Reprisals: UN and States must act on disturbing new report

An alarming new report by the UN Secretary-General documents a significant number of cases in which people have been arrested, detained, tortured and even killed for their work to expose and pursue accountability for human rights violations at the United Nations.

(Geneva) - An alarming new report by the UN Secretary-General documents a significant number of cases in which people have been arrested, detained, tortured and even killed for their work to expose and pursue accountability for human rights violations at the United Nations. Disturbingly, the report also reveals that in very few such cases are the threats and attacks properly investigated or perpetrators held to account. 

'The cases documented in this new report are truly shocking,' said ISHR Director Phil Lynch.

'From the murder in Cameroon of a human rights defender advocating for LGBT rights during the Universal Periodic Review, to the alleged torture and ill-treatment of a woman in China seeking justice at the UN for the demolition of homes, to the raid of non-governmental organisations in Egypt at gunpoint, to the de-registration of NGOs in Russia and Malaysia in association with their international advocacy, this report exposes the horrific human cost of cooperating with the UN,' said Mr Lynch.

According to the Secretary-General, 'the cases included in the report are only the tip of the iceberg. Some cases have not been included because of concern that the alleged victims might be subjected to further acts of harassment, intimidation or reprisal if their complaints were published.'

'This report reveals that human rights defenders are not even safe at the UN in Geneva, with documented cases of activists from Cuba, China, Sri Lanka and Viet Nam, among others, being subject to surveillance and harassment from State officials and State-controlled media and organisations while in Geneva and at the UN,' said Mr Lynch.

'The primary responsibility to prevent and redress reprisals lies with the State. In that regard we strongly support the Secretary-General's calls for States to refrain from, prevent, investigate and ensure accountability for cases of alleged intimidation and reprisals, including by enacting specific laws and policies and appointing a national focal point to follow up on cases,' Mr Lynch said.

The report, which will be presented to the Human Rights Council in Geneva next week, also reiterates calls for States to support the UN itself to mandate a high-level official to follow up on cases reprisals.

'The ongoing incidence of reprisals, many of which are perpetrated by State actors, together with the impunity and lack of accountability in most cases, unequivocally evidences the need for a stronger and more coordinated response from the UN,' said ISHR Program Manager Eleanor Openshaw. 

The report comes as the General Assembly in New York is set to consider its response to Human Rights Council resolution 24/24 and implores States to take positive action in that regard. 'I welcome steps taken to address cases of reprisal in a coherent and systematic manner at the national, regional and international levels, including through the adoption of Human Rights Council resolution 24/24,' says the Secretary-General in his report. 'In that resolution, the Council reaffirmed the right of everyone to unhindered access to, and communication with, international bodies, and requested that a United Nations-wide senior focal point on issues related to reprisals be designated to engage with all stakeholders and encourage a prompt, effective and unified response. I commend the fact that the Council adopted a forward-looking resolution on reprisals and ask for your support to ensure that it is followed through at the General Assembly,' the Secretary-General says.

'In the absence of a coordinated international response, various UN treaty bodies, Special Procedures and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights have appointed focal points or rapporteurs to combat reprisals. As the Secretary-General notes, these are welcome innovations but no substitute for the system-wide focal point called for by the Human Rights Council in resolution 24/24 and again by the Secretary-General himself in this report,' Ms Openshaw said.

ISHR will host a high-level side-event on protecting civil society space and preventing reprisals in Geneva on 19 September.


A selection of the cases contained in the report are extracted below:


Reports were received by special procedures of the murder of a human rights defender and a journalist, and intimidation and reprisals against several others defending the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, in relation to their participation in the second universal periodic review of Cameroon. On 5 July 2013, the Director of the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, who had contributed to the report of Human Rights Watch that had addressed recommendations to the second review of Cameroon, was found dead at his home in Yaoundé. Although the police opened an investigation, no crime scene investigation or autopsy had reportedly been carried out. Subsequently, three colleagues of the deceased were detained in relation to the investigation. In the month preceding the murder, a series of burglaries and arson attacks had been reported on buildings of persons and organizations working with the Foundation on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights, including Alternatives-Cameroun. At the time of finalization of the present report, no reply had been received from the Government to the joint communication sent on 13 August 2013 by a group of special procedures mandate holders.


On 5 May 2014, several special procedures mandate holders raised the case of Ge Zhihui. In early 2014, Ms. Ge, a petitioner assisting other petitioners in seeking justice for the demolition of their homes, participated in a training course outside China on United Nations human rights mechanisms. After her return, on 1 March 2014, Ms. Ge was arrested at her home in Beijing by agents of the Fengtai District Public Security Bureau, detained at Fengtai District Detention Centre and allegedly subjected to ill-treatment and torture, which led to her being hospitalized on two occasions. Although she had been charged with, inter alia, creating a disturbance, the interrogations in detention reportedly focused on Ms. Ge’s visit to Ms. Cao in hospital and her participation in the training course. At the time of finalization of the present report, no reply had been received from the Government to the joint communication sent.


On 24 December 2013, several special procedures mandate holders raised allegations of intimidation and reprisals by Egyptian State security forces against representatives of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, in the form of a raid and arrests, for their cooperation with the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the universal periodic review of Egypt. On 18 December 2013, around midnight, more than 60 police officers and security agents reportedly raided the offices of the Centre, holding staff at gunpoint. After damaging equipment and confiscating several laptops, officers arrested and blindfolded Mostafa Eissa, Head of the Documentaries Unit, Mahmoud Bilal, a lawyer at the Centre, Mohamed Adel, a volunteer, and three other staff members. The following morning, all of them, except Mr. Adel, were released and their property returned to them. It is alleged that during their detention, the men were blindfolded and handcuffed, were forced to stand and were beaten. On 22 December 2013, Mr. Adel was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 Egyptian pounds (approximately US$ 7,000), allegedly in relation to his participation in a peaceful protest on 26 November 2013.


On 22 January 2014, four special procedures mandate holders raised allegations of reprisals against the Coalition of Malaysian Non-Governmental Organizations (COMANGO), which had made submissions for the universal periodic review of Malaysia. Following the launch of an online forum entitled “Facing the threat of liberalism and Shi’ites” on 2 October 2013, COMANGO began to receive threats daily, including from government officials. In November 2013, Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia allegedly distributed 70,000 leaflets on the “masterminds” behind COMANGO which included their images, and announced that it would launch a nationwide campaign against them. On 20 November 2013, the Minister for Islamic Affairs stated in an opening speech at the Forum on Universal Fundamental Rights that human rights as espoused by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights might cause discordance in the society. On 8 January 2014, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a press statement declaring COMANGO illegal. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, through her spokesperson, expressed concern about what “appears to be an act of reprisal” and called upon the Government to ensure that civil society can conduct its legitimate activities without intimidation or harassment. At the time of finalization of the present report, no reply had been received from the Government.

Sri Lanka

Visuvalingam Kirupaharan, General Secretary of the Tamil Centre for Human Rights, was reportedly threatened during the twenty-fifth session of the Human Rights Council. On 21 March 2014, Mr. Kirupaharan participated in a side event on human rights in Sri Lanka, organized by the International Buddhist Foundation. After the event, a journalist, reportedly from the Sri Lankan newspaper Divaina, approached Mr. Kirupaharan, stating that he could not return to Sri Lanka and that he would face consequences if he did so. The journalist allegedly told Mr. Kirupaharan that photographs of him at the Council would be published in newspapers in Sri Lanka. At the time of finalization of this report, no reply had been received from the Government to a joint communication sent on 27 March 2014 by three special procedures mandate holders. 

Viet Nam

On 19 May 2014, four special procedures mandate holders raised allegations of acts of intimidation and reprisal against Le Cong Cau, head of the Buddhist Youth Movement. Mr. Cau had participated by means of an audio message at a side event called “Banned civil society voices” on 4 February 2014, before the universal periodic review of Viet Nam had taken place. Mr. Cau had been under surveillance since March 2013 and had been detained on 1 January 2014 on suspicion of carrying terrorist materials as he was boarding a plane for Ho Chi Minh City and placed under house arrest. Although he had reportedly been told orally that he could travel freely within the country, Mr. Cau was rearrested on 16 February 2014 and taken to Truong An district police station, where he was interrogated about his audio message at the side event. On 14 April 2014, Mr. Cau was informed by an official of the Thua Thien-Hue police that he would remain under house arrest for the duration of the investigation of his case. At the time of finalization of the present report, no reply had been received from the Government.

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