Human Rights Council hears calls for protection of human rights defenders
Wednesday, 24 March 2010 10:42

Difficult negotiations at the Human Rights Council (the Council) on a draft resolution on the ‘protection of human rights defenders’ threaten to undermine existing human rights standards, and in fact lower the protection extended to all those working to promote and protect all human rights. Despite the report of the Council’s own Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Ms Margaret Sekaggya, that threats, harassment and violence against human rights defenders are widespread, some States are attempting to co-opt the resolution focusing on protection to attempt to renegotiate the delicate consensus found in the 1998 Declaration on human rights defenders. Already prior to the session of the Council, Norway initiated consultations on a draft resolution on protection of human rights defenders, building on the report of the Special Rapporteur. Although Norway followed a transparent and inclusive approach and accommodated many proposals in its draft, the negotiations have become increasingly difficult over the course of this session. Several controversial proposals have been made, many of which were discussed and discarded during the negotiations on the Declaration on human rights defenders.


On 11 March 2010, the Council considered the second annual report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Ms Margaret Sekaggya, focusing on security and protection of human rights defenders. She stressed that since the adoption of the Declaration on human rights defenders violence against the human rights defenders has not decreased. She was also disappointed with the response rate of States to a questionnaire regarding the protection of human rights defenders. Ms Sekaggya urged States to pay specific attention to women human rights defenders and defenders working on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. Moreover, she expressed concern that trade unionists and members of NGOs and social movements face arrests based on ambiguous laws in many States. 


On 23 March 2010, the International Service for Human Rights in a joint statement (YouTube Channel) with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Cairo Institute of Human Rights Studies, Al Haq Law in the Service of Man expressed alarm at attempts during the negotiations to selectively quote from, rewrite, or restrict the clear provisions of the Declaration on human rights defenders in order to regulate the work of NGOs and restrict protection to only those working on issues that governments have accepted or agree with.


During the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur, some of the issues that have come up in the negotiations were raised. While the report was largely welcomed, many States, including the EU, Sweden, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, were alarmed about the criminalisation of human rights defenders’ work, and the Special Rapporteur’s statement that they are often portrayed as terrorists, political opponents, and enemies of the State. Sweden asked Ms Sekaggya how this trend could be addressed. The Special Rapporteur responded that State officials should make public statements acknowledging the role of human rights defenders and the legitimacy of their work. Moreover, Ms Sekaggya highlighted that human rights defenders need to be consulted in the design of State programmes for the protection of defenders.


Many States gave special focus during the interactive dialogue was also given to the protection of women human rights defenders and LGBT defenders. In this regard, Slovenia recommended that gender sensitive trainings should be put in place for law enforcement officials, protection officers and those who design protection programmes for women human rights defenders. Slovenia and France further asked Ms Sekaggya to specify measures to protect women human rights defenders and LGBT defenders. Ms Sekaggya responded that States must ensure that there is no impunity for crimes against these groups of human rights defenders, and underlined the need for awareness raising. She also announced that she would devote one of her future thematic reports to the issue of women human rights defenders. 


Some States, including Switzerland, the US, the UK, and the Republic of Korea asked Ms Sekaggya for more details about her proposal to establish early warning systems at the national level ‘to anticipate and trigger the launch of protective measures’. She replied that an early warning system encompasses the training of State officials, the police and security forces on the Declaration on human rights defenders and the identification of ‘deteriorating operating environments’ for human rights defenders.


The issue of ‘definition’ of human rights defenders was brought up, an issue that has also been debate during the resolution negotiations. Some States, including Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC), the Russian Federation, Bangladesh, China, Sri Lanka, Iran, Egypt, and Morocco, claimed that human rights defenders would misuse ‘their label’, and that defenders are seeking some elevated status for themselves. These States argued that human rights defenders could evade the law of the country they operate in and push some specific political agenda. Ms Sekaggya in her answers countered these statements by stressing that the Declaration on human rights defenders already provides a definition of human rights defenders. She also stated that stigmatisation of and accusations against human rights defenders hinder their work and urged all States to live up to their responsibilities to protect defenders.  

Addressing comments about the low level of cooperation extended to the mandate by States, Ms Sekaggya encouraged the Council to urge States to provide information about cases of reprisals against human right defenders. She regretted the decrease in the response rate to communications sent to governments. She also listed a series of States, including Belarus, Bhutan, Chad, China, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Mozambique, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, the Russian Federation, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe that have not responded to her requests for visits.


Ms Sekaggya further presented the reports on her missions in 2009. Ms Sekaggya expressed concern about the widespread stigmatisation, threats, arbitrary detentions, and travel bans faced by human rights defenders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). She noted that there is widespread impunity for State authorities and members of armed groups in the country. Ms Sekaggya also expresses concern regarding restrictions on the right to freedom of association, the right to peaceful assembly, and the right to freedom of expression. She urged the DRC to ensure full protection of human rights defenders. In response, the DRC stated that it had already implemented part of the recommendations, including the legal framework for the protection of human rights defenders and the creation of a National Commission on Human Rights. It rejected the Special Rapporteur’s assertions that human rights defenders are stigmatised and subjected to discrimination, or that that there is a culture of impunity for violating rights of human rights defenders wholesale. It also claimed that alleged violations committed against journalists are ‘isolated cases’ and that the judiciary has investigated these violations. In stark contrast to these claims, the DRC stated that it would continue to lead a ‘positive dialogue with civil society’. The DRC argued that no State could let crimes committed ‘under the guise of being a human rights defender’ go unpunished, without referring to any specific cases.


Ms Sekaggya also presented her report on Colombia and highlighted persistent insecurities for human rights defenders such as arbitrary arrests and judicial harassment. She recommended Colombia recognise the work of human rights defenders, hold an open dialogue with them, and prevent the climate of impunity by punishing the perpetrators. Colombia had a positive approach to the findings in the report and expressed gratitude to all those contributing to the design of protection measures, as useful contributions in helping the Government understand the problems that human rights defenders face in Colombia. It acknowledged the problems in the area of detention and arrest processes. It expressed general support to Norway for the draft resolution but has so far remained largely silent in the negotiations.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 24 August 2010 17:12
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