15 Jan

"I remember to be hopeful, not because it feels good or because I am waiting for something to happen on its own, but because I believe in my own power and the magic we create when queer people, Black people, women come together to channel our rage, righteous and raw, into sustained action." We were privileged to hear human rights defender Alicia Wallace's powerful message and would like to share her story with you below.

11 Jan

By 15 January 2021, the UN Human Rights Council (the Council) is expected to elect the Council’s President for the 15th cycle in 2021 from the Asia-Pacific Group. The State Representatives who have put forward their candidacies are: Bahrain, Fiji and Uzbekistan. Our organisations* urge all members of the Council to elect the Council President based on Council membership criteria.

11 Jan

Here are some of the things we are most proud of; impacts that reflect and were made possible thanks to the creativity, solidarity and resilience of our partners, our staff and the human rights defenders we collectively serve.

05 Jan

In a joint reaction coordinated by Amnesty International, NGOs welcomed the report of the co-facilitators of the 2020 review of the treaty body system, Switzerland and Morocco. It remains to be seen whether the General Assembly will take any action in follow up to their report. So far, the President of the General Assembly has not re-appointed the co-facilitators to continue the process, nor communicated anything further on the subject. 

28 Dec

On 28 December 2020, Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced Saudi women human rights defenders Loujain Al-Hathloul and Miyaa al-Zahrani to 5 years and 8 months in prison.

UN Human Rights Council must act to protect human rights defenders


(Geneva - 27 May 2013) – The UN Human Rights Council must act to protect human rights defenders, said the International Service for Human Rights as the 23rd session of the Council starts in Geneva today.

‘The work of human rights defenders – including journalists, lawyers and advocates – is crucial to uphold human rights and the rule of law,’ said ISHR Director Phil Lynch.

‘Despite this, around the world we witness an increase in attacks and reprisals against human rights defenders, together with an expansion of laws which restrict and impair the work of non-government organisations,’ Mr Lynch said.

The killing of independent journalists in Sri Lanka, the enactment of so-called ‘homosexual propaganda laws’ in the Ukraine, and restrictions on access to foreign funding for NGOs in Russia, Ethiopia and Egypt are all examples of this trend.

In addition to being alarmed by restrictions and reprisals, ISHR is concerned that selective appeals to culture, religion and ‘traditional values’ are being used to undermine the work of women human rights defenders and those working on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.

ISHR’s concerns are shared by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navi Pillay, who will today tell the Council that it is ‘particularly depressing to observe policy debates and legislative measures – in many countries, across all regions – which may severely undermine non-governmental organisations that are vital to the healthy functioning of democracy.’

In her statement Ms Pillay will tell assembled diplomats that, ‘civil society remains vital to advancing the human rights agenda, both at the national level and internationally, and I must speak out to warn you of the real setbacks to human rights protection that will follow if civil society is threatened or restricted.’

Welcoming Ms Pillay’s remarks Mr Lynch said, ‘In March the Human Rights Council adopted a landmark resolution on protecting human rights defenders. It was co-sponsored by 77 States and adopted by consensus. We must close the gap between what States commit to here in Geneva and the reality of their laws and policies on the ground.’

The resolution on human rights defenders urges States ‘to create a safe and enabling environment in which human rights defenders can operate free from hindrance and insecurity’ and calls on States to review and amend legislation affecting human rights defenders to ensure compliance with international human rights law.

‘If Council is to fulfil its mandate of “promoting universal respect human rights”, and if Member States are to meet the requirements of “upholding the highest standards in human rights”’ and “fully cooperating with the Council”, it is imperative that this resolution is observed and fully implemented at the national level,’ Mr Lynch said.

ISHR’s statement to the UN Human Rights Council is available here.

Contact: Phil Lynch, Director, International Service for Human Rights, on or + 41 76 708 4738.

Syria top of the Council’s agenda at opening session


The situation in Syria dominated the opening session of the 23rd Human Rights Council. The UN’s human rights chief, High Commissioner Ms Navi Pillay, urged States to take ‘tangible action to stop escalating bloodshed and suffering in Syria’. Ms Pillay expressed her deepest concern at the current situation in Al Qusayr where hundreds of civilians have been injured or killed by indiscriminate shelling and aerial attacks by Government forces. Once again, she urged the Security Council to refer the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court and reminded the international community of its responsibility to protect civilian populations from genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Later in the session, at the request of Qatar, Turkey, and the US, an urgent debate was held on the situation in Syria, in particular in Al Qusayr. While there was general support both for Ms Pillay’s remarks and the request for an urgent debate, some States, including Venezuela, Cuba, and Syria itself, criticised the focus on this issue, with Syria claiming that there are more important issues to discuss.

Ms Pillay expressed particular distress at the fact that the violence continued unchecked in this 20th year anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA). Member States in Vienna had made ‘powerful statements about the struggle against impunity’ in the context of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. While she noted progress in this area, in the case of Syria, she said, ‘we in the international community are failing to meet our fundamental obligations to the victims’.

Ms Pillay underlined the crucial role that civil society played in developing the VDPA. She described it as ‘particularly depressing’ that today policy measures were being enacted across all regions that could severely undermine the ability of non-governmental organisations to carry out their work. She expressed concern too at continuing reports of reprisals against human rights defenders.

Her comments were echoed by many States. The US drew attention to the Russian NGO law that requires NGOs to register as ‘foreign agents’ if they receive funding from abroad, and a draft law in Egypt that would also restrict NGO operations. The US urged the Governments of Russia and Egypt to consult with civil society on this type of legislation and to guarantee the right to freedom of association.

Norway expressed particular concern about systematic discrimination and violence faced by women human rights defenders and those working on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. It called for States’ attention and guidance from the Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) on how a gender perspective can be integrated into efforts to create a safe and enabling environment for the defence of human rights. Norway also noted the high number of submissions to the working group on business and human rights relating to harassment, persecution and reprisals faced by human rights defenders. In this context Norway called for the speedy implementation of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, including by protecting human rights defenders working in this area.

Chile, adding its voice to the concerns around restrictive NGO legislation, also joined Ms Pillay in reminding States that the international community committed itself 20 years ago in Vienna to advancing a pluralist civil society and that States need to guarantee security to human rights defenders.

Ms Pillay drew attention to the work that OHCHR has done in achieving progress in societies in transition. She pointed to the now well-established country office in Tunisia, which has contributed to a national dialogue in the country involving all key elements of society. In contrast, she noted that in several other States in the region there has been a failure to include a wide range of actors from civil society in a constructive and respectful dialogue.

Ireland on behalf of the EU also commended the country office in Tunisia, but questioned why there had been no progress towards establishing an office in Egypt. It also called on Bahrain and Myanmar to establish country presences, noting in the case of the latter that a country office with full mandate could assist the Government to address its human rights challenges, including in Rakhine State. Pakistan, on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), joined the High Commissioner in strongly urging the Government of Myanmar to take resolute steps to stop violence and resolve this long-standing issue.

The US noted challenges to the independence of OHCHR and called for all States to cooperate with and facilitate visits from OHCHR, to ensure that it can continue to provide its technical assistance and expertise to States. Further, while Norway too commended the High Commissioner and her office for efforts to follow up on the mandates given to her by the Council, it also highlighted the uncertain financial situation of the office, and proposed that the 20th anniversary of the VDPA to be used as an opportunity to establish a sustainable economic based for ‘a strong and effective office, capable of facing the challenges of the next decades’.

Heather Collister is a Program Manager and Ana Kapelet is an Intern with the International Service for Human Rights

Council must denounce rape and other forms of sexual violence against women defenders


Sexual violence against women is pervasive in our societies. When directed against a woman human rights defender, it has a particular potency.

Women defenders are attacked for both who they are and what they do. Sexual violence against women defenders aims at intimidating and overpowering them as women. It also aims at crushing what they represent – the dismissal of traditional, subordinate roles for women, and the assertion of rights in the public and political space. Acts of sexual violence against women defenders are not isolated incidents but are facilitated by a broader social order that seeks to keep women on the margins.

Frequently the experience of women defenders foreshadows what other women may experience. Their visibility can make them vulnerable. Impunity in cases of rape against women defenders encourages sexual violence as a repressive tactic against the population more broadly. Impunity is further embedded as women defenders frequently don’t report cases of sexual assault for fear they won’t be taken seriously or because the authorities themselves were involved in the attack. Furthermore, taboos around sexual violence, create a dual stigmatisation which adversely affects women defenders’ ability to seek justice and protection.

Sexual violence, including rape, is used against women defenders in many different contexts. During demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Cairo, commemorating the second anniversary of the January 25th revolution, women defenders were sexually assaulted and raped, including with the use of metal rods. Parliamentarians were later to imply that women that attended such a demonstration were not ‘decent’ women.

The Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition has documented several cases of sexual violence, including a case in Iran where a woman defender was raped by a State official, whilst being held in solitary confinement. The condition placed on her being moved from solitary confinement to the public prison was that she agree not to report the rape to the prison doctor.

Sexual attacks, and the threat of such violence, is a tactic commonly used against lesbian and bisexual defenders. Rape is supposedly designed to ‘cure’ the woman of her homosexuality. It is used to compel her back in line with both heternormative and patriarchal norms. It is an attempt to silence her activism. The Coalition documented a case in Uganda where, following a series of threats of sexual assault, a woman defender was forced to move house for her own safety.

In militarised contexts, sexual violence can be used against women as a means to assert or reassert particular social and political orders, with women defenders as visible targets. In conflict situations, rape is a common tactic against those who raise awareness about state and non-state perpetrators of sexual violence.

Important steps are being taken by international and regional human rights bodies to confirm women’s right to defend rights without fear or attack. For example, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights recently handed down its first decision confirming the duty of States to protect women from violence. The risk of experiencing sexual violence faced by women defenders has also been acknowledged by mechanisms of the Human Rights Council and by other UN bodies, including recently by the Commission on the Status of Women.

The Human Rights Council must continue to focus attention on the issue. With a resolution on violence against women led by Canada due to be considered at the current 23rd session, the Council must denounce the use of rape and all forms of sexual violence against women, including women human rights defenders, perpetrated by State and non-state actors. States must redouble efforts to prevent such violence; and to ensure appropriate redress and the provision of gender-specific medical and counseling services to victims of sexual violence.

All women have the right to claim and defend rights without fear of sexual violence. States must effectively challenge the structural discrimination and violence that facilitate these most egregious attacks against women including in their legitimate and crucial work to advance human rights in our communities.

Human Rights Council must not ignore violations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity


(Geneva - 3 June 2013) – The Human Rights Council must act urgently to ensure that violations suffered on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity do not fall off the Council’s agenda, ISHR told the 23rd session of the Human Rights Council.

‘It is two years since the Council passed its groundbreaking resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity’, said Dr Heather Collister, head of the LGBT rights program at the International Service for Human Rights. ‘If the Council does not act soon to follow-up on this resolution, it will be interpreted as turning its back on this issue.’

A 2012 report by the UN’s human rights chief, High Commissioner Ms Navi Pillay, followed by a series of regional meetings, revealed that the violations suffered by LGBT people are often egregious, systemic and take place in all regions of the globe.

‘The huge and shocking range of violations suffered by LGBT persons must be systematically documented’, said Dr Collister. ‘The Council must institutionalise regular research, documentation and reporting to the UN in order to build a full picture of the challenges facing LGBT people’, Dr Collister said in a statement to the Council.

Such a response from the Council would be a crucial element of a broader approach to this issue that should include ongoing dialogue with all stakeholders, as well as awareness raising of the application of the international human rights framework in this area. A response from the Council would also contribute to ensuring that LGBT rights are mainstreamed throughout other UN bodies.

‘The Human Rights Council cannot sit back and wait for more favourable conditions for moving this issue forwards. As the UN’s peak human rights body it has an obligation to be part of the response', said Dr Collister.

‘A failure to act will send the message that the Council is washing its hands of this issue. Member States must let LGBT people know that they are still listening and that they will take action.’

Read ISHR's statement to the Council.

Contact: Dr Heather Collister, International Service for Human Rights, at or +41 79 920 3805

Council discusses causes of violence and discrimination against women


The Council has held a series of discussions on women’s rights over the course of the past week.

In the interactive dialogue with the Working Group on discrimination against women in law and practice, States considered challenges to women’s representation in decision-making positions, including during periods of political transition. The Chairperson of the Working Group, Ms Kamala Chandrakirana, pointed to the ‘painfully slow’ progress made towards women’s substantive participation in political and public life since the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action. 

Exclusion of women in political transitions

Tunisia was one of the States visited by the Working Group in the course of the last year. While Tunisia itself stressed that the freedom following the revolution had strengthened the position of women, the experts found that this ‘freedom’ had opened up the space for highly polarised views on women’s position in society. Although Tunisia has historically been one of the more progressive States in the region, this polarised national debate has left women fearful of losing those gains.

Spain, Mexico, and Nigeria agreed that political transitions do provide an opportunity for States to move forwards on equal representation for women, but, along with Finland, shared the concern that often women are excluded from those processes, even though, as Spain noted, they have often been fully involved in the fight to establish democracy. Going through its own transition, Egypt noted the challenge of directing the positive developments in the country to enhance the role of women in the decision-making process.

Violence against women human rights defenders

The stigmatisation of women human rights defenders has added to the fear of women in Tunisia of exclusion from political participation. The Working Group pointed in general to harassment and attacks on women human rights defenders as a key obstacle to the full representation of women in decision-making positions. When women’s civil society organisations flourish, the experts said, they enable collective action by women to overcome the structural barriers they face.

The Working Group noted that national human rights institutions could potentially have a critical role to play in this respect, but that there are currently no international standards to guide NHRIs in how to integrate women’s and gender issues into their work.

The impact of stereotyping on violence and discrimination

The issue of violence against women was also addressed in the report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Ms Rashida Manjoo, as well as in the annual day on women’s rights. While many States emphasised policy and legislative measures they had taken to combat violence, there was a call from panellists to move beyond this towards implementation and a focus on underlying causes, including cultural systems and stereotyping.

The Working Group on discrimination against women also noted that stereotypes of women’s capacities in politics contribute to women’s marginalisation in politics (and are therefore often responsible for the harassment and attacks women often face in political positions).

Ms Fatma Khafagy, Ombudsman for Gender Equality in Egypt, spoke of how dialogue with religious leaders had contributed to stopping the practice of female genital mutilation in Egypt. She emphasised in particular the importance of having men involved in the fight against FGM. Juan Carlos Areán, member of the Secretary-General’s Network of Men Leaders also said that it was important to stop seeing men as the problem and start involving them in the solution.

Ms Manjoo, speaking both during the presentation of her report and during the all-day discussion, stressed the need to focus on establishing standards of due diligence for States with respect to domestic violence that enable responsibility to be assigned for actions omitted, as well as those carried out. A full analysis of what constitutes due diligence on the part of a State would help also in securing accountability for violence against women. She pointed out that stereotyping often influences how cases of violence against women are handled by the judicial system and that due diligence on the part of States requires that remedies should subvert patterns of gender hierarchies, systemic marginalisation and structural inequalities.

The need for a coordinated approach

The existence of many different experts and bodies working on women’s rights, including the Working Group on discrimination against women, the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the Commission on the Status of Women, and UN Women, raised concern amongst some about overlap and lack of coordination. The Chair of the Working Group responded to this point, stressing the active intention of the Working Group not to duplicate, nor to undermine or contradict the work of these bodies, but to develop strong and mutually reinforcing relationships. Strengthening interactions with regional mechanisms, including the newer regional human rights bodies, is one priority in this regard.

Eleanor Openshaw leads ISHR’s work to protect women’s rights and support women human rights defenders, and Ana Kapelet and Jenna Logeais are interns at ISHR

ISHR welcomes record number of draft resolutions on protection of human rights defenders


(Geneva – 11 June 2013) - Building on the momentum created by its landmark resolution on protecting human rights defenders in March 2013, the UN Human Rights Council is set to adopt a record number of resolutions strengthening the recognition and protection of the work of particular groups of human rights defenders at its current session.

'The current session of the Council has heard evidence and received extensive reports of unprecedented attacks and restrictions on human rights defenders,’ said Michael Ineichen, Director of Human Rights Council Advocacy with the International Service for Human Rights.

'In the last two weeks alone, we have borne witness to the conviction of 43 civil society workers in Egypt, the passage of a draft law criminalising gay and lesbian rights organisations in Nigeria, and the prosecution of NGOs in Russia for submitting information to the UN Committee against Torture,’ Mr Ineichen said.

In this context, ISHR welcomes and supports the adoption of the following resolutions, all of which have been the subject of ISHR lobbying and advocacy:

  • A draft resolution on the elimination of discrimination against women, presented by Colombia and Mexico, which recognises that the work of women human rights defenders and women’s civil society organisations is crucial to promoting gender equality and eliminating violence against women and which calls on States to support the sustainability and growth of such organisations.
  • A draft resolution on eliminating violence against women, presented by Canada, which expresses deep concern at the use of rape and other forms of sexual violence to intimidate, harass, deter and commit reprisals against women human rights defenders and which calls on States to protect women and girls from such threats and attacks.
  • A draft resolution on women’s empowerment, presented by the US and other States, which acknowledges ‘the important role of women journalists and women human rights defenders in the exercise, promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and, in this context, expressing concern at the risks faced by these women in the exercise of their work’.
  • A draft resolution on the independence of the judiciary, presented by a coalition of States, which condemns attacks and reprisals against lawyers and judges and calls on States to protect them, to prosecute such acts and to bring perpetrators to justice.
  • A draft resolution on the human rights of migrants, presented by Mexico, which calls on States to ensure that their domestic laws and policies facilitate the work of human rights defenders who defend migrant rights, ‘including by avoiding any criminalization, stigmatization, impediments, obstructions or restrictions thereof contrary to international human rights law’.
  • A draft resolution on the human rights situation in Eritrea, presented by Djibouti, Somalia and Nigeria, which condemns ‘the severe restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of information, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of peaceful assembly and association, including the detention of journalists, human rights defenders, political actors, religious leaders and practitioners in Eritrea’.
  • Finally, a draft resolution on the human rights situation in Belarus, presented by the European Union, which condemns the harassment of civil society organisations, human rights defenders and journalists, and which calls for an immediate end to the arbitrary detention of human rights defenders.

ISHR also welcomed one joint statement led by Norway calling for a resolution to combat discrimination and violence on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity and another joint statement, again led by Norway, which recognised the important work of human rights defenders who work on issues of corporate accountability. Both of these issues are key ISHR priorities.

‘While ISHR is disappointed that this session of the Council has not taken action to address discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, and to protect and support human rights defenders working on those issues, we do welcome the positive attention given to defenders in many other resolutions,’ said Mr Ineichen.

ISHR will continue to push for action by the Human Rights Council – the world’s peak human rights body – to strengthen protections for human rights defenders and also work with national and regional NGOs to promote the concrete implementation of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and relevant Council resolutions on the ground.

All draft resolutions are all available on the OHCHR extranet (username: hrc extranet; password: 1session).

New Guide for Human Rights Defenders on Domestic Implementation of UN Human Rights Recommendations


(Geneva – 11 June 2013)  The International Service for Human Rights, together with the Human Rights Law Centre, has produced a new Guide for Human Rights Defenders on Domestic Implementation of UN Human Rights Recommendations.

The Guide brings together the expertise of ISHR, a leading international NGO focused on supporting human rights defenders and strengthening human rights systems, and that of the HRLC, a leading domestic human rights NGO with experience in advocating successfully for national implementation of UN human rights recommendations.

The Guide considers strategies and tactics that NGOs can use to contribute to the implementation of UN recommendations at the national level. Effective follow-up by civil society is vital to ensuring that UN recommendations lead to an improvement of the human rights situation on the ground.

The Guide is intended for a diverse audience, working in different countries and sectors, and with different areas of focus and expertise. The Guide outlines a range of strategies with a view to NGOs identifying those which are most appropriate to their domestic political, legal, economic, and social contexts and their organisation’s goals, resources, and working methods.

You can download a copy of the guide here.


UN flag thumbnail image by Nicolas Raymond.

ISHR Board member appointed as UN’s expert on human rights in Haiti


(Geneva – 14 June 2013) The International Service for Human Rights is delighted that ISHR Board member and Executive Director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, Gustavo Gallon, has been appointed as the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Haiti.

Mr Gallon has been a Board member of the International Service for Human Rights since 2010. He has previously served as the UN’s Special Representative on Equatorial Guinea (1999 to 2002) and is Chair of the Center for Justice and International Law in Washington, DC. Mr Gallon is also a member of the International Commission of Jurists.

Welcoming the appointment, ISHR Director, Phil Lynch, said, ‘Gustavo Gallon is one of the world’s leading human rights advocates and jurists. His deep commitment to human rights, social justice and the rule of law is well known.’

‘ISHR’s proud association with Mr Gallon traces back twenty years to 1993, when he was one of three Latin American human rights NGO representatives at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna – a conference at which ISHR played a civil society leadership and coordination role,’ Mr Lynch said.

As the UN’s Independent Expert on human rights in Haiti, Mr Gallon will be responsible for working with both government and civil society to assist in promoting human rights, strengthening the rule of law and combating impunity.

The Human Rights Council: recent achievements, challenges, and a look ahead


(Geneva - 27 June 2013) - The two sessions held by the Human Rights Council so far this year have seen the continuation of the improved dynamic observed at recent sessions of the Council. At these sessions the Council adopted, amongst others, resolutions on the situations in Sri Lanka, North Korea, Myanmar, Belarus, Eritrea, and three resolutions on Syria. 

Turnaround on Sri Lanka

The Sri Lanka resolution in some ways epitomises the turnaround in the effectiveness of the Council. Four years ago, in 2009, the Council held a shockingly biased emergency debate on the situation in Sri Lanka that turned into a forum to praise the government’s efforts to protect human rights and resettle internally displaced people. This debate took place immediately after the ending of the country’s 26 year civil war, with the UN estimating between 40 – 70,000 civilian deaths.

It was two years later, in 2011, that Canada made an attempt to bring a resolution on Sri Lanka, withdrawing the text in the face of strong opposition from Sri Lanka. It was not until 2012 that the US’s political clout enabled it to successfully lead a resolution to adoption by the Council. The US followed up this success with a further resolution in March 2013. The resolutions are framed around the recommendations that came from Sri Lanka’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, that is, the text is fairly moderate. The 2013 text calls for the Sri Lankan Government to carry out an independent and credible investigation into allegations of violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law.

Although relatively moderate, the Council’s eventual response to the situation in Sri Lanka boosted its credibility, by finally closing the gap between what human rights defenders around the world had long been calling for, and the action the Council had, or had not, been taking.

Continued attention on Syria

A similar boost to credibility has come generally from the way the Council responded and continues to respond to the events of the so-called Arab Spring. The situation in Syria, for example, has not been off the Council’s agenda since the violence there broke out, and in June the Council adopted two resolutions on this situation – the 9th and 10th to have been adopted since 2011. The Commission of Inquiry established by the Council in 2011 reports to every session of the Council. The Council has also held 5 emergency debates on the subject, three of which were held outside its regular sessions.

Perhaps it speaks to the impotency of the Council that after so much attention the situation is worse rather than better. However it is only because of regular reporting to the Council that the world knows that 93,000 people have been killed in the fighting in Syria. The debates also provide a platform for human rights defenders from Syria to bring their own findings and cases in an international forum. At the latest session of the Council, in June, ISHR brought 5 Syrian defenders to Geneva in the context of a training course – these defenders used this opportunity to put their own findings and perspectives before States.

Acknowledgement of the work of human rights defenders

Another recent success from the Council, and one in which ISHR had a key role, was the adoption in March, by consensus, of a landmark resolution on the protection of human rights defenders that calls for an end to the use and abuse of national law to restrict and criminalise the work of human rights defenders. Again this reflects what is an increasing trend and is another sign that the Council is increasingly on the ball recently.

The final text is a good example of how strong resolutions result when States work closely to ensure that the concerns of human rights defenders are heard and reflected.

We were particularly pleased that the final text includes reference to reference to the threats faced by women human rights defenders – this reflects another of ISHR’s advocacy goals, to ensure that human rights laws and mechanisms protect women human rights defenders, aware of the specific vulnerabilities that women human rights defenders face. ISHR has worked hard to ensure that States pay due attention to this issue. At the June session similar language was included in a resolution on violence against women and another text on discrimination against women.

The resolution on human rights defenders points to the increasing acknowledgement and recognition by the Council of the importance of the work of human rights defenders.

In addition, the increased responsiveness on country situations points to a far better match between the calls from human rights defenders and the action of the Council – this speaks to a generally improved space and potential for defenders to engage with the Council.

Backlash against NGO space

Nevertheless there are challenges, not the least of which is a corresponding backlash from some States against NGO space. Seeing that NGOs are increasing their influence, these States are resorting to often desperate measures to close down that space.

One of the most evident signs that Sri Lanka really had something to hide and was desperate to keep the situation in the country off the Council’s agenda, was the way it reacted to human rights defenders who had travelled to Geneva to participate in the Council’s debates. Defenders reported being stopped in the corridors by members of the Sri Lankan delegation and they and their families threatened. At the same time a Government minister back in Colombo was reported by the BBC as saying that he would ‘break the legs’ of those he labelled ‘traitors’ who were criticising Sri Lanka in Geneva.

Similar threats were faced by human rights defenders who came from Bahrain to draw the Council’s attention to events unfolding there. At least one of these defenders received death threats on his mobile phone after making a statement in the Council, and since returning to Bahrain has faced a campaign of judicial harassment. He was again back in court last week on charges of “participation in illegal protests”. 

ISHR takes the issue of safety of defenders who cooperate with the UN human rights system extremely seriously –we see it as a fundamental threat to the space for HRDs at the UN. Further, if human rights defenders do not have the space to present their cases to the Council and in other human rights fora, the UN is deprived of the information it needs to take the informed decisions that it is starting to make more regularly.

States are now responding to concerns on this issue. Hungary led the adoption by the Council of the first resolution to address reprisals against human rights defenders who cooperate with the UN system – which resulted in the Council holding a debate to discuss the issue and ways forward. Hungary will bring another resolution on this issue in September and ISHR will again work closely with them to ensure the strongest text possible.

Of course this harassment is much wider spread than just in Geneva - in the June session the Special Rapporteur, or UN expert, on freedom of association and assembly, Maina Kiai, reported on restrictions faced by NGOs – he cited examples from Egypt and Russia of attempts to restrict the funding of NGOs, noting that the right to receive funding is an integral part of the right to association and assembly, and that attempts to restrict it are attempts to suppress the voice of civil society.  

The promotion of ‘traditional values’

Another challenge is the push by some States towards fundamentally regressive goals. One of these challenges is organised around the concept of so-called ‘traditional values’. The Council has adopted several resolutions on this subject, led by Russia, the thrust of which has been to attempt to establish traditional values as a legitimate way to interpret human rights. We see this as a serious and insidious attempt to undermine the universal human rights framework, and it has particular repercussions for those who challenge societal ‘norms’ particularly women and LGBT defenders, but also any group whose views or identities lie outside mainstream society.

At the March session earlier this year, the latest iteration of this push showed itself in a draft resolution tabled by Egypt on protection of the family. This text made no reference to diverse family forms, and no reference to potential violations of rights inside the family. It treated the family as a unit to be protected, without regard to the rights of those individuals within it. The protection of the family, without consideration of the rights of the individual members, is not a human rights issue.

This resolution was eventually withdrawn in the face of Latin American, and western States’ opposition, and it did not re-emerge at the June session. However in the September session Russia is again due to bring its resolution on traditional values. And with next year the 20th anniversary of the year of the family it seems certain that Egypt will find some way to capitalise on this to bring its text again at a future session.

Sexual orientation and gender identity

Looking ahead for the Council – what’s on the agenda? The rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons is one of the biggest issues due to be addressed by the Council. States adopted the first Council resolution on this issue in 2011 – a real breakthrough, all the more so because the negotiations were led by South Africa. This broke the typical dynamic on this issue whereby African States in particular criticise the imposition of ‘western values’ on their societies.

The June session marked two years after the 2011 resolution was adopted, and in Council terms it marked the point at which follow-up would naturally be expected. Unfortunately nothing was forthcoming from South Africa which announced its preference for moving extremely cautiously. States will certainly be discussing over the coming months whether South Africa’s lack of strong leadership warrants another State taking the issue over – something that needs to be carefully calculated to avoid feeding the still prevalent dynamic of the west against Africa (in particular). Looking further ahead to the possibility of bringing some moderate African States on board, States should be careful not to damage that possibility and push those States further away by having a western State take this over.

The way in which the Council handles the issue of sexual orientation and gender identity will certainly be one of the big themes to watch for in coming sessions.

Human rights defenders and business

Likewise the business and human rights agenda is gaining traction. The Council had appointed an expert, Mr John Ruggie, to develop guiding principles on business and human rights, and subsequently appointed a group of experts to push forwards on the implementation of those principles once they were developed.

This group of experts presented its second report to the Council in June – and one issue it raised was that of the targeting of human rights defenders as a result of their protesting against the activities of corporations and trying to assist the victims of violations to access remedies. If the Council really wants to promote implementation of the guiding principles, it must ensure that those who are drawing attention to the violations committed by corporations have the space to have their voices heard.

This crucial issue is one that ISHR will work to promote in the future. We have already seen a promising response in that the group of experts held a public discussion on the Rana Plaza tragedy just last week to draw out what lessons can be learnt – thereby ensuring that they take the time and create the space for human rights defenders to be heard. By working closely with Norway, the lead State on the issue of business and human rights, we envisage great potential to move this issue forwards.

Contact: Heather Collister, Program Manager at International Service for Human Rights at or +41 79 92 03 805.

President of Human Rights Council must address alleged reprisals in China


(Geneva - 5 July 2013) - In a joint letter, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) requested the President of the United Nations Human Rights Council to urgently address alleged reprisals against human rights defenders in China.

A press release issued by ‘Chinese Human Rights Defenders’ (CHRD) on 4 July alleges that human rights defenders who were staging a peaceful sit-in aimed at highlighting the importance of the State engaging civil society actors in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process were subjected to restrictions of their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression and were further subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention.

‘The President of the Human Rights Council is responsible for the work of the Council and it’s subsidiary mechanisms, and is the custodian of the integrity and quality of the UPR’ said Phil Lynch, Director of the International Service for Human Rights. ‘It is therefore imperative that he acts decisively to ensure the full and safe participation of civil society in the Council’s work’, Mr Lynch said.

The Universal Periodic Review process is a critical mechanism of the Human Rights Council. The participation of civil society in the UPR process is essential to ensure that the process is based on ‘objective and reliable information’ as required by General Assembly Resolution 60/251. Civil society participation in the drafting of the national report is directly envisaged by the founding texts of the Council, and is essential to ensure that the national report reflects the actual human rights situation on the ground.

In their joint letter, HRW and ISHR also urged the President to give effect to the Human Rights Council’s resolutions condemning intimidation and reprisals against those who cooperate with it, and in which the Council affirms “the duty of all States to end impunity for such actions by bringing the perpetrators, including accomplices, to justice in accordance with international standards and by providing an effective remedy for their victims”.

Read the joint letter and the CHRD press release.


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