Aid workers: UN expert tells States 'saving lives is not a crime'

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NEW YORK (25 October 2018) – A UN human rights expert has highlighted the vital role played by aid workers in preventing arbitrary killings and unlawful deaths, and denounced States who prevent life-saving interventions.

“Under the banners of fighting terrorism, combating smuggling or guarding social mores, States are criminalising acts of solidarity and obstructing the provision of life-saving services,” Agnes Callamard, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said in a report to the UN General Assembly. “What follows are foreseeable and preventable arbitrary deprivations of life.

“The victims are among the most deprived and vulnerable populations in the world, from the victims of armed conflicts, to migrants and refugees in dangerous terrains. They include women and girls, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons.

“The lack of a globally agreed definition of terrorism has meant that States have adopted unacceptably wide and nefarious definitions. The knock-on effect is that a wide range of humanitarian acts are tagged as being supportive of terrorism. The results are violations of the right to life, in the name of countering terrorism.”

Noting how fear of prosecution prevented crucial aid from reaching populations controlled by so-called “terrorist” organisations, the Special Rapporteur called on the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution expressly clarifying that humanitarian protection and assistance must never be seen as support for terrorism and withheld or criminalised on that basis.

“States are increasingly relying on the three pillars of militarisation, extraterritorial border control and deterrence to shield their countries from irregular migration. By harassing and prosecuting aid workers and volunteers who rescue migrants and refugees on dangerous terrain or provide transportation, food, water, sanitation and shelter to those in need, Governments are knowingly endangering lives,” she said.

Callamard urged States to exempt humanitarian actions from laws and policies on smuggling. “Criminal laws are designed to encourage decent behaviour, not prosecute it,” she said. “Instead of targeting those who are protecting life, States should prosecute those endangering it, first and foremost the criminal networks that exploit and mistreat migrants and asylum seekers.”

The Special Rapporteur also expressed concern about the adoption of laws and measures by several States that prevent organisations from providing life-saving services to women, girls and LGBTI people and called for the lifting of all impediments. She singled out the so-called Global Gag Rule for eroding the integrity of health systems and services, resulting in a likely increase in the number of unlawful deaths, particularly of women and girls, and people with HIV aids.

Callamard welcomed initiatives to counter the effects of the Global Gag Rule and similar policies, and urged all States to continue efforts to narrow the funding gap for comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services.


Ms. Agnes Callamard (France), Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has a distinguished career in human rights and humanitarian work globally. Ms. Callamard is the Director of Columbia Global Freedom of Expression at Columbia University and has previously worked with Article 19 and Amnesty International. She has advised multilateral organizations and governments around the world, has led human rights investigations in more than 30 countries, and has published extensively on human rights and related fields.

The release is endorsed by Ms Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, Ms. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Mr. Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mr. Felipe González Morales, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Mr. Dainius Pūras, Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health, Mr. Léo Heller, Special Rapporteur on human rights to water and sanitation and Mr. Victor Madrigal-Borloz, Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts please contact Jeremy Laurence, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+41 22 917 9383 /

This year is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN on 10 December 1948. The Universal Declaration – translated into a world record 500 languages – is rooted in the principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It remains relevant to everyone, every day. In honour of the 70th anniversary of this extraordinarily influential document, and to prevent its vital principles from being eroded, we are urging people everywhere to Stand Up for Human Rights: