At the 53rd session of the UN Human Rights Council, during the adoption of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report of Benin, ISHR and Changement Social Benin delivered a joint statement encouraging Benin to do more for the protection of defenders in the country.
The UN Human Rights Council (the Council) will hold its 46th regular session at Palais des Nations in Geneva from 22 February to 23 March 2021.
During the session, follow the live-updated programme of work on Sched.
Modalities of participation in HRC46
According to the Bureau minutes of 18 February 2021: “Concerning the participation of NGOs in general debates, the Bureau reiterated the importance of having civil society participate in the general debates of the 46 th session and acknowledged the concerns that had been expressed to the President during her meetings with groups of States and NGOs. The Bureau thus agreed that, given the current exceptional circumstances related to COVID-19, NGOs in consultative status with the ECOSOC should be invited to submit pre-recorded video statements for the general debates of the 46 th session, in addition to the interactive dialogues, panel discussions and UPR adoptions for which pre-recorded video statements were already possible during the 45 th session. The Bureau further agreed that the list of speakers for NGOs for each of the general debates should be set based on the average number of NGOs that participated in each of the general debates in the last three March sessions of the Council (the 37 th , 40 th and 43 rd sessions). Moreover, NGOs should be provided the opportunity to indicate their priority when making their registration in orderto prioritize their placement in their preferred general debates.
The Bureau regretted that once again side events cannot take place inside the Palais des Nations during the 46 th session as a result of the current COVID-19-related restrictions. Recalling that in-person side events were included in the Bulletin of Informal Meetings prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bureau agreed that for the sole purpose of information-sharing, virtual side events that would be organized by NGOs in parallel to the 46 th session could be listed on the OHCHR civil society webpage along with a statement indicating that the events are not official Council events.”
On 22 February, the Council approved the above modalities proposed by the Bureau. Read here the information note by the Secretariat which is updated according to latest information, and an additional explainer by HRC-net, also available in Arabic, French and Spanish (to be updated).
Human Rights implications of COVID-19
The High Commissioner will present her report on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the enjoyment of human rights around the world at the 46th session, as mandated by the presidential statement, or PRST, adopted by the Council in May 2020.
The pandemic – and States’ response to it – has presented various new challenges and threats for those defending human rights. The pandemic has exposed and deepened existing discrimination, violence and other violations. Governments have used COVID as a pretext for further restricting fundamental rights, including through the enactment of legislation, and specific groups of defenders – including WHRDs and LGBTI rights defenders – have lost their livelihoods, access to health services have reduced and they have been excluded from participating in pandemic responses. Action to address the pandemic must be comprehensive and systemic, it must apply a feminist, human rights-based, and intersectional lens, centred on non-discrimination, participation and empowerment of vulnerable communities. Last March ISHR joined a coalition of 187 organisations to draw the Council’s attention to the situation of LGBTI persons and defenders in the context of the pandemic.
#HRC46| Thematic areas of interest
Here are some highlights of the session’s thematic discussions
Protection of human rights defenders
On March 3rd and 4th, the Council will hold an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders on her annual report “Final warning: death threats and killings of human rights defenders”, and the country visit report of her predecessor to Peru. With a year passed since the previous Special Rapporteur Michele Forst´s visit to Peru, this is an opportunity for States to encourage Peru to engage actively with the recommendations. ISHR and its partners aim to make a statement in the debate reflecting their concerns and recommendations following the visit to Peru.
Systemic racism, police brutality and violence against peaceful protests
In June 2020, the Council convened a historic urgent debate on racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality against people of African descent and violence against peaceful protests. George Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, made a historic address to the Council to establish an independent international commission of inquiry focused on the situation in the United States of America. However, the Council adopted a watered-down resolution due to enormous diplomatic pressure from the United States and other allied countries. It mandated the High Commissioner to prepare a report on systemic racism, human rights violations against Africans and people of African descent by law enforcement in the US and beyond, and governments’ responses to anti-racism protests.
ISHR, Comité Adama, association « A Qui Le Tour ? » and Mike Ben Peter’s family submitted a joint report to the High Commissioner to draw her attention to cases of police brutality that caused the deaths of two Black men in France and Switzerland: Adama Traoré in France in 2016, and Mike Ben Peter in Switzerland in 2018. The joint submission highlights the racially charged police violence and the judicial irregularities which usually surround them.
The High Commissioner will provide an oral update on the implementation of the resolution on 18 March.
Reports of cases of intimidation and reprisals against those cooperating or seeking to cooperate with the UN not only continue, but grow. Intimidation and reprisals violate the rights of the individuals concerned, they constitute violations of international human rights law and undermine the UN human rights system.
The UN has taken action towards addressing this critical issue including:
- Establishing a dedicated dialogue under item 5 to take place every September;
- Affirmation by the Council of the particular responsibilities of its Members, President and Vice-Presidents to investigate and promote accountability for reprisals and intimidation; and
- Appointment of the UN Assistant Secretary General on Human Rights as the Senior Official on addressing reprisals.
ISHR remains deeply concerned about reprisals against civil society actors who try to engage with UN mechanisms, and consistent in its calls for all States and the Council to do more to address the situation.
During its 42nd session, the Council adopted a resolution which listed key trends such as the patterns of reprisals, increasing self-censorship, the use of national security arguments and counter-terrorism strategies by States as justification for blocking access to the UN. The resolution also acknowledged the specific risks to individuals in vulnerable situations or belonging to marginalised groups, and called on the UN to implement gender-responsive policies to end reprisals. The Council called on States to combat impunity and to report back to it on how they are preventing reprisals, both online and offline.
Item 5 of the Human Rights Council’s agenda provides a key opportunity for States to raise concerns about reprisals, and for governments involved in existing cases to provide an update to the Council on any investigation or action taken toward accountability to be carried out.
During the organisational meeting held on 8 February, the President of the Council stressed the importance of ensuring the safety of those participating in the Council’s work, and the obligation of States to prevent intimidation or reprisals.
In line with previous calls, ISHR expects the President of the Human Rights Council to publicly identify and denounce specific instances of reprisals by issuing formal statements, conducting press-briefings, corresponding directly with the State concerned, publicly releasing such correspondence with States involved, and insist on undertakings from the State concerned to investigate, hold the perpetrators accountable and report back to the Council on action taken.
Other thematic reports
At this 46th session, the Council will discuss a range of economic, social and cultural rights in depth through dedicated debates with mandate holders, and consider the annual report of the Secretary-General on the question of the realization in all countries of economic, social and cultural rights. The debates with mandate holders include:
- The Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt, annual report on the role of credit rating agencies in debt relief, debt crisis prevention and human rights
- The Special Rapporteur on the right to food, annual report
- The Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, annual report on COVID-19, culture and culture rights and country visit to Tuvalu
The Council will discuss a range of civil and political rights through dedicated debates with the mandate holders, including:
- The Special Rapporteur on torture, annual report and country visit to Maldives
- The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, annual report on combating anti-Muslim hatred
- The Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, annual report on artificial intelligence and privacy, and children’s privacy, and country visit reports to the United Kingdom, France, Germany, United States of America, Argentina, and Republic of Korea.
In addition, the Council will hold dedicated debates on the rights of specific groups including:
- The Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, annual report on the impact of the coronavirus disease on different manifestations of sale and sexual exploitation of children and country visit to the Gambia.
- The Special Representative of the Secretary-General on violence against children, annual report and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict, annual report
- The Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, annual report
- The Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights of persons with albinism, annual report on achievements, accomplishments, challenges and the way forward: an overview of work on the mandate, and country visit to Brazil
- The Special Rapporteur on minority issues, annual report and country visit to Kyrgyzstan.
In addition, the Council will hold dedicated debates on interrelation of human rights and human rights thematic issues including:
- The Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, annual report on human rights and the global water crisis: water pollution, water scarcity and water-related disasters
- The Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, annual report on human rights impact of counter-terrorism and countering (violent) extremism policies and practices on the rights of women, girls and the family
#HRC46 | Country-specific developments
A pile of evidence continues to mount, including the assessment from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, about policies of the Chinese government targeting ethnic and religious minorities, including Uyghurs, Tibetans and Mongolians. The rule of law is being further eroded in Hong Kong, as deeply-respected principles of due process and pluralistic democracy are disappearing at an alarming rate. Human rights defenders and ordinary citizens confront ongoing crackdowns on civic freedoms, pervasive censorship and lightning-fast recourse to administrative sanction, enforced disappearance and trumped-up national security charges to silence critics. – In the face of this, inaction has become indefensible.
The UN Special Procedures issued a sweeping statement in June 2020, calling for the international community to take ‘decisive action’ on the human rights situation in the country. At the March session, ISHR urges States to convey at the highest level the incompatibility of China’s actions domestically with its obligations as a new Council member, and to continue to press for transparency, actionable reporting and monitoring of the situation. Statements throughout the Council are key moments to show solidarity with individual defenders – by name – , their families, and communities struggling to survive. And finally, States should take every opportunity to support efforts by China that meaningfully seek to advance human rights – while resolutely refuting, at all stages of the process, initiatives that seek to distort principles of human rights and universality; upend the Council’s impressive work to hold States up to scrutiny; and weaken the effectiveness and impact of the Council for victims of violations and human rights defenders. Furthermore, other Council members should step up their commitments to the body’s mandate and purpose, and reject efforts by China and its partners and proxies.
The Egyptian authorities continue to systematically carry out patterns of reprisals against human rights defenders for their legitimate work, including for engagement with UN Special Procedures. These have included arbitrary arrests and detention, enforced disappearance, torture, unlawful surveillance, threats and summons for questioning by security agencies. The government’s refusal to address key concerns raised by States in its response to the UPR in March 2020 demonstrated its lack of political will to address its deep challenges and to engage constructively with the Council. ISHR reiterates its call on the Council to establish a monitoring and reporting mechanism on the human rights situation in Egypt.
In 2020, the Council continued its scrutiny over the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. Yet, the Saudi government has failed the litmus test to immediately and unconditionally release the women’s rights activists and human rights defenders, instead they continued to prosecute and harshly sentence them for their peaceful activism. On 10 February 2021, it was reported that WHRDs Loujain Al-Hathloul, and Nouf Abdulaziz have been released conditionally from prison after spending over two and a half years in detention solely for advocating for women’s rights, including the right to drive and the dismantling of the male guardianship system. ALQST reported that WHRDs Nassima al-Sadah and Samar Badawi remain in detention and that “in a worrying development, the Public Prosecution has appealed the initial sentence issued on 25 November 2020 by the Criminal Court against al-Sadah of five years and eight months in prison, half of it suspended, seemingly with the aim of securing an even harsher sentence”.
The government’s refusal to address this key concern raised in the three joint statements demonstrates its lack of political will to genuinely improve the human rights situation and to engage constructively with the Council. ISHR reiterates its call on the Council to establish a monitoring and reporting mechanism on the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.
On 24 February, the Council will hold an interactive dialogue on the High Commissioner’s report on Nicaragua. Despite the renewal of Resolution 43/2, the human rights situation in Nicaragua has steadily deteriorated over the last months. Civil society space has sharply shrank, due to new restrictive laws on foreign agents and counter-terrorism, while attacks against journalists and human rights defenders -the last remaining independent human rights observers – continue. The lack of an independent judiciary or NHRI further deprives victims of the possibility to seek justice and redress. Whilst the repression deepens, State inaction in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic and the passage of hurricanes have also exacerbated the ongoing humanitarian crisis and the deprivation of economic, social, and cultural rights. In light of upcoming elections in Nicaragua, ISHR urges the Council to renew and strengthen its resolution on the human rights situation in Nicaragua, laying down a clear benchmark of key steps the State should take to demonstrate its willingness to cooperate in good faith, while clearly signaling the intention to move towards international investigation and accountability should such cooperation steps not be met within the year. States should also increase support to targeted defenders and CSOs by raising in their statements the cases of student Kevin Solís, Aníbal Toruño and Radio Darío journalists, trans activist Celia Cruz, as well as the CENIDH and seven other CSOs subject to cancellation of their legal status.
Venezuela will come under the spotlight several times with oral updates from OHCHR on the situation of human rights in the country (25 February, 11 March) and an update from the international fact-finding mission on Venezuela (10 March). OHCHR is mandated to report on the implementation of the recommendations made to Venezuela, including in reports (here and here) presented last June. The fact-finding mission has started work on its renewed and strengthened 2-year mandate, despite delays in the disbursement of funds and is due to outline its plans to the Council. Intensifying threats and attacks on civil society in Venezuela since November 2020, provide a bleak context to these discussions. States should engage actively in dialogue on Venezuela, urging that recommendations be implemented – including facilitating visits from Special Rapporteurs; that the fact-finding mission be granted access to the country and that civil society be promoted and safeguarded in its essential work.
On 2 February 2021, the Supreme Court of Burundi announced its decision allegedly adopted on 23 June 2020 to sentence 12 defenders to life in prison. The date of the adoption of this decision was announced after the Court decided to defer it further to 30 June 2020 and again after that. The Court never assigned or informed the 12 concerned of the proceedings. This case was investigated and judged in the absence of all those concerned and the sentence only made public seven months after the alleged proceedings took place. Among the victims of this arbitrary procedure are renown lawyers such as Me Armel Niyongere, Vital Nshimirimana and Dieudonné Bashirahishize, who are being targeted for their engagement in the defense of victims of the 2015 repression in Burundi and for filing complaints for victims to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. A group of civil society organisations denounced the dysfunctioning and lack of independence of judicial proceedings in the country. After confirming the 32 years sentence of defender Germain Rukuki, Burundi continues its crackdown against civil society. In addition to ensuring the continued work of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, members of the Council need to call on Burundi to uphold its international obligations and stop reprisals against defenders for engaging with any international mechanisms.
The Council will hold an interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi on 10 March.
Other country situations
The High Commissioner will provide an oral update to the Council on 25 February. The Council will consider updates, reports on and is expected to consider resolutions addressing a range of country situations, in some instances involving the renewal of the relevant expert mandates. These include:
- Oral update and interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea
- Interactive Dialogue on the High Commissioner’s report on Sri Lanka
- Enhanced Interactive Dialogue on the High Commissioner’s report on Belarus
- Oral update and interactive dialogue with the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen
- Interactive Dialogue on the High Commissioner’s report on ensuring accountability and justice in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem
- Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran
- Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
- Interactive Dialogue with the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan
- Interactive Dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic
- Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar
- Interactive Dialogue with the High Commissioner on the situation of human rights in Ukraine
- Oral updates and enhanced interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner on the situation of human rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the team of international experts on the situation in Kasai
- High-level Interactive Dialogue with the Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in the Central African Republic
- Interactive Dialogue with the Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Mali
#HRC46| Council programme, appointments and resolutions
During the organisational meeting for the 46th session held on 8 February, the President of the Human Rights Council presented the programme of work. It includes seven panel discussions. States also announced at least 28 proposed resolutions. Read here the reports presented this session.
Appointment of mandate holders
The President of the Human Rights Council proposed candidates for the following mandates:
- Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (member from Africa)
- Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (member from North America)
- Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions
- Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia
- Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (member from African States)
- Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (member from Asia-Pacific States)
In view of the pending appointments, it is relevant to recall that in appointing mandate holders, the President of the Council is required to give particular attention to the need to avoid actual or perceived conflicts of interest. Mandate holders should also be genuinely committed to the independence and effectiveness of the special procedures system, and have a demonstrated commitment to civil society engagement and participation.
Resolutions to be presented to the Council’s 46th session
At the organisational meeting on 8 February the following resolutions were announced (States leading the resolution in brackets):
- The effect of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights (Cuba)
- The right to food (Cuba)
- Promotion of the enjoyment of the cultural rights of everyone and respect for cultural diversity (Cuba)
- Human rights and the environment, mandate renewal (Costa Rica, Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, Switzerland)
- Prevention of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Denmark)
- Cooperation with Georgia (Georgia)
- Question of the realization in all countries of economic, social and cultural rights (Portugal)
- Guarantee of the right to the health through equitable and universal access to vaccines in response to pandemics and other health emergencies (Ecuador)
- Negative impacts of unilateral coercive measures (Azerbaijan on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement-NAM)
- Human rights, democracy and the rule of law (Morocco, Norway, Peru, Romania, Republic of Korea, Tunisia)
- Promoting mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights (China)
- Freedom of religion or belief (EU)
- Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, mandate renewal (EU)
- Situation of human rights in Myanmar, mandate renewal (EU)
- Combating intolerance based on religion or belief (OIC)
- Ensuring accountability and justice for all violations of international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem (OIC)
- Right of the Palestinian people to self-determination (OIC)
- Human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem (OIC)
At the 53rd session of the UN Human Rights Council, during the adoption of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report of Zambia, ISHR, the Southern African Centre for Constructive Resolutions of Disputes and the Zambia Human Rights Defenders Network delivered a joint statement calling on Zambia to revise its legal instruments and adopt an adequate legal framework to ensure defenders can work in a safe environment without fear of reprisals.
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.