threats. Of those, more than half concerned defenders working in the Americas, especially in Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala. The report also identifies a worrying trend of criminalisation of the activities carried out by women defenders, particularly in China and Iran. Furthermore, women working in the legal profession and in the media are disproportionately target of intimidation, harassment and arrest. In addition, women defenders as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) activists run a particularly high risk of being subject to sexual violence and rape as a consequence of their work. Especially worrying is the systematic use of sexual violence against defenders, as practised in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).


In addition to being harassed, detained or killed, women defenders are often facing exclusion from society and their families. As Ms Sekaggya pointed out in her introductory statement: ‘While defenders in general are too often branded as terrorists, extremists, and separatists, this study shows how women defenders and those working on women’s rights and gender issues are in addition stigmatised by virtue of their sex, or indeed the gender or sexuality-based rights that they advocate.’ This is often due to the fact that they challenge ‘accepted socio-cultural norms, traditions, perceptions and stereotypes about femininity, sexual orientation, and the role and status of women in society.’


States were interested in sharing best practice and learning more about what the Council could do to improve the situation of women defenders. In addition to ensuring a gender perspective in all protection mechanisms, Ms Sekaggya called for deepening democracy, fighting impunity and striving towards social justice as the best means to create an enabling environment for human rights defenders. She also appealed to States to increase their response rate to communications received by the mandate, which currently is at a low rate of 50 percent, and to answer favourably to requests for visits. In this context she commended Armenia for the good cooperation during her visit to the country. Ms Sekaggya’s next visit will lead her to Honduras. Her requests for visits to several countries including Belarus, China, the Philippines, the Russian Federation, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Uzbekistan remain unanswered.


A large number of States expressed their support for the mandate, which is due to be renewed during this session and emphasised the important and legitimate role of human rights defenders in their societies. The negotiations on a resolution renewing the mandate, led by Norway as the traditional main sponsor of this text, have been largely concluded. While there remain some areas requiring further discussion among States on a bilateral level – including if the Special Rapporteur should also report to the General Assembly and not only the Council, and whether to welcome or simply take note of her work – the principle of renewing the mandate on human rights defenders is undisputed. Norway is therefore expected to table a draft resolution largely mirroring that of March 2008 for adoption by the Council.


The inclusion of defenders working on sexual orientation and gender identity issues was not welcomed by all States, including Bangladesh and Egypt. Uganda noted with dissatisfaction that the report was ‘blurred with the question of orientation’ and Pakistan, on behalf of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), noted with concern ‘that the Special Rapporteur preferred to comment on those social entities that are not consistent with the recognized human rights in the United Nations system’. Pakistan's condescending concept of ‘social entities’ seemed to refer to persons defending LGBTI rights. Nigeria even threatened to withdraw its support for the mandate if this focus should be upheld in the future. A number of other States such as Spain, Australia, the United States, and Slovakia and explicitly welcomed the inclusion of defenders working on sexual orientation and gender identity.


Angola, Belarus and China accused the report of being based on unfounded allegations, since it is mainly an analysis of communications sent to governments after having received information about violations from various sources. In her reply, the Special Rapporteur stated that an increased response rate by States would address this concern. Nigeria – displaying a clear misunderstanding of the well-established working methods of special procedures – claimed that she had relied on cases where the victim had not exhausted domestic remedies. In her response, Ms Sekaggya clarified that this was not required for communicating with special procedures. The Russian Federation and Pakistan (on behalf of OIC) further criticised lacking distinction between violations committed by State and non-state actors. Pakistan justified this criticism with the different response that would be needed to counter violations by non-state actors, but failed to acknowledge that even in those cases, States have a duty to protect human rights defenders from violations. The role of non-state actors as regards human rights defenders was the topic of the Special Rapporteur’s last report to the General Assembly. At the outset, Ms Sekaggya had explained that threats directed at defenders were often not clearly attributable to individuals, but that non-state actors and an alarming number of State actors count among the perpetrators. In her view, this ‘highlights the existence of a lack of accountability which contributes to a climate of impunity.’


The need to fight impunity was also stressed by Ms Sekaggya during a side event organised by the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition. The Special Rapporteur emphasised the need to look at the mindsets and prejudices of people in order to improve the situation of women human rights defenders. The panel furthermore included Andrea Medina from Coordination of Women of Ciudad Juarez (Mexico) and Paisarn Likhitpreechakul from Foundation for Sexual Diversity (Thailand) and presented an opportunity to exchange views and experiences of defenders working in all parts of the world.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 22 March 2011 12:01
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