06 Aug

Everyone is entitled to walk the streets in peace and come back home alive without fearing for their safety when bumping into law enforcement officers. This right still remains denied to many people of African descent (PAD) in the US and abroad. This is why on Monday, over 140 families of victims and 360 NGOs called on the High Commissioner to focus her upcoming report on police violence on the lives of PAD.

07 Jul

ISHR has published ‘scorecards’ for each of the States seeking election to the UN Human Rights Council for 2021- 2023. We called on each of them to make concrete commitments to promote and protect human rights.

22 Jul

The Anti-Terrorism Law passed earlier this month complements the Duterte Administration’s arsenal of tools, giving it the ability to label, detain and eliminate government critics using a vague definition of ‘terrorism’. In the prevailing climate of impunity and attacks against human rights defenders, this law granting the government excessive and unchecked powers will only further jeopardise the safety of defenders.

29 Jul

ISHR is part of the  #CHANGETHEPICTURE initiative, which calls on States parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to ensure gender parity in upcoming elections of Human Rights Committee experts.

17 Jul

Civil society organisations* welcomed significant outcomes of the HRC's 44th session, including on peaceful protests and discrimination against women and girls, and extending its scrutiny over Belarus and Eritrea. The 44th session also marked an important opportunity to enable those affected directly by human rights violations to speak to the Council through NGO video statements.

States defensive against High Commissioner's criticism


The Human Rights Council opened its 20th regular session on 18 June 2012. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navanethem Pillay, updated the Council on the recent activity and prospective concerns of her office (OHCHR).

Ms Pillay’s statement focused on the Rio+20 Outcome Document, the treaty body strengthening process, OHCHR resources, and the domestic human rights situations in various countries. Her statements were raised in the context of a general appeal for a ‘human rights focus to be applied to all dimensions of United Nations activity in light of the ‘backdrop of crisis around the globe’. Most States expressed approval for this idea.

However, Ms Pillay’s description of specific human rights concerns in some States, including Canada, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), drew defensive and hostile responses from their delegates. In the course of the general debate, Ms Pillay was repeatedly accused of working beyond the scope of her mandate and failing to approach the international human rights situation with objectivity and impartiality.  To dispute Ms Pillay’s assessment of the human rights situation in their respective countries, these delegates attempted to deflect attention away from their own States by listing human rights violations in States that had echoed the High Commissioner’s concerns. This gave the opening session a somewhat combative atmosphere, which will hopefully be channelled into productive debate as the session progresses.

Continuing the trend of her previous reports and the increasingly outspoken role of the President of the Council, Ms Pillay expressed regret that reprisals against those who cooperate with UN human rights mechanisms continue. However, she welcomed the attention that the issue has recently received. A more diverse group of States took up her concern about reprisals than in previous sessions; Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC) said that it was important to increase the safety and security of those who cooperate with human rights mechanisms. Chile and Peru also referred to the need to address the issue, and Switzerland declared that it was the responsibility of all countries to ensure that human rights defenders can exercise their rights freely.

In an ongoing effort to ensure attention to human rights violations in all regions of the world, the High Commissioner discussed the human rights situations in Syria, Mali, Eritrea, Somalia, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), Nepal, Hungary, Mexico, Canada, and various Latin American countries. Additionally, she reported on the Deputy High Commissioner’s missions to Guatemala, Barbados, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Chad, Niger, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Regardless, her comments drew angry responses from some States because of delegates’ perceptions of being ‘singled out’.

Though nearly all States affirmed the need for action in Syria and deplored the actions of the Syrian regime, the Syrian delegate described Ms Pillay’s remarks as 'very strange' and 'far from being objective or accurate'. The delegate criticised Ms Pillay for failing to refer to the actions of Al Qaeda, and dismissed her remarks as ‘far from constructive dialogue’ and contradictory to her mandate. At the conclusion of formal proceedings, Syria exercised its right of reply to also condemn the 'hypocrisy' of Qatar, Libya, France, and Canada in criticising Syria while failing to address human rights violations in their own countries. Syria accused other delegates of ‘lying’ in their expressions of sympathy for the victims of the uprising and said that nothing justified the ‘foul language’ used by the High Commissioner in her comments.

Similar resentment about 'hypocrisy' was expressed by Sri Lanka on the ‘ill conceived’ resolution passed on Sri Lanka at the 19th session. The delegate stated that the resolution created mistrust in international processes and was ‘wholly unnecessary’ to resolving Sri Lanka’s human rights challenges.

Surprisingly, Canada also objected to the High Commissioner’s remarks, on the grounds that legislative reform restricting student protests in Quebec did not justify Canada’s consideration alongside States such as Syria and the DRC. The Canadian delegate tartly dismissed Ms Pillay’s comments with reference to various aspects of Canada’s judicial system and respect for fundamental freedoms. She went on to say that 'in a world where Syrians are dying', Ms Pillay had ‘wasted valuable time’ commenting on Canada when she could have been talking about important human rights violations relating to Sri Lanka and Syria.[1] The Sri Lankan delegate, in reply, expressed surprise at Canada’s attempt to deflect attention from its domestic situation, and criticised Canada for drawing unrelated parallels.

Belarus declared that the ‘selectivity’ of OHCHR in raising issues of concern was worrying, and called for the High Commissioner to consider adopting a new approach.

It was notable that a number of States from different regions was willing to criticise the human rights record of others, while reacting forcefully when faced with critical comments from independent sources, such as the High Commissioner and special procedures. Constructive debate in the Council requires willingness by all governments to engage on each human rights situation – including their own – on their merits. While it is to be expected that some governments disagree with the assessment of the High Commissioner or special procedures, their response should be based on a constructive presentation of facts, rather than on an unhelpful comparison of human rights violations occurring in very different contexts.

Following on from the joint statement on Eritrea presented by Somalia at the last session of the Council, the High Commissioner called for Eritrean authorities to cooperate with international human rights mechanisms. This issue was not widely picked up by States, though Denmark (on behalf of the EU) endorsed the High Commissioner's remarks, and Switzerland stated that the Council should react more specifically to the situation.

In relation to her office's increasing involvement in country situations, including requests for reports from the Council and continuing missions of Commissions of Inquiry operating under her office's mandate, Ms Pillay stressed the necessity of balancing competing human rights concerns given the limited resources available to OHCHR. She stated that OHCHR’s mandates and fields of operation could not be extended indefinitely without a review of priorities. India expressed support for this call from the High Commissioner, but stated that it was important for the High Commissioner to regularly share information on budgetary allocations, particularly on special procedures and specific programmes. Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC) said that this should result in a review and rationalisation of the special procedures, noting that ten special procedure mandates are country specific indicating a gradual increase. It suggested that this approach should change to one where country situations are addressed through thematic mandates.

India also raised the issue of special procedures. Noting positively the High Commissioner's call for cooperation between States and special procedures, India added that the special procedures must adhere to the Council-approved Code of Conduct as the ultimate guide to their behaviour, rather than any other internal procedural guidelines.[2]

Ms Pillay also discussed the importance of reinforcing protection of human rights holders at a domestic level in the context of treaty body reform. The strengthening process was launched in 2009 with multi-stakeholder participation, and a report containing stakeholders’ proposals was made available on 22 June 2012. Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC) said that it looked forward to contributing substantively to the intergovernmental process in New York. Poland, Spain, Chile, and Ireland made positive statements anticipating the report and on the importance of the treaty body strengthening process generally. Russia, however, suggested that the role of the OHCHR should be ‘backstopping’ in nature, and should not delve into the ‘substantive work’ of the treaty body process in a way that dictates its agenda. India stressed the importance of ensuring that States are fully involved in the outcome of the strengthening process, contrasting such an approach to the 'fait accompli' that it felt States had been handed when some treaty bodies adopted the new reporting procedure of List of Issues Prior to Reporting. The full involvement of States, the delegation argued, would ensure that treaty bodies were in turn able to elicit the cooperation from States that the system relies on. The role of NGOs in the intergovernmental process was not discussed, despite the severe lack of clarity about how civil society will be able to add its voice to the discussions.

Other issues raised included the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons. Ms Pillay referred to Russian and Ukrainian laws restricting freedom of expression in relation to LGBTI issues. This issue was not widely engaged by State parties, though Denmark (on behalf of the EU), the Czech Republic, Norway, and Switzerland stated that they shared the High Commissioner's concerns.

[1] The High Commissioner had included one sentence on Canada in her remarks, saying ‘Moves to restrict freedom of assembly continue to alarm me, as is the case in the province of Quebec in Canada in the context of students' protests'. 

[2] India did, however, not refer to any specific concerns in relation to the Code of Conduct or its observance by mandate holders.


Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association presents first report


The presentation of the reports of the Special Rapporteurs on the right of peaceful assembly and association, and on human rights and counter-terrorism, proved to be a truly interactive dialogue with many States concretely engaging in the topics. The reports were presented to the Human Rights Council on 20 June.

Mr Maina Kiai, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, opened the session by emphasising that these rights were key components of democracy, too long neglected in human rights law. While conceding that these rights were not absolute, he emphasised that they should be the norm, and restrictions by national law the exception. He introduced the best practices included in his report as going beyond legally binding issues and as designed to help States towards better compliance with their obligations.

Reporting on his country visit to Georgia, he acknowledged that his concerns regarding the manner in which amendments to the Law on Political Union of Citizens had been recognised in the adoption of a new version of the law in May 2012 and ongoing consultations with civil society. However he expressed concerns regarding the Chamber of Control’s powers to inspect financial accounts if there is a suspicion of illegal party financing, stating that these powers could be used to target human rights defenders and others for political reasons. He notably highlighted the crucial stage at which the country is today in the run up to upcoming elections, and added that upholding the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association would be fundamental to upholding the positive steps taken since the Rose revolution.  In response, Georgia underlined that the report did not accurately reflect the developments undergone since the writing of the report, as legal frameworks had since been further adapted to align themselves with international standards.

The best practices were widely welcomed by States, notably Morocco, Germany, and Cuba who were mentioned in the Special Rapporteur’s report as exemplary implementing actors. Senegal, on behalf of the African group, commended the report as it helped to fill the previous void in legal provisions. However, States including China and Malaysia,  who had been listed as of utmost concern in the Special Rapporteur’s report, refuted some of information contained in the report as distorted.

Echoed by Belarus, Cuba, while pleased with its own inclusion as an example of best practice, accused the report of being rather selective in its choice of negative cases and wished to know what the Special Rapporteur thought of cases such as oppressive measures taken by western States against the Occupy Wall Street movement and in the Canadian student protests for instance.

The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) as well as Sweden and Ecuador, made strong statements about the importance of protecting the rights to freedom of assembly and association for all people, including vulnerable groups, women human rights defenders, and members of the LGBTI communities, as well as highlighting a number of recent laws, proposals, and State actions which violate these rights. This countered the statement from Egypt, which denied that the notion of sexual orientation is part of universally recognised human rights, while calling on Mr Kiai not to undermine the legitimacy and credibility of his work in ‘the eyes of real people who actually need it’.

While acknowledging the positive developments since the liberalisation of its assembly laws, the Maldives highlighted the complicated balance of responsibility between the State and the organisers of demonstration with regards to safety and protection of all parties involved.

Ireland wished to commend the Special Rapporteur’s stance that the Internet should be considered as a tool for the organisation of peaceful assemblies.

Numerous states including Germany, Lithuania, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) including the World Organisation against Torture, Amnesty International, and Malaysia’s national human rights institution (NHRI) SUHAKAM, raised concerns about the situations in Egypt, Russia, Belarus, Syria, and Ethiopia, where restrictive laws were shrinking the space of civil society to assemble and associate freely.

Mr Kiai closed the session by emphasising that his role was to review States in all regions of the world under his mandate and to this end he was scrutinising cases including Switzerland and Canada, but he emphasised that cases such as Belarus were mentioned as they were deemed more pressing than others. He also pointed to a ‘disturbing trend’ whereby it seemed that States were learning from each other, for example, the Russian Federation’s law on protests seemed to have taken inspiration from a law in the canton of Geneva.

Mr Ben Emmerson, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, presented his first report to the Council with a poignant reminder of the numerous terrorist attacks and their victims that occur on a daily basis across the world.

His victim centered approach was commended by the European Union, Chile and the African Group amongst others. However, the Council of Europe and Mexico notably stressed that this should not become an excuse to subsequently infringe others rights in the fight for justice. This issue related notably to the sensitive issue of drone attacks where Cuba, China, Brazil, Egypt and more importantly Pakistan remained concerned that civilians are being killed to protect the human rights of others, contrary to the right to life of non-combatants and the UN Charter. In the context of supporting the UN global counter-terrorism strategy, Jordan stressed the need for collective work on this issue as well as to avoid equating terrorism to religious movements.

Norway, the United Kingdom (UK), and Botswana were concerned about the Special Rapporteur’s reference to non-State actors who commit acts of terrorism as also violating the human rights of the victims. The Special Rapporteur emphasised very strongly that his position in no way implied any lessening of or change in the obligations of States, as some States have taken this stance to justify crackdowns as a means of protecting human rights. Mr Emmerson referred in particular to Syria’s justifications of violence, strongly criticising it for referring to sections of his report out of context to attempt to avoid its own obligations to respect international human rights law. He reminded all States, ‘including Syria’, that reducing the plight of victims of terrorism to a justification for violation of human rights law is a secondly violation of the victims themselves.

Norway, the UK, and Belgium remained skeptical about the added value of an international normative framework, while Morocco and Austria voiced interest in the format this would take, either as a soft law mechanism or a binding document.

Russia controversially mentioned the responsibility of States that indirectly support terrorism though arms supply and strategic facilitation.

Mr Emmerson wished to thank those States open to the development of an international instrument, including the OIC and the EU. He stated that further work would include a letter to all States from the mandate asking for an internal audit of law, procedure, and practice in order to identify protection gaps. He called on States to ensure that the issue is raised within the context of the global review of the UN Counter-terrorism strategy, which will take place in New York next month. He also reminded States that the victim-centred approach is not only about compensation. The protection of victims requires a holistic approach including prevention, investigation, protection of privacy, protection of security, rights to freedom of expression and association, all of which are linked to the protection of the rights of victims of terrorism.

Focus on journalists by Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression and on extrajudicial executions


On 19 June the annual reports of the Special Rapporteurs on freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, and on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, were presented to the Human Rights Council (the Council).  A clustered interactive dialogue was held to discuss the two reports, and their common theme - journalism.

La Rue’s overview paid particular attention to the public service role played by journalists. Their investigative purview, he argued, situates them as watchdogs - an essential pillar of a modern democratic society. Threats and violence against journalists endanger freedom of speech, censoring not only the individual threatened but also, through creating a climate of fear, the wider society. La Rue singled out Colombia’s national Unit for the Protection of Journalists for praise, and called for States to follow this example and develop protection mechanisms, tailored to the local context, to protect the rights of journalists. The criminalisation of defamation also alarmed the Special Rapporteur. Similar to the direct threats mentioned earlier, these legal statutes, and corresponding ‘judicial harassment’, may cause self-censorship - stifling democracy.

Christof Heyns introduced his report by underscoring the threats journalists face. According to his report two thirds of journalists are killed because they investigate corruption, politics, the environment, and human rights - not because they are in conflict zones. Most perilous of all are the positions occupied by local, as opposed to foreign, journalists. The Special Rapporteur asserted that high levels of impunity within some of the more corrupt nations, including the Philippines, Colombia, and the Russian Federation, can be directly correlated to the killing of journalists. Heyns finished by mentioning that 70 per cent of journalists killed received prior threats, suggesting that there is significant room for preventative measures.

Concerned states, those visited by Special Rapporteur La Rue, were then allowed time to reply to his report. Algeria spoke first, criticising La Rue’s report for being unbalanced and exceeding its mandate. The delegate criticised the report for making reference to freedom of assembly, which it stated was the sole responsibility of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Mr Maina Kiai. The Palestinian delegate spoke next, agreeing with the La Rue’s concerns about the need to balance its defamation laws against greater freedom of opinion. Efforts to establish a human rights framework are, however, being overridden by the ongoing and illegal Israeli occupation. The third concerned State, Israel, did not speak because its delegate was absent.

The dialogue was then opened to the floor, where several themes were discussed. Despite the considerable use of Latin American States within Heyns’s report, only two States from the region picked up on this. Cuba and Brazil were the only Latin American countries to comment upon the omission of developed countries from the report. Belarus and the Russian Federation chimed in, however, over the issue of Julian Assange.[1] The illegal use of drones, and the growing number of deaths caused by drone attacks, became another focal point. Switzerland, Cuba, and the American Civil Liberties Union each called for an end to the use of robotic weapons, which jeopardise the lives of not only civilians but journalists as well.

La Rue’s definition of journalism also caused contention amongst States. Whilst the majority of European and other Western states fully concurred with the definition, Senegal, Egypt, Algeria, and Mexico disagreed with its content. The definition, which includes citizen journalists and bloggers within the broader umbrella of ‘journalism’, received criticism for being too broad. Whilst these States agreed that journalists should be afforded specific rights, the inclusion of bloggers and citizen journalists was considered too inclusive. Thailand, China, and Cuba aimed criticism at bloggers for their alleged lack of objectivity and ethical standards.

Overall the debate was well received by all parties, with constructive dialogue throughout. Despite several contentious issues, the majority of States thanked the two Special Rapporteurs for their objective and insightful reports. The majority of States also sought to question the Rapporteurs on methods of best practice regarding the protection of journalists. During Heyns’s final remarks he outlined several such best practices. Among these was Brazil’s federal law on crimes against journalists and the National Australian Broadcasting Commission’s (NABC) provision of first aid training to its journalists. At the regional level the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was cited for its provisions. The OSCE’s Committee to Protect Journalists is one such provision to protect the freedom of expression.

Human rights defenders also came up during the dialogue. Norway pointed to the link between human rights defenders and journalists stating that the trend of killing or harassment of journalists mirrored that experienced by human rights defenders. While it clarified that not all journalists are human rights defenders, it added that where journalists draw attention to human rights violations through their reporting they are carrying out an activity under article 6(c) of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. In this case, therefore, the provisions of the Declaration apply. 

In his closing remarks, La Rue distinguished between a journalist and a human rights defender by stating the former informed the population about human rights violations, whilst the second denounced human rights violations. However, despite making this distinction he recognised the similarity of risk faced by both groups, and called for a greater synthesis in the provisions for both. He highlighted several best practices from Mexico, Brazil, and Honduras. In Honduras the Secretary General of Justice has implemented the first national plan on human rights defenders, justice personnel, and journalists for a safe working environment. Brazil, encouraged by the success of its existing  protection afforded to journalists via protection programmes designed for human rights defenders, aims to continue in this vein. 

[1] Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, faces extradition to Sweden, and from there to the US where he could be charged under the Espionage Act, a law which carries the death penalty.

Council continues its engagement with the situation in Syria


The mid-point of the Human Rights Council’s (the Council) 20th session, on 27 June, saw the continuation of the body’s engagement with the situation in Syria. It followed the fourth special session on the situation in the country including the massacre in El-Houleh (held on 1 June) and centred around the briefing by the Deputy Joint Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Syria, Jean-Marie Guéhenno and the presentation of the oral update report by Commission of Inquiry on Syria (COI), which had been called for in the resolution adopted at that special session.  

Mr Guéhenno started the discussion by describing the current deplorable situation and the escalating violence, at the core of which are egregious violations of human rights. Indeed, the violence has now taken a sectarian perspective and has not only spread in the country but is currently threatening to destabilise the region as a whole. While he deplored the reality that all sides in the country seemed not to believe in a political solution anymore, he pointed to his hopes that during the meeting of the Action Group, planned for the 30 June, States would be able to agree among themselves in order to formulate a Syrian-led transition process.

Chairperson of the COI, Mr Paulo Pinheiro, while grateful to the Syrian authorities for enabling his visit to Damascus from 23 to 25 June, emphasised his concern over the continuing gross violations of human rights and the increasingly militarised fighting. The COI’s investigation into the El-Houleh massacre, discussed during his visit to Damascus, found that over 100 people were killed on 25 May, mainly targeting women and children in their homes.  Investigations concluded that Syrian Government forces or those loyal to them were the most probable agents responsible for the killings due to their unique ability to access the area and the resemblance of these killings to past Government actions.

While the Russian Federation, Romania, Slovakia, France, and Switzerland in particular commended the access given to Mr Pinheiro during this investigation, the need for unimpeded access by both the COI and humanitarian organisations was still a concern for numerous States including EU member states, Canada, and Switzerland.

The Russian Federation pointed to the flaws in the resolution stating that it had laid the ground to accuse the Government before any substantive conclusions could be drawn from the investigation. The State, however, welcomed the access granted to the COI by Syria, commended its objectivity, its responsible attitude, and its avoidance of unilateral assessments, and hoped that this visit would be followed by others so as to establish the truth and overturn unfounded speculation in the media.

As the concerned country, Syria noted that the report did refer to both foreign groups of unknown affiliation as well as anti-Government groups on its territory who in their view are those perpetrating acts of gross human rights violations. Syria also pointed to the ‘hypocrisy’ of foreign powers, who claimed to act on behalf of the victims, while hindering national reconciliation and promoting hostility through their material and financial support to the 'rebels'. It reiterated its commitment to the Annan Plan and stated that it will not allow armed factions to target the international observers and prevent them from exercising their mission. It added that the ‘shameful situation’ in the Council, its 'politicised meetings' and 'sterile resolutions', would seriously induce it to cease all cooperation with the UN and its missions, and that it will make the appropriate decision in this respect at the appropriate time with regard to its national interest. Referring to the interactive dialogue to follow its statement, it asserted that it would not participate in such a ‘politicised meeting’.

All States speaking during the dialogue strongly condemned the indiscriminate and deliberate killings of civilians by all parties including the Government forces, Shabiha, and anti-Government forces. However, special concern was reserved for the violence and abuses directed at children, notably during the El- Houleh massacre. Indeed, Austria, Botswana, Canada, Latvia, Qatar, and Romania, amongst others, voiced their consternation at children being used as human shields and porters by both sides as well as referring to reported cases of sexual violence. Austria in particular voiced its concern in the context of the implications on reconciliation. Indeed, as a further step into violence compared to its fellow Arab Spring states, such atrocities will inevitably render the process of reconciliation and a path for peace much harder with the younger generation scarred by physical as well as psycho-social traumas.

China, together with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Tunisia, and Cuba, was particularly concerned that protection of human rights and humanitarian actions were a guise for a potential 'imperialist' military intervention based on the responsibility to protect. It added that any such interference in the internal affairs of Syria would only incite further violence and have negative implications for the region.

Referral by the Security Council to the International Criminal Court (ICC), while not mentioned in the reports presented, was called for by numerous States including, the United Kingdom, Chile, and the Maldives (who read a cross-regional joint statement on behalf of Austria, Botswana, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Costa Rica, Croatia, Denmark, France, Honduras, Ireland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Nigeria, Norway, Poland, Peru, the Republic of Korea, the Republic of Moldova, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland). The ICC was highlighted as the only effective mechanism to ensure accountability for these crimes and to fight the ongoing impunity in the country. Slovakia noted that not even the UN presence in Syria had been spared in the violence, ‘which might constitute a war crime’.

Despite the wide range of concerns, most States continued to actively voice their ongoing support for the Annan Plan as the only means to achieve peace through political means. There was a universal call for a united front on this issue, notably by a strong statement made by Germany. The US and Germany, however, stressed their view that the future of Syria did not involve Assad.

While the Commission is still awaiting access to several areas of interest and there is very limited hope for an immediate solution, the session closed with the upcoming meeting of the Action Group in mind, seen as the last chance to put the Annan Plan back on track and to avoid the already deadly situation in Syria from spiralling completely out of control. That meeting concluded with an agreement on plans for a transitional government, but not one which necessarily excludes Assad. While prospects for such an agreement had seemed low beforehand, now that it has been achieved the challenge lies in implementing it.

Council mandates inquiry into massacre in El-Houleh at fourth special session on Syria


On 1 June 2012, the Human Rights Council (the Council) held its 19th special session on the ‘deteriorating human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic and the recent killings in El-Houleh’. Despite three previous special sessions on the situation in Syria, the violence has continued. The request for the special session, submitted by Qatar, Turkey, the European Union (the EU), Denmark, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United States of America (US) was supported by 23 members of the Council and 33 observer States. This special session follows last week’s massacre in the town of El-Houleh that drew international condemnation and prompted the US and at least a dozen other nations to expel Syrian diplomats on Tuesday.

The special session concluded with the adoption of resolution A/HRC/S-19/L.1 entitled ‘The deteriorating human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic and the killings in El-Houleh’. The session followed the pattern of previous special sessions, with China, Cuba, and the Russian Federation continuing to block efforts to reach consensus on the situation in Syria. These three States voted against the resolution. Ecuador and Uganda abstained, while the Philippines did not vote. The final vote tally was 41 votes in favour, 3 against, and 2 abstentions. There were notable shifts from India which, having abstained on all resolutions on Syria to date, voted in favour of the resolution, and Angola, which also voted in favour after having previously either abstained or not voted.

The resolution, which condemns the increasingly grave human rights violations in Syria and more specifically the massacre in the town of El-Houleh, includes the decision to request the Commission of Inquiry (COI) to urgently conduct a ‘comprehensive, independent, and unfettered special inquiry’ into the events in El-Houleh, and to attempt to publicly identify those who ‘appear responsible’. Further, the resolution invites Mr Kofi Annan, Joint Special Envoy for the UN and the League of Arab States, to brief the Council at its 20th session. Again, the resolution makes no reference to referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC), despite attempts during negotiations to have this reference included. It states however that the evidence gathered from the above investigation should be preserved for ‘possible future criminal prosecutions or a future justice process’. The COI is requested to provide a full report of its findings to the Council’s 20th session.

As expected, Syria expressed strong opposition during the session to the draft resolution, as it had done at the previous sessions. Its main point of concern was that the resolution was politicised, and that the Council’s continued attention on Syria is selective. It added that several States continued to promote violence in the country by supplying the rebels with arms. It stated that the resolution prejudges the findings of the inquiry that it calls for, and that by giving this mission to the COI it casts doubt on the role of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) and the Joint Special Envoy, Mr Annan. Syria stated that it fully accepted its responsibility to protect its people and to uphold international law, with the aim of emerging from the crisis. It called for a constructive debate to this end.

Condemnation of the massacre and calls for an investigation were unanimous, including from those who were opposed to the resolution. However several States (including China, Cuba, the Russian Federation, and Syria) criticised the assignment of the investigation to the COI, stating that this undermined the missions of UNSMIS and Mr Annan, and risked duplicating their work. China appealed for an immediate cease-fire and a strengthening of support for the existing mechanisms and measures including Mr Annan’s six point plan and UNSMIS. These States, as well as Venezuela speaking on behalf of ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas) repeated the calls they had made in the past that the international community should not use the special session or the resolution as a pretext for foreign intervention. Venezuela and China stated that the situation should be resolved by dialogue, rather than the one-sided approach represented by the resolution. Jordan associated intervention with risks for regional and international peace and security, which it feared could lead to an escalation of the situation. Other Arab States, notably Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia, wished for more robust action in order to stop violence but highlighted the need to protect Syrian sovereignty and integrity.

Many States echoed Mr Annan’s description of Syria as being ‘at a tipping point’ following these massacres, stating that if action was not taken, irreversible descent into civil war was on the horizon. Indeed India gave this as the reason why it had decided to vote in favour of this resolution. Many other States emphasised the urgency of the matter, referring to the findings from UNSMIS and the COI of acts of violence that may amount to 'crimes against humanity'. Botswana endorsed robust diplomatic measures as well as sanctions. Several States including Denmark (on behalf of the EU), Chile, Switzerland, New Zealand, Slovakia, and Botswana expressed the need to refer or, in the case of the EU, to consider referring these matters to the International Criminal Court (ICC), emphasising accountability as essential if a future peaceful Syria is to be achieved. These calls were reiterated by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navanethem Pillay (represented in the meeting by Ms Marcia Kran) and endorsed in a joint statement by special procedure mandate holders, which was delivered through videolink, by Mr Christof Heyns, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. Cuba and Russia stated however that unwarranted pressure was being placed on the Security Council.

Ms Pillay along with most of the States on the speakers' list, expressed regret that Syria continued to fail to cooperate with the international community, including the with the COI and UNSMIS. This call was echoed by many States including Denmark (on behalf of the EU). A priority for many States was the imperative need for access for humanitarian aid into the country. Qatar called for the establishment of a humanitarian corridor.

During the adoption of the resolution, the Russian Federation, while ‘categorically and most decisively’ condemning the events in El-Houleh, and demanding an investigation, stated that the resolution was one-sided and failed to include a condemnation of terrorism. It reiterated claims made during the session that the resolution anticipates the findings of the inquiry it calls for, and added that such an inquiry should not be carried out by the COI, as this calls into question the competence of UNSMIS under whose mandate such an inquiry falls, and risks duplication. Further, the delegation held that the invitation to Mr Annan to brief the Council was inappropriate. The Russian Federation’s remarks were echoed by Cuba and China. Syria’s response was to condemn what it described as the selectivity of the Council, and to describe the resolution as motivated by a desire to interfere in the internal affairs of Syria.

Working Group on Business and Human Rights announces intention to carry out country visits


On 21 June the Human Rights Council (the Council) held an interactive dialogue with the newly established Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other enterprises. This Working Group replaced the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on business and human rights, with the goal of putting into effect the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that had been developed by the former Special Rapporteur, John Ruggie. While the dialogue was held in a positive athmosphere, it also exposed continuing differences on the scope and utility of the Guiding Principles, given their non-binding nature and known substantive gaps. 

Ms Margaret Jungk, rapporteur of the Working Group, opened the session by mentioning the Human Rights Council’s historic decision to endorse the Guiding Principles. This, she said established for the first time an ‘authoritative global standard’ to address the negative impacts on human rights of business activities. The next step was for awareness raising of the Guiding Principles and for States and businesses alike to effectively implement. Ms Jungk introduced the three work streams that will guide the Working Group in this effort, namely dissemination of the Guiding Principles, ensuring impact through implementation, and promoting and strengthening global governance structures. She emphasised the duty of States as well as businesses to respect and protect human rights while noting that all actors needed to ensure effective access to remedies when breaches occur. This strategy enjoyed general support from the States that spoke.

Ms Jungk’s mention of possible country visits was notably welcomed by Australia as a means to ground the Working Group’s work in real-life complexities on the ground, to speak directly with those responsible for implementation, and to make constructive recommendations. Ghana stated that it was important for the Working Group to undertake country visits to assess the different capacities each has for implementing the Guiding Principles.

This issue of capacity was raised by several other States. India expressed its concern that those businesses that did not live up to the Guiding Principles would be blacklisted. It worried that this would reflect a lack of capacity on the part of businesses in developing countries and the general lack of a ‘level playing field’ in the global corporate world, rather than any ill will. It called on the Working Group to take capacity and cultural context into account when assessing implementation. In a similar vein, the Russian Federation stated that while the Guiding Principles are universal in their application, the methods for their implementation may vary depending on the capacity of each country.

Spain joined Norway in calling for clear communication between States and the Working Group, and a constant elaboration by the Working Group of practical tools to address challenges which vary from country to country and from sector to sector. Following up on this point, the European Union (EU) wished for further elaboration of the implementation phase as well as an indication of priorities and timelines for the tasks ahead. India, Sweden, and Spain, and requested exchange of best practices as a tool for implementation, with India stating that the Working Group should ensure that it does not become a catalyst for 'naming and shaming' States and corporations.

Norway made the crucial point about the need for incentives for enterprises to integrate the Guiding Principles into their own work, an argument echoed by the Russian Federation which called for the dissemination aspect of the strategy to be complemented by a strategy to increase the interest of corporations in human rights, thereby stimulating demand.

Many States (Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC), Argentina, Australia, Sweden, and the United States, along with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)) welcomed the Working Group’s consultative approach, with Argentina, Australia, the UK, and the ICJ noting the particularly important role of civil society. However, the ICJ questioned the success of that approach, saying that those directly affected by business practices have been virtually excluded. To this end it suggested that future consultations be held in places where representatives of these groups could participate, and that a voluntary fund be established to encourage and facilitate that participation. In a somewhat contradictory statement, Ms Jungk mentioned in her closing remarks that the issue of the victims’ voices was one that the Working Group had struggled with, and that in the end it had been recognised as an issue that cuts across all the planned work streams, as a result of which it is not explicitly mentioned in the strategy. Australia called for the Working Group to also consult with small and medium enterprises (SMEs). The Forum on Business and Human Rights, which will be held from 4-5 December 2012 under the guidance of the Working Group, is another opportunity for broad consultations between all stakeholders, and civil society is strongly encouraged to continue their engagement with the Working Group by participating in this Forum. However, given the skepticism among parts of civil society on the limited scope of the Forum's work, it may be difficult to attract sustained attention to the Forum.

Paraguay and the Russian Federation drew attention to vulnerable groups with the Russian Federation requesting the Working Group to ensure that the Guiding Principles are disseminated amongst these groups, to inform them about their rights. UNICEF highlighted its Children's Rights and Business Principles, which seek to fill gaps in existing standards in relation to the impact of business and children.

With regard to next steps, the UK stated that it was important not to upset the integrity and balance achieved by Mr Ruggie in the Guiding Principles, and described the ultimate goal of the process as being to transform the Principles into action. Other States saw the Principle as a starting point from which a further process can be developed (for example, Cuba, Egypt). Egypt stated that the Working Group should seek to identify protection gaps so that issues not covered by the Guiding Principles could be addressed, giving as an example the activities of the pharmaceutical industry in the acquiring and merging with enterprises in developing countries, which impacts upon the production of generic drugs. The ICJ too said that the implementation of the Principles should not foreclose any further development, including further enhancement of standards, pointing out that Mr Ruggie himself had described the Principles as a platform on which cumulative progress can be built. It expressed concern with the description by some, including the Working Group, of the Principles as the 'authoritative basis' for understanding the duties and obligations of States and businesses, noting that it is not a legally binding document. Of particular concern was the lack of sufficient judicial remedies provided by the Principles, further underscoring the need for substantive development of the normative basis. Ms Jungk, responding in her closing remarks, said the Working Group's intention was to begin the process of implementation and on that basis to identify gaps and shortcomings in the process on a factual basis. She did not talk about plans to identify gaps in the Principles themselves.

Ms Jungk concluded by setting out three objectives that the Working Group wanted to see States achieve, first, identify areas in country which are most affected by the activities of businesses and build action plans on the basis of the knowledge obtained; second, the development of a team within governments that can drive the work of implementing the Guiding Principles across all ministries and departments; and third, direct engagement from States with the Working Group to get advice and assistance.

Human Rights Council ends 20th session


The Human Rights Council concluded its 20th session today (6 July 2012) with a series of important country and thematic resolutions. Refer to this joint NGO statement made at the end of the session for more details.

Videos: wrap-ups of the 20th session of the Human Rights Council


We are pleased to provide you with these short videos summarising some of the key country specific and thematic developments at the 20th session of the Human Rights Council. Look out for a more in-depth written summary in the next issue of the Human Rights Monitor Quarterly.

The first clip focuses on country-specific developments, including on Bahrain, Belarus, Eritrea, Syria and Mali.



The second clip focuses on some of the session’s main thematic developments. These include the first report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association, a panel discussion on women human rights defenders, a discussion on the protection of journalists, and a resolution on human rights and the internet.

UPR boosts cooperation between States and civil society


A workshop held this month in Liberia has shown the potential of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism for increasing cooperation between government, national human rights institutions (NHRIs) and human rights defenders for the advancement of human rights.


The training took place in Monrovia from 9 to 12 July. It was organised by the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), in collaboration with the Liberia Coalition for Human Rights Defenders, and the West African Human Rights Defenders Network.

The workshop brought together government officials, national human rights institutions and human rights defenders from Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and Liberia to examine their countries’ human rights progress. There was a particularly focus on recommendations made to States under the UPR, and also on the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Manager of ISHR’s regional human rights defenders programme, Clement Voulé says he was greatly encouraged by the cooperative dynamic between civil society, NHRIs and ministries of justice and human rights.

‘All the participants seemed to have an open approach to one another, together with a desire to advance human rights by seeing UPR recommendations implemented in their countries.

‘There’s the sense that the UPR has boosted the priority of human rights at the national level. It’s also been a catalyst for encouraging the government, NHRI and civil society to work together toward this common goal.’

He says it was interesting that all the participants of the workshop were already familiar with the UPR mechanism, even if they had never been exposed to other UN human rights mechanisms, such as the treaty bodies.

‘While it’s a good thing that the UPR has managed to garner such a high profile, this does present the threat that UPR recommendations will be prioritised over recommendations made by other human rights mechanisms.

‘It will be important therefore that UPR recommendations support those made by these other mechanisms, such as the treaty bodies or special rapporteurs, by referring to the action points identified by them and, certainly, never contradicting them.’

Mr Voulé says Guinea had taken a proactive approach to the UPR and is in the process of finalising a draft action plan on how it intends to implement its UPR recommendations. The meeting in Monrovia provided the ideal forum for the government, civil society and NHRI to work together to develop this further.

‘National action plans that implicate all government ministries are absolutely essential for the implementation of UPR recommendations because otherwise any “commitments” are just rhetoric. The necessity of developing and implementing national action plans is one of the recommendations that the participants identified in an end of session statement.

‘It was excellent to see Guinea using the workshop as an opportunity to further develop its plan, and Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire using the opportunity to get discussion going about how such a plan would be put together when the participants returned to their respective countries.’

A more disappointing observation was the currently low level of investment in or engagement by NHRIs in many of the countries represented. ‘One of the greatest opportunities for NHRIs is to play a role of convenor of the process at the national level – helping to bring together State and civil society,’ he says.

The NHRI of Sierra Leone was a good example of the role these institutions could play in their countries. ‘Sierra Leone’s NHRI has worked with its government and offices of the United Nations to raise awareness of the UPR process and to link UPR recommendations with other government processes in the country.’


Participants recommended that each country create a core group – encompassing civil society, NHRI, State and other stakeholder representatives – to monitor the implementation of UPR recommendations.

Another important recommendation related to a severe lack of country reports submitted the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Liberia currently has 15 reports outstanding, Sierra Leone 14, Cote d'Ivoire 10, and Guinea 7. Without the submission of these reports to the African Commission, many serious human rights situations have never been able to benefit from the Commission’s input.

The workshop participants recommended that all overdue reports be submitted to the African Commission.

You can read the participants’ full end of session statement and recommendations in English and French. The workshop was made possible by the support of Irish Aid and Diakonie.

Mark International Women Human Rights Defenders’ Day by sharing your experience


The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa is seeking input for a report on the challenges faced by women defenders in Africa and their protection needs. And with International Women Human Rights Defenders’ Day just around the corner (29 November), now is an opportune time to provide your feedback.

If you are a woman activist working alone or in association with others to promote and protect human rights, and/or you’re someone who works on women’s rights or sexual rights, including issues related to sexual orientation or gender identity, then please do complete this questionnaire (English). It is also available in FrenchArabic and Portuguese. It is open to those working at the national, regional or international levels.The deadline for submitting responses is 31 December 2012.  

The report comes at a time of growing attention by the international and regional human rights systems to the challenges and protection needs of women human rights defenders. In 2010, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders produced a report on women defenders, which was followed earlier this year by the first ever Human Rights Council panel discussion on the same issue, held on the UN’s Annual Day of Discussion on Women’s Rights.

The study on women human rights defenders in Africa was initiated by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Commission) in a resolution passed just last month at the Commission’s 52nd Ordinary Session (also available in French). The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa is spearheading this process, and is preparing a report that she will present to the African Commission at its next session, in April 2013.

The report is anticipated to provide recommendations for several stakeholders, including States, regarding the protection of women defenders and the promotion of their work. These recommendations will help to bring domestic standards and practice in line with regional and international human rights standards, including the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. This will be the first time that the African Commission provides such a focus on the situation of women defenders.

Take action!

Civil society engagement is crucial to ensure the report reflects and analyses the situation of women defenders working in different areas of human rights across the continent.

Please take the time to complete and return the questionnaire above if it is relevant to you, and also forward it onto colleagues and partners. Given that not everyone has email or responds to questionnaires, any way you can actively encourage women defenders to provide information would greatly assist the process.  The deadline for submitting your responses is 31 December 2012.

Currently all the sub-regional human rights defenders’ networks and several other national, regional and international organisations that regularly engage at the African Commission are actively encouraging women defenders to provide information about their experience.

For more on the challenges faced by women human rights defenders and their specific protection needs, see Claiming Rights, Claiming Justice, a handbook developed by the Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition.



Lire cet article en français                                                                                                                         

By Ashley Bowe, senior human rights advisor for SPC RRRT, writing in his personal capacity. Bowe is also a founding trustee of the Impact OSS Trust; and Joshua Cooper, executive director of Hawai'i Institute for Human Rights and CEO of The GOOD Group. Cooper is a lecturer in Political Science at the University of Hawai'i.

Samoa held a ground-breaking treaty body session on child rights, evidencing the benefits of extending these sessions beyond Geneva.

This article was first published on OpenGlobalRights on 17 June 2020.

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