UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré


HRC2024: Blueprint for States to ensure the Human Rights Council is credible, accessible and effective

The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) is crucial for rights holders, victims, and human rights defenders, offering a platform to pressure for national change, expose violations, seek accountability, and gain support for their 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 ensure that remote and hybrid participation of civil society is maintained; that international law is upheld universally; promptly and adequately respond to defenders’ demands for accountability; lead and support HRC action in line with objective human rights criteria; and ensure that HRC members live up to their responsibilities, including full cooperation with the HRC and its mechanisms.

At a time of increasing conflicts and crises, the root causes of which include repression and human rights violations, respect for human rights and accountability for violations is essential to address and resolve these crises. Amongst other things, this requires that States support and protect the work of human rights defenders, both at the national and international levels. Defenders prevent rights violations, provide essential services, document abuses, promote accountability, and propose solutions that are grounded in community priorities and needs.

Resolving conflicts and crises also requires that States treat human rights as paramount and apply human rights laws and standards in a principled and consistent way. The selective and inconsistent application of international law is undermining the integrity of the framework, as well as the credibility, legitimacy and influence of States and other actors who engage in such double standards. 

Despite the challenges we collectively face, we remain convinced that, when applied in a consistent and principled way, international human rights laws and standards provide a compass – in fact, the only compass – for States and human rights defenders to chart a course to a more peaceful, just and inclusive world.

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 scorecards. 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 for the past 5 years, 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. Amongst 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. However, during COVID-19, the Human Rights Council and other human rights mechanisms in Geneva have set an excellent example for the UN-wide system and strengthened their work through live online interventions and pre-recorded videos, coupled with in-person interventions. These interventions have improved diversity and accessibility and brought defenders and victims of violations closer to the UN human rights system, in turn making the UN more relevant to rights holders.

We deeply regret, however, that the 5th Committee of the General Assembly and its relevant subsidiary bodies in New York failed to provide the required mandate and legislative framework upon which such modalities could have been permanently adopted for 2024. Based on this, the United Nations Offices at Geneva (UNOG)  has decided to stop providing modalities for live online participation, as it maintained that it has no mandate for providing hybrid services. We are deeply concerned about the significant negative impact of the lack of provision for live online participation tools on the inclusivity and universality of all UN human rights bodies and mechanisms, including the Human Rights Council, UPR, and Treaty Bodies.

We urge the UN system to ensure that the necessary arrangements are put in place to allow the UN human rights bodies and mechanisms, including the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms as well as the Treaty Bodies and other mechanisms, to continue to make live online participation available through Zoom, WebEx or other tools in all in-person meetings, both formal and informal, in all its sessions throughout 2024, until mandated otherwise, following the good practices consolidated during the business continuity scheme and the previous arrangements between the Council’s Presidency and the Secretary-General.

We urge the HRC 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. 

Acts of intimidation and reprisals

ISHR remains deeply concerned about reprisals against civil society actors who engage or seek to engage with UN bodies and mechanisms. We call for all States and the Council to do more to address the situation. HRC debates are a key opportunity for States to raise concerns about specific cases of reprisals and demand that governments provide an update on any investigation or action taken toward accountability. An increasing number of States have raised concerns in recent sessions about individual cases of reprisals, including at HRC39, HRC41, HRC42, HRC43, HRC45, HRC51, HRC52,HRC53 and HRC54. 

States raising cases is an important aspect of seeking accountability and ending impunity for acts of reprisal and intimidation against defenders engaging with the UN. It can also send a powerful message of solidarity to defenders, supporting and sustaining their work in repressive environments.

ISHR urges States to continue to raise cases ISHR has campaigned on in the last two years in their statements. In addition, we urge States to raise and follow up on cases of reprisals in the country-specific debates taking place at HRC debates. 

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 that 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. 

ISHR urges States to fully support the renewal of the mandate of the International Mechanism of Independent Experts to Promote Racial Justice and Equality in the Context of Law Enforcement (EMLER) in 2024. This mandate, adopted for three years in 2021, has done an exceptional job in making four country visits and one regional visit in these three years. In addition to the reports for each country visit, they have published three thematic reports. With the renewal of EMLER’s mandate, we take a step forward in addressing the global magnitude of systemic racism, while promoting government accountability for violence in the context of law enforcement towards Africans and people of African descent, including the legacies of slavery, the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism.

We also call on States to fully implement the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) and to implement the High Commissioner’s Agenda towards Transformative Change for Racial Justice and Equality.  We call on States to fully cooperate with the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent including by accepting country visits, and implementing their recommendations as well as those from the Permanent Forum

Human rights and migration 

While the HRC adopted a resolution in 2023 focusing on human rights of migrants on human rights violations in transit, it failed to answer the call from over 220 CSOs for the Council to establish an investigative mechanism on deaths, torture and other grave human rights violations at and around international borders. The normalisation of deaths caused by border management policies and practices, as well as criminal networks, must end. 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 resituate our calls on the HRC to ensure accountability for human rights violations at borders, and on all 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 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.

Attacks against fundamental freedoms in relation to Palestine in Western Europe and North America (including Austria, France, Germany,  Italy, United States, United Kingdom)

Civil society and international experts have raised grave concern at the attacks on fundamental freedoms when advocating for the rights of Palestinians by authorities in Western Countries. The attacks on freedoms of expression, assembly and association being monitored since October 2023 are by no means a new trend. For example, in September 2023, Amnesty International issued a statement addressing “restrictions of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly through blanket, pre-emptive bans imposed on assemblies on the occasion of Nakba Remembrance Day in Berlin” by the Berlin Assembly Authority.  However there has been a notable escalation in the intensity of these attacks as well as the political and legal measures put forward to further curtail fundamental freedoms in relation to Palestine since October 2023. 

Western governments, who regularly call for strong protection of human rights and civic space, are emboldening Israel’s indiscriminate attacks by cracking down on free expression and peaceful assembly, online and offline. Authorities have resorted to banning the holding of demonstrations, cracked down on demonstrators, and arrested protesters. Moreover, individuals have been fired from their jobs for voicing opinions on social media. Individuals have also reported facing hate speech, censorship and self-censoring fearing reprisals, including discrimination and criminalisation for voicing their opinions online and offline. 

Special Procedures have concluded that the undue restrictions imposed by States, especially Western States, “on peaceful protests and civil society working to protect human rights and humanitarian law in the context of the Gaza war are contrary to States’ obligation under international law to prevent atrocity crimes, such as genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and apartheid”. They stressed “that inclusive and meaningful collaboration with civil society, human rights defenders, […] and protest movements is vital to end the cycle of violence and impunity […], dismantling apartheid and ensuring justice and accountability […]”. Special Procedures have also addressed how “risks of potential anti-Semitism have also been used as a justification by some States to ban and criminalise peaceful assemblies and expressions in support of Palestinians’ rights”. 

Civil society has for years deplored the misuse by Israel and Western States of this argument to suppress Palestinian rights advocacy through the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. The Arab Center Washington DC stressed that “conflation between antisemitism and legitimate criticism of Israeli crimes against Palestinian civilians (heightened by the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism by many States and organisations), leads to the silencing of Palestinian voices”. The normalisation of anti-Palestinian racism, rarely treated as equal human beings by the media or politicians,  has also led to the dehumanisation of Palestinians as emphasised by the Special Procedures who stressed that “States have sought to justify these restrictions by referring to risks related to incitement to hatred and “glorification” or “support of terrorism”, and potential risks to national security or public order. This approach is not only arbitrary, but it also dehumanises Palestinians by unjustly linking them as a whole to criminal endeavours and terrorism.” Moreover, Special Procedures have stressed that “employees in the public and private sectors should also not face reprisals, such as disciplinary measures or loss of employment, for speaking out”. They emphasised the importance for States and relevant academic institutions to respect academic freedoms, and ensure that students and teaching staff can freely associate, assemble and express their views with regards to the war in Gaza and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The European Legal Support Center (ELSC) has monitored 661 incidents of repression against the Palestinian solidarity movement or individuals advocating for Palestinian rights since 7 October: 219 took place in Germany, 172 in the UK, 72 in France, 45 in Italy, 16 in Austria and 137 in other European countries. These include legal action or threats of legal action; restriction of movement, harassment, intimidation or violence; smear campaigns; threats to citizenship of residency status; disciplinary investigation, loss of employment or suspension from position; threats to academic freedom; refusal or withdrawal of use of venue or cancelation of events; defunding or financial de-risking. 

Since 2014, Palestine Legal has responded to over 2200 incidents in the United States of suppression of Palestinian rights advocacy aimed at intimidating Palestinians and their supporters into silence and inaction. Since October 7, Palestine Legal responded to over 1258 reports of suppression of Palestinian rights advocacy in the US. Palestine Legal and over 600 legal organisations and professionals based in the USA urged in a joint letter elected officials and institutional leaders “to take urgent measures to address the surging racist attacks and unlawful retaliation against advocates for Palestinian rights.” They address “an unprecedented barrage of extreme attacks that Palestinians and their allies in the U.S. are facing, including violent assaults, hate speech, employment discrimination, severe harassment and doxing of students, law enforcement visits, and censorship in different arenas of civic and social life”. The organisation stressed that “hundreds of incidents happening across the country signal a much broader effort to criminalise dissent, justify censorship, and incite anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, and anti-Muslim harassment, doxing and vigilantism against Palestinians and their allies. This is not a new phenomenon, but it is escalating at terrifying speed.”

In line with Special Procedures recommendations, we urge States, in particular Western States to:

  • Immediately and unconditionally release all arbitrarily detained individuals “for the exercise of their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, of association and of freedom of expression in the context in Israel/occupied Palestinian territory”. 
  • Put an end to the intimidation and criminalisation of “civil society and activists advocating for respect of Palestinians’ rights, including the right to self-determination, for boycotts, divestment and sanctions, international criminal accountability, and an end to the alleged crimes of apartheid and genocide against Palestinians”
  • Ensure that “legislation and policy measures designed to counter anti-Semitism or terrorism are not used to suppress fundamental freedoms or to restrict civil society’s access to resources and/or criminalise them for their legitimate work.”
  • Ensure that “civil society organisations, human rights defenders and academics, working on Palestinian rights can exercise the ability to seek, receive and use financial resources, including foreign funding; and that counter-terrorism laws, including financing laws, are not applied in a manner contrary to international standards.”

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 

The sustained repression against the pro-democracy movement and human rights defenders in Algeria was addressed in the end-of-session statements of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of association and assembly as well as the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders who conducted official visits to Algeria in 2023. These were the first visits since 2016 by UN mandate holders to the country. The Special Rapporteur on FoAA addressed the “criminalisation of civil society work”, and the “suspension or dissolution of political parties and associations, including prominent human rights advocacy organisations” (including RAJ and LADDH), as well as “overly restrictive laws and regulations” hindering their work. The rapporteurs called for the amendment of laws used to curtail fundamental freedoms, including article 87 bis of the Penal Code, used to outlaw movements such as the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie (MAK) and the Islamic political movement Rachad, both declared terrorist entities, and to bring criminal charges against individuals for exercising their rights to expression and assembly. Moreover, criminal charges were “brought against individuals, associations, trade unions and political parties for having held meetings with partners from other countries or receiving funding from foreign sources, prohibited under the highly restrictive law 12-06 […]”. The SR on HRDs also decried the “ongoing judicial harassment through multiple criminal cases taken against human rights defenders”. 

Following her visit and attending the trial of three Algerian human rights defenders who faced terrorism charges, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders “welcomed the acquittal of Jamila Loukil, Kaddour Chouicha and Said Boudour”. While this is a positive development, a big number of activists and human rights defenders remain arbitrarily detained in Algeria. The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders addressed the arbitrary detention of Kamira Nait Sid, a woman human rights defender and co-president of the World Amazigh Congress sentenced to three years in prison where she visited her. She was arrested and tried on charges of “undermining national unity” and “belonging to a terrorist organisation”. The Special Rapporteur also met with defender Ahmed Manseri, who was put in pre-trial detention following meeting the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Assembly, “a picture of him meeting the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Assembly was included in his case file”. He is being investigated on charges under Article 87 bis. Moreover, in line with the decision of the WGAD, Algeria should release arbitrarily detained defender Mohamed BabaNadjar, detained since 2005 and serving a life sentence for his work on the rights of the Amazigh people. 

ISHR is alarmed at the high level of self-censorship and risk of reprisals individuals face for engaging with the UN and its mechanisms. The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders reported that individuals were self-censoring “for fear of being charged under Article 87 bis”. The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Assembly reported that activists told him that they were not willing to meet him “in person as they feared they could be subject to reprisals by authorities for undermining national security.”  The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders also reported that some defenders she intended to meet “refused or cancelled at the last minute, for fear of reprisals”. Her “visit was also overshadowed by a number of human rights defenders, members of civil society organisations and victims of human rights violations being prevented from reaching Tizi Ouzou while I was there. As they travelled to the city, they were either stopped at checkpoints, or detained in a police station for over ten hours.”

We urge all States to demand that Algeria, an HRC member, end its crackdown on human rights defenders and civil society organisations. We also reiterate the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders to Algeria to release all defenders arbitrarily detained, “amend articles in the Penal Code which relate to terrorism and undermining national unity” and “articles in the Penal Code which allow for criminal sanction for ‘insult or contempt’ of individuals, bodies or institutions”,  “refrain from limiting human rights defenders’ freedom of movement” and “abolish the use of ISDNs to limit the travel of human rights defenders abroad”. 

Human rights situation in Bahrain

Bahrain continues to imprison human rights defenders, including Abduljalil Al-Singace, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and Naji Fateel, despite their prolonged incarceration deemed arbitrary by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. High-profile opposition figures such as Sheikh Ali Salman, Hassan Mushaima, and Abdulwahab Hussain also remain behind bars. On 19 September 2023, the UN Secretary-General published their annual report naming five individuals who faced reprisals for cooperating with United Nations mechanisms. The death penalty continues to be used, with 26 individuals on death row, many alleging torture and coerced confessions. Death row inmates Mohamed Ramadhan and Husain Moosa have been detained for a decade and are at risk of imminent execution despite UNWGAD calling for their immediate and unconditional release and impending execution. Last year, over 800 political prisoners in Jau Prison launched a hunger strike to protest harsh conditions, discrimination and ill-treatment. We call on States to urge Bahraini authorities to unconditionally release all those sentenced for their political opinions, including human rights defenders, stop reprisals for cooperating with the UN, and implement recommendations by UN Special Procedures.  

Human rights situation in Burundi

The Special Rapporteur on Burundi presented its last report to the Council during the 54th session in September 2023 and was renewed for another year. The report highlighted the dire situation faced by defenders in the country and in exile especially through judicial harassment. These concerns were reiterated following his visit in Canada during which he noted a shrinking civic space and a growing pressure on civil society organisations and the media.  

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 the Special Rapporteur and to grant him access to the territory in order to fully fulfil his mandate.

Human rights situation in China

China’s fourth UPR review on 23 January exposed strong international condemnation over grave abuses, and calls for unfettered access to the whole country for UN Special Procedures experts, including from the Global South. Numerous recommendations and advanced questions referred to the overwhelming evidence of grave abuses documented by UN bodies since 2018, compiled in a repository published by ISHR. The OHCHR Xinjiang report and the CERD Urgent Action decision 1(108) evidence possible crimes against humanity and other serious abuses in the Uyghur region; the Committees on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), and on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) issued key recommendations to address cultural assimilation of Tibetans; while the Human Rights Committee urged the repeal of Hong Kong’s National Security Law. This vast array of UN recommendations constitutes an impartial benchmark to assess the Chinese government’s willingness and actions to address systematic and widespread human rights violations.

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 further urge the UN High Commissioner to strengthen follow-up action on his Office’s Xinjiang report, including through public calls for implementation, translation of the report, and an assessment of its implementation. States should further urge the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect to promptly act in line with its mandate on the CERD’s historic referral of the situation in the Uyghur region.

UN Special Procedures experts have issued over 100 letters to Beijing, including on more than 100 individual cases. They addressed a ‘systemic problem’ with arbitrary detention of human rights defenders, and determined that holding them under ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location’ (RSDL) constitutes enforced disappearance and possibly torture. States should ensure sustained visibility at the HRC of China’s abuse of national security and other cross-cutting abuses affecting Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese defenders, including the latest crackdown on human rights lawyers. 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, Ding Jiaxi, Yu Wensheng and his wife Xu Yan, 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 

Amid ongoing repression of civic space and a deepening economic crisis, the Egyptian authorities have demonstrated no political will to address the mounting human rights crisis. Thousands of individuals remain arbitrarily detained in Egypt solely for exercising their human rights and following proceedings violating fair trial rights or without legal basis. Those held include human rights defenders, political and humanitarian activists, members of opposition parties and their family members, trade unionists, poets, peaceful protesters including most recently in Palestine solidarity protests, journalists, bloggers, lawyers, social media influencers, members of religious minorities, workers and medical professionals.

Egyptian authorities are failing to address key concerns raised by UN human rights bodies. In March 2023, the Human Rights Committee called on Egypt to “ensure that statutory limits to the duration of pretrial detention are enforced, including by putting an end to the involvement of security agencies in the decision-making process on the release of detainees and the practice of “rotation” under which detainees are added to new cases on similar charges”. According to human rights organisations, at least 251 defendants were rotated to new cases in 2023, and another 620 defendants in 2022, demonstrating the continued involvement of the judicial authorities in violations of the right to fair trial and undermining the rule of law.  

The Human Rights Committee also called on Egypt to “ensure that court proceedings in terrorism cases are fully in line with articles 14 and 15 of the Covenant to ensure fair trials and put an end to the use of mass trials that are inherently not aligned with international standards”. UN Special Procedures have raised their concerns with Egypt on the “Terrorism Circuit Courts and allegations of their incompatibility with international due process guarantees, as well as alleged violations of fundamental rights of many individuals, including human rights defenders, who have been tried, or are still waiting to be tried, before these courts”. According to the Egyptian Front for Human Rights’ annual report, the Terrorism Circuit Courts ordered the release of only 3 defendants, approximately 0.1% of the 35966 cases of detention renewals under its consideration in 2023. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) has also documented this pattern of what is commonly referred to as “hearings of detention renewals” by the Terrorism Circuit Courts, including most recently renewals of detention of almost 900 defendants on 21 and 22 January 2024.  

Since the Committee against Torture (CAT) reached “the inescapable conclusion” in 2017 that “torture is a systematic practice in Egypt,” the Egyptian government has not taken any serious steps to address the issue. In a new report submitted to the CAT, REDRESS and a coalition of Egyptian and international civil society organisations – including the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, Dignity, and the International Commission of Jurists – conclude that the widespread and systematic use of torture by the Egyptian authorities amounts to a crime against humanity under customary international law. 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 is living historic and hugely challenging times. The undermining of Guatemala’s state institutions over many years has lead to a collapse in the rule of law and a worsening human rights crisis. The judicial system has been largely stripped of its independence and attacks and threats against human rights defenders and justice operators have been rife. Currently, at least 45 ex-justice operators have been forced into exile, with at least 10 facing criminal proceedings against them in Guatemala. Guatemala’s new President Bernardo Arévalo has promised to re-establish the rule of law, fight against corruption and impunity and address poverty. 

Guatemala should use UPR and treaty body recommendations as a road map for the necessary reforms to reintroduce the rule of law, fight impunity and uphold human rights. The government should also accept visits of Special Procedures as a means to institute a regime of human rights monitoring and recommendations. In line with the commitment to cooperating with the UN system – made evident in the recent three-year renewal of the mandate of the Office of the High Commissioner in Guatemala –  and invite the High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit the country at his earliest convenience. 

Human rights defenders provide ideas, analysis and commitment for human rights change. Their involvement will be key to any efforts for human rights change under the new government. The government must ensure that the safety of human rights defenders is central to their work. Specifically, Guatemala should put the protection of defenders at the heart of the new government’s actions, including through the implementation of the public human rights defenders public protection policy, ordered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2014.

Furthermore, Guatemala must guarantee the security of indigenous communities and leaders and institute an ongoing dialogue with indigenous communities to hear and respond to their demands. In that regard, Guatemala should sign and ratify the Escazú Protocol as a matter of urgency. 

States should call on Guatemala to put the protection of defenders at the heart of the new government’s actions, including through the implementation of the public human rights defenders public protection policy, ordered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2014.

Human rights situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory 

ISHR welcomes South Africa’s proceedings at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the situation in Gaza as an important step towards effective measures and accountability for atrocity crimes committed by Israel in the context of its decades-long colonial apartheid imposed over the Palestinian people, including its latest war on Gaza. It also upheld international law in the face of decades of double standards during which the international community failed to take effective measures to ensure Israel complies with international law and the numerous UN resolutions and recommendations by UN special procedures, treaty bodies, and investigative mechanisms. Civil society organisations stressed that by “drawing on the nature of Israel’s military action, and “dehumanising” statements by Israeli government officials, the Court found that Israel’s actions in Gaza are plausibly genocidal”, pending its final decision. These provisional measures which have a legally binding effect, “cannot be  carried out without a full cessation of hostilities”, thus can only be effective with a ceasefire.

In a joint statement from January 2024, Special Procedures deplored that they had raised the alarm of the risk of genocide several times and for months, “reminding all governments they have a duty to prevent genocide” and stressing that “not only is Israel killing and causing irreparable harm against Palestinian civilians with its indiscriminate bombardments, it is also knowingly and intentionally imposing a high rate of disease, prolonged malnutrition, dehydration, and starvation by destroying civilian infrastructure”. 

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination raised “serious concerns regarding the obligation of Israel and other State parties to prevent crimes against humanity and genocide.” Responding to arguments of Israel and other States, the Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and Israel reiterated that article 51 which “provides for the use of force by a State in self-defense of the Charter […] is not applicable”.

Special Procedures expressed their profound concern about “the support of certain governments for Israel’s strategy of warfare against the besieged population of Gaza, and the failure of the international system to mobilise to prevent genocide”. ISHR and over 180 organisations, deplored the continued transfer of arms to Israel by States, including the US, the UK, Germany, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, and stressed that the provision of military equipment and military support to Israel with the knowledge that they are likely to be used in serious violations of international law, including international crimes, invites charges of complicity. 

ISHR also denounces the defunding of civil society organisations and UNRWA by Western States, a strategy implemented by Israel and discursively imposed by some States to silence the work of human rights defenders and ensure the demise of the Palestinian refugee issue and with it the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.  This was emphasized by Special Procedures who stated that “decisions to suspend or restrict funding “further contribute to increased stigmatisation of Palestinian civil society, who have been targeted continuously with smear campaigns, and amplify the chilling effect on rights activists […]. They also contribute to the collective punishment of Palestinian civilians.” Stressing the importance of implementing the ICJ provisional measures, providing humanitarian aid, and ensuring the preservation of evidence, they called on States to “maintain and substantially increase not cut their support for human rights defenders and civil society organisations working on the occupied Palestinian territory […]”.

We call for an immediate and unconditional release of all Palestinians deprived of liberty without due process, and all Israeli hostages; and the lifting of the 17-year-old illegal blockade and closure of the Gaza Strip, which constitutes collective punishment.

In line with the ICJ provisional measures, and based on the obligations of States under international law, including the Genocide Convention, we urge States to take immediate and effective measures to:

  • Impose a ceasefire and ensure that Israel provides immediate and unhindered delivery of aid to the Gaza Strip;
  • Implement a two-way arms embargo on Israel;
  • Ensure that internally displaced Palestinians return to their areas of previous residence and are provided with safe shelters in accordance with IHL provisions;
  • Support the work of the CoI to investigate the root causes of the situation on both sides of the Green Line, including through providing sufficient resources for the mechanism, to ensure accountability and redress; and 
  • Restore funding of UNRWA and civil society organisations working to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid in the context of starvation and genocide as well as document human rights violations, respectively. 

Human rights situation in the occupied Western Sahara 

In October 2023, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention requested the immediate release of 18 Gdeim Izik prisoners from Western Sahara, held for over 13 years in Moroccan jails. In the last six years, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has rendered at least 11 decisions highlighting a systematic pattern of violations of the right to due process and fair trial, arbitrary arrests, torture, as well as violations to the right to freedom of expression, discrimination based on language, ethnicity and religion, especially targeting Saharawi activists advocating for the right to self-determination of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that remains under Moroccan occupation (despite a 1992 UN governed agreement for a referendum on independence, which Morocco continues to fail to comply with). In 1990, the General Assembly had reaffirmed that Western Sahara was a question of decolonisation which remained to be completed by the people of Western Sahara.  

In the latest decision, the UN Working Group pointed to egregious violations of international law including the right to access a lawyer, confessions exerted under torture and the court’s lack of impartiality and independence. Prior, UN CAT issued five decisions on the Gdeim Izik prisoners, including in the case of human rights activists Enaâma Asfari. In 2014, CAT found that Morocco had breached six provisions of the Convention against Torture and had committed acts of torture against the human rights activist. CAT requested that Morocco provide redress and compensation to Enaâma Asfari, and ‘refrain from any form of pressure, intimidation or reprisals … and enable the complainant to receive visits from his family in prison’. Since 2019, Claude Mangin-Asfari, the defender’s wife, has been denied the right to enter the country and visit her husband.

We urge States to call on Morocco to implement the decisions of the CAT and the WGAD and unconditionally release the Gdeim Izik human arbitrarily detained activists, and all arbitrarily detained journalists and human rights defenders, while putting an end to all forms of harassment and reprisals against prisoners and their family.

As a member of the Human Rights Council and its president, and in line with resolution 60/251, Morocco should “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and “fully cooperate with the Council”.

In his update to the Council in March 2023, High Commissioner Turk highlighted that his Office has not been granted access to Western Sahara for the last eight years. Local human rights organisations report that international organisations and observers are barred from entering the territory to carry out meaningful human rights documentation and that human rights defenders trying to document and ensure monitoring are being targeted by the State. In a joint statement, Special Procedures decried “the systematic and relentless targeting of human rights defenders in retaliation for exercising their rights to freedom of association and expression to promote human rights in Western Sahara”. They urged Morocco to “stop targeting human rights defenders and journalists standing up for human rights issues related to Western Sahara, and allow them to work without reprisals”.

We urge States to call on Morocco to put an end to its crackdown on civil society, particularly Saharawi human rights defenders in the occupied territory, ensure they are able to conduct their human rights work, and provide access to occupied Western Sahara to human rights bodies, including OHCHR, special procedures, and human rights organisations.

Human rights situation in Nicaragua 

In December 2023, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights said of Nicaragua: ”Every day the country deviates further from human rights”. The human rights situation remains grave. 

Upcoming regional elections on the Caribbean Coast (4 March) have provided a context for government crackdowns on opponents. The main indigenous and Afro-descendant political party in the country, YATAMA, has had its legal status revoked and two of its leaders, National Assembly legislator and YATAMA party chair Brooklyn Rivera and YATAMA legal representative Nancy Elizabeth Henríquez were arrested. The whereabouts of Brooklyn Rivera remains unknown. These arrests have been followed by increased militarisation in the territories on the Caribbean coast.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression have expressed concern about these and other attacks against indigenous communities in the country. 

Many Nicaraguan human rights defenders remain in exile with no possibility of return. These include Rolando Álvarez who was sentenced to 26 years in prison after strongly criticising government repression last year and was later expelled from the country in mid-January 2024 alongside 17 other clerics. Repression against defenders continues.

Nicaragua to immediately release all those arbitrarily detained including Freddy Quezada, subject of precautionary measures by the IACHR; and provide immediate information about the whereabouts of the disappeared including poet Carlos Bojorge, detained and disappeared one month ago, as well as Brooklyn Rivera. 

In the words of Nicaraguan HRD Cristina Huerta made in December at the Human Rights Council session, Nicaragua must ”put an end to the State violence against women and civil society and retake the path to democracy”. 

Human rights situation in Russia and Ukraine 

Two years on from the launch of Russia’s full-scale invasion and war of aggression against Ukraine, the perpetration of which has involved the widespread commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity, it is vital that the Council continue to mandate mechanisms to investigate violations, promote accountability, support victims, and address root causes of conflict. At the March session of the Council, this should include renewing the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry, while at the September session, States should support renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Russia. 

The work of the Commission of Inquiry remains necessary to promote accountability for atrocity crimes in Ukraine, as well as examine the root causes of the conflict, such as the repression and criminalisation of human rights defenders and independent journalists in Russia.

The work of the Special Rapporteur is essential to ensure that the human rights situation in Russia itself is the subject of monitoring and reporting. In establishing the Special Rapporteur, 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. The mandate provides a vital bridge between the UN and Russian civil society actors and helps ensure that, despite Russia’s authoritarian efforts, the international community has access to expert information and analysis regarding the human rights situation on the ground.

Human rights situation in Saudi Arabia  

According to ALQST’s annual report, despite the Saudi authorities’ recent efforts to open up to tourism and host international events, a prevailing climate of closure prevails- independent monitors are denied access to the country, the prison system is shrouded in secrecy, and trials are held behind closed doors. In this ominous atmosphere, and following the almost complete diplomatic rehabilitation of crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, wide-scale violations persist, including but not limited to: further decades-long prison sentences, and even a death sentence, meted out for peaceful social media use; the prosecution of women for their choice of clothing and advocacy for women’s rights; prisoners of conscience held incommunicado beyond the expiration of their sentences; arbitrary travel bans imposed on detainees and their family members in a form of collective punishment; and the execution of 172 individuals carried out over 2023, with several young men at imminent risk of execution for alleged crimes committed as minors. In light of these alarming developments, ALQST and ISHR call on the Council to adopt a resolution mandating an independent international monitoring and investigative mechanism to address the human rights violations perpetrated in and by Saudi Arabia.

Human rights situation in Sudan 

The humanitarian crisis in Sudan is dire, with millions displaced, widespread attacks on civilians including systematic sexual and gender-based violence as a weapon of war, amidst lack of global attention and adequate funding to respond to the crisis. Sudan faced a total communication blackout on 7 February 2024, following earlier disruptions at the end of January. These shutdowns severely endanger women human rights defenders (WHRDs) and their work hindering their ability to document atrocities and access essential resources such as mobile banking apps. 

Since the attack on Wad Madani in December 2023, WHRDs lost resources, faced displacement, and enormous challenges searching for safe locations across states and neighbouring countries. Dozens of WHRDs were harassed, detained, summoned and threatened by both warring parties during the last few weeks. In recent months, the Sudanese Military Forces have intensified attacks on human rights defenders, journalists, and humanitarian workers in their controlled areas. Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have arrested civilians, engaged in looting, and perpetrated sexual violence systematically. WHRDs struggle to operate in these areas as the risks of sexual violence are expanding, with at least 5 WHRDs and first responders detained, summoned, or harassed recently. The attacks, which have resulted in the deaths of 4 WHRDs including 2 journalists and 11 women health workers, have occurred in territories controlled by both warring factions. 

Threats against medical services by RSF and SAF continue to be reported including killings and kidnappings of health workers, attacks on hospitals and theft of medical supplies; exacerbating the humanitarian crisis for millions internally displaced without access to necessities and healthcare, and at risk of diseases such as outbreak of cholera. 

Sudanese rights groups have documented more than 2000 cases of enforced disappearances in Khartoum and other war-affected regions since the start of the war, with victims often detained by RSF or SAF, some killed under unclear circumstances. Detainees endure inhumane conditions, lacking medical care, proper food, and are subjected to torture and sexual violence. 

Authorities in safer regions of Northern and Eastern Sudan dissolved resistance committees, active since the 2018 protests. Governors of five states prohibited information dissemination on social media, detaining journalists and activists in three states. Peaceful civic activities are banned or unauthorised in several States, creating hostile environments for WHRDs. The civic space in Sudan is closed with increasing militarization of the state and communities. During the last three months, Sudanese authorities launched a mobilisation campaign to arm civilians, leading to unprecedented threats to women, peace and security and gender-based violence in the areas out of the fighting zones.

ISHR reiterates joint civil society calls on the warring parties for an immediate ceasefire and the prompt creation of safe corridors for humanitarian aid organisations and groups, and to guarantee the safety of their operations; an immediate restoration of telecommunications across the country; and cease attacks on health facilities, medical supplies, and health workers, and uphold obligations under international humanitarian law. ISHR joins the calls on States to create an immediate long-term protection program for WHRDs; provide support for the Fact-Finding Mission and other international mechanisms mandated to document human rights violations in Sudan, including by ensuring that these entities have the necessary resources to carry out their work effectively; support local initiatives providing humanitarian support to local communities as well as support services to victims, and to support civil society’s documentation and reporting efforts so that the evidence obtained can be used for future judicial proceedings; to call for the disclosure of the whereabouts of the disappeared and the release of detainees, and to urgently address the issue of enforced disappearances and grave violations in detention centres, including gender-based violence; and to call for the reinforcement and protection of medical staff in accordance with international humanitarian law.

Human rights situation in Tunisia

Since 25 July 2021, President Saied has dismantled Tunisia’s democratic institutions, undermined judicial independence, stifled the exercise of freedom of expression and repressed dissent. In June 2023, the High Commissioner urged Tunisia to “change course”,  “respect due process and fair trial standards in all judicial proceedings, cease trying civilians before military courts and release all those arbitrarily detained”. He “expressed deep concern at the increasing restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and press freedom in Tunisia, noting that vague legislation is being used to criminalise independent journalism and stifle criticism of the authorities.” He further addressed the ongoing crackdown “against judges, politicians, labour leaders, businesspeople and civil society actors”. 

The situation has since further deteriorated. Authorities have continued to escalate their crackdown on free speech and peaceful dissent, using unfounded conspiracy, terrorism and expression-related charges against opposition figures, journalists, lawyers, judges and businesspeople. Public remarks from the president about the prosecution of perceived critics has continued to undermine judicial independence. At least 20 people have been in pretrial detention for long periods of time (8 months to more than two years).

In November 2023, civil society organisations warned that the draft law on associations submitted to the Tunisian Parliament on 10 October 2023 would violate the right to freedom of association and endanger civic space in Tunisia. The draft law would grant the government pervasive control and oversight over the establishment, activities, operations and funding of independent groups, which are one of the last remaining counterweights to President Kais Saied’s autocratic rule. We urge States to call on Tunisia to refrain from adopting the proposed draft law and, instead, commit to safeguarding the right to freedom of association as enshrined in Decree-law 88 and under international human rights law binding on Tunisia. The authorities should ensure that associations are able to operate without political interference, intimidation, harassment or undue restrictions.

Moreover, Special Procedures have raised alarm at the collective expulsions targeting sub-Saharan migrants from Tunisia as well as “violence and racist hate speech, including perpetrated by the country’s top leadership and law enforcement officials”. While collective expulsions started being documented in early July, they are ongoing and target asylum seekers, refugees and children, to Libya and Algeria. ISHR reiterates the recommendations by Tunisian civil society, Special Procedures and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to put an end to these practices, and for the authorities to investigate, provide remedies to victims, and hold perpetrators accountable. 

Human rights situation in Venezuela

The Venezuelan government’s decision to suspend activities of OHCHR in the country,  on 15 February is a significant escalation in Venezuela’s lack of cooperation with parts of the UN monitoring and reporting human rights system. This decision is a clear signal that human rights protections in Venezuela are under yet more threat. 

Threats and attacks against human rights in Venezuela continuing during this pre-electoral period have also signaled Venezuela’s interest in silencing those it considers opponents The re-activation of the process related to a highly restrictive and much criticised  NGO bill at the start of this year, is a sign of the government’s interest in making the environment harder for NGOs to work in. This is no time to lessen efforts to demand the respect of human rights in the country including the respect of the rights of human rights defenders. 

Human rights defenders in Venezuela are central to efforts to achieve the respect of human rights in the country. States must be of one voice in expressing deep concern at the re-introduction of the NGO bill and call on the government to cease threats and attacks against defenders in the country. States should restate the importance of the work of Venezuelan defenders and commit to support their work politically and, where possible, financially. 

States must insist on the re-establishment of an effective OHCHR presence in the country and speak to the essential,  ongoing work of the UN fact-finding mission, stressing to Venezuela the importance of its cooperation with all the UN bodies and mechanisms with mandates related to Venezuela and with all Special Procedures. 

States’ participation in the HRC debates on Venezuela – through individual and joint statements –  is key to making evident that the human rights situation in the country remains a priority and reassuring those demanding accountability for human rights violations in Venezuela that they are being heard. 

With the current mandate of the UN fact-finding mission expiring in September 2024, States must listen to Venezuelan defenders in their calls for the continuation of a UN monitoring and reporting regime for the country, including the continuation of the mandate of the fact-finding mission. 

Human rights situation in Yemen

In 2023, Mwatana documented the continuation of human rights violations committed by various conflicting parties in Yemen, including ground and aerial attacks, attacks on vital facilities, child recruitment, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and torture, sexual violence, attacks on African migrants, denial of humanitarian access, as well as the impact of the widespread presence of landmines and explosive devices. In 2023, over 40 civil society organisations, victims and survivor associations from Yemen launched the Yemen Declaration for Justice and Reconciliation, in which they set forth their common vision for achieving justice that is inclusive, victim-centered, and includes accountability, reparations, and redress. ISHR calls on the international community to address the demands made by Yemeni civil society, including for an independent, impartial, and fair accountability for all crimes under international humanitarian law and international human rights law committed in Yemen, by all parties to the conflict.  Failure to address atrocities in the past has led to a culture of impunity throughout generations. We urge the international community to take effective measures to assess the full extent of civilian harm in coordination with local civil society and call on parties to the conflict to ensure reparation and redress.

Related articles

UN expert condemns targeting of human rights lawyers in China

A newly-released confidential letter by a UN Special Rapporteur documents the disbarment of human rights lawyers in China and the tightening ideological control over lawyers and law firms. The UN expert denounces disappearances, closed-door trials, harassment of relatives, travel bans, and other abuses targeting human rights lawyers.

ISHR submits over 1,000 signatures for Cao Shunli memorial in Geneva

On Tuesday 16 April 2024, ISHR delivered to both Geneva’s Administrative Council and its legislative counterpart, the Municipal Council, physical copies of the more than 1000 signatures collected in support of a memorial honouring Chinese human rights defender Cao Shunli.