Human Rights Activists Facing Threats In 40 Countries For Cooperating With UN

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Be warned: If you are a human rights activist or an individual cooperating with the UN in revealing abuses, you may be under surveillance or in danger of facing physical threats.

A new report from Secretary-General António Guterres says that from 1 May last year to 30 April this year, more than 220 individuals and 25 organizations in 40 countries* across the world faced threats and retaliation from State and non-State actors for cooperating with the UN on human rights issues

UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters on 28 September the number is likely to be much higher, since it is increasingly difficult to document such cases.

Under surveillance

The report, he said, also shows that human rights defenders and other civil society actors were increasingly under surveillance and continued to face legal proceedings, travel bans and threats, and given prison sentences for cooperating with the UN and UN’s human rights mechanisms.

Under these circumstances, “many are choosing not to cooperate with the United Nations due to concerns for their safety or only doing so if kept anonymous,” he said.

“A global context of shrinking civic space is making it increasingly difficult to properly document, report and respond to cases of reprisals, which means that the number is likely much higher,” said Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ilze Brands Kehris in her presentation to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on 28 September.

Among the growing trends is the increase in people either choosing not to cooperate with the UN due to concerns for their safety, or only doing so if kept anonymous.

Victims and witnesses in two-thirds of the States listed in the report requested anonymous reporting of reprisals, compared with one-third in last year’s report.

“And most people who reported facing reprisals for their cooperation with the Security Council and its peace operations, as well as with the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues did so on the condition of anonymity,” according to the report.

A second trend was the increasing surveillance of those who cooperate or attempt to cooperate with the UN, being reported in half of the countries named in the report. 

An increase in physical surveillance by State actors was also noted, likely linked to the return to in-person forms of engagement with the UN.

And, almost forty-five per cent singled out in the report continued to apply or enact new laws and regulations concerning civil society, counter-terrorism and national security, which punish, deter or hinder cooperation with the UN and its human rights mechanisms.

“These legislative frameworks represent severe obstacles to long-standing human rights partners of the UN worldwide, and were used to outlaw some of them, raid their offices, and question, threaten or try their staff”.

Finally, the specificity and severity of acts of reprisals against women and girls, which constitute half of the victims in this year’s report, was once again identified with concern.

“Most of them are human rights defenders and civil society representatives targeted for their cooperation with UN human rights mechanisms and peace operations, but there is also a significant number of judicial officers and lawyers subjected to reprisals for their cooperation with the UN in search of accountability and remedy”, according to the report.

UN is determined to live up to its responsibility

“We have a duty to those who put their trust in us,” said Brands Kehris. “That is why at the UN, we are determined to live up to our collective responsibility to prevent and address intimidation and reprisals against those who cooperate with the organization and its human rights mechanisms.”

* The 40 States referred to in the report are: Algeria, Afghanistan, Andorra, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Burundi, Cameroon, China, Colombia, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, France, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Maldives, Mali, Mexico, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Pakistan, the Philippines, Qatar, the Russian Federation, South Sudan, United Republic of Tanzania, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Viet Nam, Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), Yemen, and the State of Palestine.

**The full report, entitled ‘Cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights’ (A/HRC/54/61), including extensive annexes detailing cases country by country, can be accessed online.

Thalif Deen

Thalif Deen, author of the book “No Comment – and Don’t Quote Me on That,” is Editor-at-Large at the Berlin-based IDN, an ex-UN staffer and a former member of the Sri Lanka delegation to the UN General Assembly sessions. A Fulbright scholar with a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Columbia University, New York, he shared the gold medal twice (2012-2013) for excellence in UN reporting awarded by the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA).

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