The 55th session of the UN Human Rights Council, from 26 February – 5 April 2024, will consider issues including the protection of human rights defenders, freedom of religion or belief, protection and promotion of human rights while countering terrorism, the right to food and adequate housing, among others. It will also present an opportunity to address grave human rights situations in States including Sudan, Nicaragua, Venezuela, China, Syria, South Sudan, Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Myanmar, Eritrea, occupied Palestinian territory/Israel, among many others. Here’s an overview of some of the key issues on the agenda.
On 9 December 2013, a group of armed men presumed to be connected to the Army of Islam- a large local rebel faction at the time- broke into the Violations Documentation Centre (VDC) office in Douma city and kidnapped Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Khalil, Nazem Hamadi and Wa’el Hamada, taking them to an unknown destination.
They are among many Syrians who have been kidnapped, jailed, murdered or exiled for their peaceful human rights activities.
Zaitouneh is one of the most prominent human rights defenders in Syria and has played a key role in the promotion and protection of human rights through her brave work as a lawyer, human rights defender and journalist. She established the VDC and has contributed to the founding of several human rights NGOs. She has also published dozens of articles and reports on various websites and in newspapers about human rights including freedom of opinion and expression in Syria since 2004.
In 2011, she was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and the 2011 Anna Politkovskaya Award of Reach All Women in War (RAW in WAR). In 2013, the then-U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama honoured her as an International Woman of Courage. In February 2016, Zaitouneh was named prisoner of the month for the “Their freedom is their right” campaign by Maharat Foundation, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), with support from IFEX and its regional members. Zaitouneh was also a finalist for the 2016 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.
At the beginning of the popular protests that spread across Syria in 2011, Zaitouneh was forced into hiding owing to her media activism and her reporting on what was happening on the ground to various media outlets. Zaitouneh’s home in Damascus was raided in May 2011 by the government’s Air Force Intelligence, which then detained her brother-in-law and her husband Wa’el Hamadafor three months. A few months before her abduction in 2013, Zaitouneh wrote about the threats she had been receiving and reported to human rights organisations outside Syria that the threats were from local armed groups in Douma.
In order to keep her work in the spotlight, her family has now published a website with a collection of her articles, as well as testimonies from people who admire her and worked with her.
“Creating this website was my way of coping with her kidnapping,” said her sister Rana Zaitouneh, who lives in Canada with other family members. “I felt that there were people who did not understand or were not aware of her important work. Razan has done so much for so many people, and yet never felt it was much at all. Her courage and determination are why we have to make her case a priority in these difficult times.”
“Razan and Wael and their friends need to be found and released. I know my sister wants the whole world to know what has been happening in Syria and since she cannot currently tell people herself, I have to. My daughter and I decided to collect her articles and translate them to English so that they can be more widely accessible. It is also very important that the information be available to everyone who wishes to read it,” she said.
“The work of brave and determined defenders like Razan is crucial to preserving civil society space and empowering others to exercise their rights to fundamental freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly”, said Salma El Hosseiny, Human Rights Council Advocate at ISHR.
“The international community should signal its clear stance against impunity in Syria by leveraging its influence to actively facilitate an investigation into what happened to the four human rights defenders”, El Hosseiny added.
The full NGO joint statement is available to read here.
Visit: http://www.razanwzaitouneh.com/ to read and share Zaitouneh’s work.
* Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), CIVICUS, English PEN, Front Line Defenders, Global Fund for Women, Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), Maharat Foundation, Martin Ennals Foundation, PEN International, Reach All Women in War (RAW in WAR), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights, Women’s March Global.
Contact: Salma El Hosseiny, [email protected]
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 essential 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 HRDs’ 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.
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