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States fail to address challenges to civil society engagement with UN at panel on gender
Monday, 16 September 2013 21:53


(Geneva, 16 September) - A Human Rights Council debate on the role of civil society in integrating gender throughout the Council’s work saw States affirm the important work of civil society in the work of the UN and specifically in promoting gender equality. In her opening address the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navi Pillay, emphasised how civil society actors provide the ‘crucial link’ between policy and action, through holding States accountable, and through their capacity to transform situations on the ground. 


Other panelists, including Chair of the Coordinating Committee of Special Procedures and Special Rapporteur on internally displaced persons, Mr Chaloka Beyani, pointed to the importance of the voice of civil society within the UN system. The Maldives noted that human rights defenders ‘are often the only voice to the powerless and helpless within a society’, while Ireland described civil society as ‘the pulse of their constituencies and communities’.


Civil society was represented on the panel by Ms Mozn Hassan, Executive Director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, based in Cairo, and Ms Neha Sood, from Action Canada for Population and Development. Ms Sood emphasised the role that civil society has played in giving visibility to previously marginalised and ‘difficult’ issues such as gender equality, sexual and reproductive rights, and sexual violence.


Though most member States that took part in the interactive discussion focused on civil society's contribution to the Council and its mechanisms, such as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and the special procedures, Poland used the opportunity to call attention to limitations on civil society's access to the United Nation's highest level policy-making body: the General Assembly.  Poland highlighted their ongoing concern about the use of the no-objection procedure in the context of UNGA high-level events, expressing the need to ensure that the ‘participation of NGOs...should not be restricted by political calculations’. The no-objection procedure has become prevalent in a range of meetings at UN headquarters in recent years, and allows any NGO to be barred from a meeting of the General Assembly on the basis of any objection by any State. ISHR strongly supports Poland's view that the ‘no-objection’ procedure is flawed, and that its arbitrary and ad-hoc nature not only risks excluding relevant and valuable voices, but can also lead to censorship and politically motivated exclusion of critical voices.


There was general recognition of the need for States at the national level to engage widely with civil society, to ensure these voices are heard, and likewise for the UN human rights system to ensure space for civil society input. However there was little in the way of concrete proposals from States as to how civil society engagement with the process could be improved. The only, rather vague, proposal, came from Spain who suggested creating a mechanism that would enable the Council to engage in dialogue with civil society in relation to women’s rights and its own work.


Crucially, Ms Pillay also pointed to the difficulties and risks that women human rights defenders face in carrying out their work, describing how women human rights defenders are targeted, and in many cases even physically attacked, when perceived as challenging socio-cultural norms and traditions related to their status as women. She called on States to ‘help our friends, partners and allies’. It was on this point, unfortunately, that States’ contributions to the debate fell short. 


Illustrating some of the difficulties women and women human rights defenders face, Saudi Arabia noted that it implemented women’s rights as long as these did not clash with religious practices or cultural traditions. Iran reiterated this point, adding that ‘the family’ should be the fundamental unit in society.


The issue of reprisals against human rights defenders was briefly mentioned by Austria, the Maldives and the Nordic group, but no proposal was made as to how the UN could address this issue.


Mr Beyani, however, returned to this point in his concluding remarks mentioning some examples of best practice in response to or to protect against reprisals and other violations, including hotlines, safe houses, shelters, the establishment of special police units, socio-psychological support and offers of asylum to targeted human rights defenders. 


A resolution on reprisals against those who cooperate with the UN human rights system is currently being negotiated at the Council with States considering what steps could be taken to better protect defenders. It is incumbent on States to ensure that this resolution does address some of the concerns raised in this discussion. 


Michelle Evans is a Progamme Manager with ISHR's New York office and Nienke Boskma is an Intern with ISHR's Geneva office

Last Updated on Tuesday, 17 September 2013 12:51

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