Photo: UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré


HRC2023: Blueprint for States to ensure the Human Rights Council is credible, accessible and effective

For many rights holders, victims and human rights defenders, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) provides a vital lever increasing pressure for change at the national level, while for others it provides the last resort or only opportunity to expose violations, seek accountability, and garner support for their vital work towards a fair, equal and sustainable world. We need the HRC to be credible, effective and accessible to everyone. This is only possible if States demonstrate leadership, take action in line with objective human rights criteria, ensure that HRC members live up to their responsibilities, and fully cooperate with the HRC and its mechanisms.

Human Rights Council elections 

ISHR urges all regional groups to present competitive slates for HRC elections. States should follow and deepen the practice of announcing their candidacies by the High-Level Segment of every year’s March session of the HRC, at the latest. On a closed slate, the lack of competition all but guarantees election for all candidates, irrespective of their human rights record. This turns the election into an appointment process that violates the spirit of the HRC’s membership rules and undermines the effectiveness of the HRC. Candidate States should announce and publish their voluntary pledges in a timely manner. This encourages engagement and ownership by other actors to follow up and contribute to their implementation, with the ultimate goal of improving the human rights situation on the ground. In casting their votes, electing States should treat human rights considerations as paramount, having regard to ISHR’s Score Cards. States should refuse to cast a vote in favour of any candidate responsible for grave and systematic human rights violations.

Civil society participation at the HRC

Civil society participation is a cornerstone of the HRC. It brings voices from local communities and organisations who can effectively inform the HRC of human rights priorities and needs on the ground. Yet the special emergency measures and ongoing budget constraints adopted by the HRC in 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022, coupled with measures adopted to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, and the ongoing Strategic Heritage Plan, have heavily restricted civil society participation at the HRC. Among the measures adopted and renewed, we’ve witnessed the elimination of general debates from the June session, capped NGO lists of speakers and reduced speaking times during interactive dialogues. Consequently, civil society organisations and human rights defenders have suffered significant reductions in spaces for participation in the HRC’s work. During the Covid-19 pandemic, while civil society’s physical access was restricted, the implementation of remote participation allowed for greater inclusivity and the implementation of a long time demand of civil society organisations. We urge the HRC to maintain hybrid modalities (remote participation in all debates and informal consultations) for all Observers of the HRC (States and civil society organisations with ECOSOC status) regardless of the Covid-19 measures, as complementary to in-person participation; to reinstate General Debates in June sessions and maintain unrestricted General Debate; and to ensure that efficiency is not prioritised over effectiveness, expertise and inclusiveness, including by addressing the chronic underfunding of the UN’s human rights pillar. We also call on States to institutionalise the good practice set by the HRC president in 2022 where he responded to civil society’s ask to act as the civil society focal point in the HRC Bureau, in order to facilitate their engagement throughout the year, particularly with regard to issues that affect civil society participation. 

Acts of intimidation and reprisals

For the HRC to be effective, it must be accessible to rights holders and victims. Those who defend human rights must be able to access and communicate with the UN and the HRC freely and safely. They should not be intimidated nor suffer reprisals related to that engagement. At every HRC session, States should raise individual cases, demand an immediate end to all acts of intimidation and reprisals, and follow up on accountability for perpetrators and remedies for victims. 

The President and Bureau of the HRC should meet their obligation to address reprisals by publicly identifying and denouncing specific instances of reprisals, including through formal statements, press-briefings, corresponding directly with the State concerned, publicly releasing such correspondence, and seeking undertakings from the State concerned to investigate, hold perpetrators accountable and report back to the HRC on action taken. At the 54th session in September, States should ensure that the HRC adopts a resolution that strengthens the HRC’s response to acts of intimidation and reprisals.

Resolution on mandate of the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders

The mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders is to be renewed at the upcoming March session of the HRC. The mandate is integral to the global recognition and protection of defenders. ISHR calls on States from all regions to fully support the mandate by presenting early co-sponsorship of the resolution. As an aspect of their obligations to implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on its 75th anniversary, and their obligations under the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders on its 25th anniversary, we join with the High Commissioner in calling on all States to unconditionally release all arbitrarily detained human rights defenders.

Racial justice and equality for Africans and people of African descent

Many States continue to deny the existence and impact of systemic racism, in particular institutional racism. Many States also actively protect the interests of police institutions,maintaining a status quo which oppresses Africans and people of African descent. The Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved Africans and colonialism were grave violations of international law that require States to make reparations proportionate to the harms committed and to ensure that structures in society that perpetuate the injustices of the past are transformed and to dispense reparatory justice to remedy historical racial injustices. We call on States to fully implement the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA). We also call on States to fully cooperate with the International Independent Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in the context of Law Enforcement, including by accepting country visits, and implementing the recommendations from their report and the High Commissioner’s Agenda towards Transformative Change for Racial Justice and Equality. 

Human rights and migration

We call on all States to respect and protect the human rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, without discrimination. We condemn the discriminatory treatment, unlawful deportations, excessive use of force and deaths of African migrants and migrants of African descent at the hands of law enforcement officials engaged in migration and border governance. We call on all States to end the criminalisation of the provision of solidarity and support, including rescues at sea, by migrant rights defenders.

We urge the HRC to ensure accountability for human rights violations at borders, including by establishing a global commission of inquiry into migrant deaths and other grave human rights violations at sea and borders, and call on States to adopt a racial justice approach, including by adopting policies to address structural racism in the management of international migration. 

Country situations that continue to merit the HRC’s attention

The objective rights-based criteria, which States from all regions have committed to apply on whether a situation merits the HRC’s attention, includes several criteria relating to the situation of human rights defenders and cooperation with the HRC, its mechanisms, OHCHR and treaty bodies. Acts of intimidation and reprisals are the most flagrant type of non-cooperation. States should continue to demonstrate leadership, principled action and sustained follow up when the objective criteria are met, paying particular attention to attacks or restrictions against human rights defenders as an early warning sign of more widespread and systematic violations.

Human rights situation in Afghanistan

The mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan is a crucial mechanism for ongoing monitoring and documentation of the situation in the country, as well as enabling discussion and dialogue amongst States on its findings. It remains an important channel for communication between human rights defenders and survivors inside Afghanistan with the intergovernmental decision-making spaces. However, it falls short due to the overwhelming evidence of gross violations and abuses in Afghanistan, including crimes against humanity, gender persecution and gender apartheid. The HRC must respond to the calls from Afghan human rights defenders, especially women human rights defenders, and civil society and establish an independent accountability mechanism with a mandate and resources to investigate the full scope of violations abuses that continue to be committed in Afghanistan by all parties and to preserve evidence of these violations for future accountability. 

Human rights situation in Algeria 

On 24 August 2022, HRDs Kaddour Chouicha and Jamila Loukil members of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH) were prevented from traveling to attend the pre-session organized by UPR-info, a clear case of reprisals against human rights defenders attempting to cooperate with the UPR. Chouicha, Loukil and other HRDs are charged in a criminal case, which includes ‘enrollment in a terrorist or subversive organization active abroad or in Algeria’. They are awaiting trial. If convicted of these charges, they face up to twenty years imprisonment. On 20 January 2023, LADDH members learned of the organization’s dissolution through social media. The court, without informing LADDH, ruled on 29 June 2022 in favor of the Ministry of Interior to dissolve the organisation, only making this decision public in September, without communicating it to the organisation.The intensifying crackdown on LADDH is representative of the heightened repression against the pro-democracy movement and dissenting voices. We urge all States to demand that Algeria, a HRC member, end its crackdown on human rights defenders and civil society organisations, amend laws aimed at silencing peaceful dissent and stifling civil society, and immediately and unconditionally release arbitrarily detained human rights defenders. 

Human rights situation in Burundi

After his appointment in October 2021, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi presented his first report to the Council in October 2022. The report was presented despite a blatant lack of government cooperation with the mandate and listed a series of ongoing human rights concerns in the country since a human rights, political, and humanitarian crisis erupted in 2015 when the late President Nkurunziza deci­ded to seek an un­­constitutional third term in office. The Council must maintain its scrutiny over the situation in the country to ensure a credible and inclusive move towards democratic rule. ISHR reiterates its call on Burundi to acknowledge the existence of human rights challenges in Burundi, to cooperate fully with tthe Special Rapporteur and to grant him access to the territory in order to fully fulfill his mandate.

Human rights situation in China

The HRC, despite a close vote last September, continues to fall woefully short of adequately addressing the human rights situation in the Uyghur region (Xinjiang). But this does not mean the UN human rights system as a whole has been silent. It continues to document and expose massive violations, adding to our understanding of the gravity of China’s human rights crisis. In Hong Kong, the OHCHR has raised alarm about lack of fair trial guarantees and harsh sentences, including of minors, under the National Security Law and echoed calls from the Human Rights Committee to repeal the Law and comply with international obligations. UN experts recently denounced the separation of 1 million Tibetan children from families and forced assimilation at residential schools; a region in which enforced disappearance, detention, and torture of feminists, labour rights activists, and other human rights defenders continues unabated. On 24 November 2022, the CERD issued an Urgent Action decision on Xinjiang stressing the ‘scale and nature’ of the repression of Uyghurs and Muslim minorities. The Committee urged China to release all those arbitrarily detained, stop harassing Uyghurs abroad, and fully review its national security framework. For the first time ever, the Committee referred the matter to the Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect, while reminding ‘all States of their responsibility to cooperate to bring to an end through lawful means any serious breach of human rights obligations.’

On 31 October 2022, a greater number of States (50) than ever before – including Türkiye, Somalia, and Albania alone among OIC governments – jointly urged China to implement the OHCHR’s ‘independent, authoritative assessment’ on Xinjiang and ‘release all individuals arbitrarily detained.’ High Commissioner Volker Türk has endorsed his Office’s report, vowing to follow up on the report with determination. It is critical that all States support the OHCHR in further documenting the human rights crisis in China, and call for information on these follow-up efforts to be presented to the HRC. To uphold the integrity of its mandate and put an end to China’s exceptionalism, the HRC must establish a monitoring and reporting mechanism on the country, as repeatedly called for by over 40 UN experts and hundreds of human rights groups globally. States should ensure sustained visibility of the broader human rights situation across China; violations that affect Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese human rights defenders have shared roots in the abuse of national security measures to crackdown on dissent. Finally, States should ask for the prompt release of human rights defenders, including feminist activists Huang Xueqin and Li Qiaochu, human rights lawyers Chang Weiping and Ding Jiaxi, legal scholar Xu Zhiyong, Uyghur doctor Gulshan Abbas, Hong Kong lawyer Chow Hang-tung, and Tibetan climate activist A-nya Sengdra.

Human rights situation in Egypt

Notwithstanding the launch of a national human rights strategy, the fundamental purpose of which is to deflect international scrutiny rather than advance human rights, there has been no significant improvement in the human rights situation in Egypt since the joint statement delivered by States in March 2021. Since that time no consequential follow-up has occurred at the HRC, while the situation has further deteriorated on the ground. As witnessed by the world during COP27, the brutal crackdown on civil society in Egypt continues to intensify. Sustained, coordinated action on Egypt at the Council is more necessary than ever. Egypt continues to carry out widespread and systematic violations of human rights, including freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association. The Egyptian authorities have for years employed draconian laws, including laws on counterterrorism, cybercrimes, and civil society in order to subdue the civilian populations and stifle all forms of peaceful dissent and mobilisation. Under the current government, Egypt has become among the worst three countries in the world in the numbers of jailed journalists and almost all independent media has been forced to shut down or threatened into silence. Hundreds of websites continue to be banned. Scores of civil society and media representatives continue to be disappeared, tortured and arbitrarily detained under the pretense of counter-terrorism and national security. While the release of a few select arbitrarily-detained activists is a sign that international pressure works, the number of releases pales in comparison to the vast numbers of individuals newly detained by the National Security Prosecution, or whose arbitrary detention was renewed in 2022. Between the reactivation of the Presidential Pardons Committee in April 2022 and the end of 2022, the authorities released around 900 people held for political reasons, but almost triple that number of suspected critics and opponents were interrogated by prosecutors and arbitrarily detained. ISHR reiterates the calls of more than 100 NGOs from around the world in urging the HRC to create a monitoring and reporting mechanism on the ever-deteriorating human rights situation in Egypt.

Human rights situation in Guatemala

Guatemala’s recent UPR put a spotlight on the fast deterioration of democratic space in the country. Over twenty States raised concerns about attacks against indigenous, environmental, and other human rights defenders, and journalists. There has been a  steady increase in attacks, with a record high of 1000 attacks by 2021 according to local groups. The government, meanwhile, made no reference to the issue during the review. States also shared concern about the erosion of judicial independence, an issue repeatedly highlighted by UN experts and officials. Over the past years, UN experts have exposed interference or blocking in the appointment of high level court judges. High Commissioner Volker Türk recently condemned a 70% increase in cases of intimidation and criminal charges against justice officials fighting impunity and corruption. A growing number of judges and legal professionals have fled the country since the government closed the UN’s International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in 2019. In 2021, UN and OAS experts denounced a ‘choking’ law that gave the government ‘wide scope to control NGOs’. In this context, space for Guatemalan civil society to safely advocate for human rights and expose violations, and for the judicial authorities to respond to abuses and uphold the rule of law, has become dangerously narrow. These patterns create serious risks of further deterioration – in a trend that is also seen in neighbouring Central American countries –  in the lead-up to the June 2023 presidential elections. High Commissioner Türk’s presentation of his Office’s report on Guatemala to the HRC in March will provide a critical window of opportunity for States to collectively urge Guatemala to engage with the OHCHR to meaningfully address and put an end to attacks against human rights defenders and justice officials, ensure judicial independence, and review laws and policies that restrict civil society space.

Human rights situation in Israel and occupied Palestinian territory 

Building on the mounting recognition of Israel’s policy and practice of apartheid against Palestinians by civil society organisations, UN treaty bodies, and UN Special Procedures, we urge States to take effective measures to end and ensure accountability for this and other grave crimes through concerted efforts at the HRC. Ensuring support and sufficient resources for the accountability mechanism created by the HRC in 2022 (UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel) is essential in this regard. We also urge all States to ensure that the OHCHR fulfills the mandate given to it by the HRC to annually update the UN database of businesses operating in illegal Israeli settlements. While the Database was first published in February 2020, three years after its mandated release, the OHCHR has failed to subsequently update it. These delays are unprecedented in the way the OHCHR has handled prior mandates, and are due to reported political pressure and interference. Should the OHCHR not fulfill or continue to delay the implementation of a HRC resolution, the effectiveness and credibility of the work of the HRC itself will be compromised. 

Human rights situation in Nicaragua

A year after the adoption of resolution 49/3, the UN system has continued to document a steady deterioration of the country’s multi-pronged human rights crisis. UN and IACHR documentation compiled by the Colectivo 46/2 point to the absence of steps taken to implement any of the 14 recommendations from resolution 49/3. Instead, the ruling party has seized absolute control over the country’s 153 municipalities in a 2022 electoral process ‘characterised by repression of dissenting voices and undue restriction of political rights and civil liberties,’ according to the OHCHR; canceled the legal status of more than 2500 civil society organisations; detained political prisoners in inhumane conditions; and allowed for the continuation of widespread attacks, including 32 killings since 2018, by armed settlers against indigenous peoples of the Northern Caribbean Coast. The Nicaraguan government has confirmed its diplomatic isolation by refusing to cooperate with six UN Treaty Bodies within a year prompting unprecedented public condemnation by the UN’s two anti-torture committees. It has also retaliated against EMRIP member and Nicaraguan citizen Anexa Cunningham, by denying her entry into the country on 9 July 2022. We urge the HRC to renew for a period of two years resolution 49/3 establishing the mandate of the Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua, and the monitoring mandate of the OHCHR. We call on all governments to support such a resolution and reinforce its intersectional approach, by bringing particular attention to the situation of indigenous peoples and afro-descendants, migrants and forcibly displaced persons, those detained for political reasons and the families of victims.

Human rights situation in Russia and Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine

In establishing the Special Rapporteur on Russia, the HRC responded to calls by numerous Russian human rights defenders and international human rights organisations that have denounced sustained patterns of abuse against civil society in the country over recent years, and which have reached new heights since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. The mandate provides a vital bridge between the UN and Russian civil society actors and will ensure that, despite Russia’s authoritarian efforts, the international community will have access to expert information and analysis regarding the human rights situation on the ground. ISHR calls on the HRC to ensure that the mandate is renewed and strengthened in September. For the March session, ISHR also calls on the HRC to renew the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in Ukraine associated with Russia’s war of aggression, including the mandate of the Commission to examine the root causes of the conflict such as the repression and criminalisation of human rights defenders and independent journalists in Russia.  

Human rights situation in Saudi Arabia 

According to ALQST’s 2022 annual report, the Saudi authorities’ unleashed a new wave of repression in 2022. Familiar patterns of abuse continued, including arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and harsh restrictions on prisoners of conscience released from prison, including travel bans. However from mid-year onwards in particular, the Saudi courts started imposing jail sentences of unprecedented severity for peaceful, legitimate activity on social media, further deepening the climate of fear in the kingdom. Use of the death penalty increased sharply after a lull during the COVID period, with the biggest mass execution in recent times (of 81 men in a single day), while executions for non-violent drugs-related offences made a dramatic comeback. This intensification of repression went hand in hand with the progressive diplomatic rehabilitation of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman. We call on the HRC to respond to the calls of NGOs from around the world to create monitoring and reporting mechanism on the ever-deteriorating human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.

Human rights situation in Sudan

The Sudanese military and some political parties and civic groups signed a framework agreement to pave the way for a power transition to civilian forces in December 2022. But the agreement was not widely welcomed by local resistance movements, including resistance committees and some women groups. The protests continued across the country demanding a comprehensive transitional process that respects the people’s demands for accountability, peace, and justice. In the meantime, the security forces crackdown on protests is sustained, while the violations of freedoms of assembly, expression, and association continue. Following the political framework agreement, attacks on women human rights defenders (WHRDs) and women groups continued as the violence in conflict areas escalated. The HRC must ensure continued reporting on Sudan and to urge the international community to prioritise justice and accountability in any upcoming political solution.

Human rights situation in Yemen

ISHR joins civil society organizations from Yemen and around the world to urge the HRC to establish an independent international criminally focused investigative mechanism on Yemen. Before its untimely dissolution in 2021, the UN Group of Eminent Experts (GEE), established by the HRC in 2017, recommended that UN member States refer the situation in Yemen to the International Criminal Court (ICC), support the establishment of an international criminally focused investigative mechanism, and stressed the need to realise victims’ right to reparation. In late 2021, HRC members narrowly rejected a resolution that would have renewed the GEE’s mandate following lobbying, threats and inducements by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In September 2022, Saudi Arabia and Yemen rejected attempts by States to ensure continued discussion at the HRC of the ongoing human rights crises in Yemen. The international community should not stand by and allow the vote to disband the GEE to be the HRC’s last word on the situation, nor allow warring parties to continue to block formal discussions of large-scale human rights abuses, war crimes and the urgent need for accountability. A new HRC-mandated mechanism is required to ensure that potential avenues of criminal accountability and reparative justice are effectively explored for Yemen and may be pursued now and in the future to address impunity and provide effective redress to victims.

Human rights situation in Venezuela

Having just concluded his first visit to Venezuela, the High Commissioner will have recent impressions and recommendations to share during the oral update he will provide the Council on 21 March. On 23 March, the UN fact-finding mission will provide their first oral update since their mandate was renewed by the HRC last September. These updates will take place at a time of ongoing political flux in the country, upcoming elections and – critically – further threats to civic space. At the very moment of the High Commissioner’s visit to the country, the Venezuelan Parliament approved the first round of a bill that will to criminalise and further restrict the work of NGOs in the country: the ‘Law of Supervision, Regularisation, Performance and Financing of Non-Governmental and Related Organisations’. ISHR joins Venezuelan and international organisations expressing grave concern at the bill. During the interactive dialogues on Venezuela, States must continue to express concern at ongoing human rights and humanitarian crises in the country, as well as at the introduction of the NGO bill, and call for the release of the arbitrarily detained human rights defenders, including Javier Tarazona who has now been held for almost 600 days, wholly without justification. 

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