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Human Rights Council Holds Interactive Dialogue with Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders

Concludes Interactive Dialogue with Special Rapporteur on Torture

The Human Rights Council this afternoon held an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. It also concluded an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said last year she had presented a report detailing the shocking scale of killings of human rights defenders across the world - in almost a third of the Member States of the United Nations. Words of support had been heard from States at her presentation, saying they would work with her to stop this scourge - to date, she had received no invitations from any States as to ways to discuss how to stop these killings, and she had received more communications on killings. Human rights defenders who worked against corruption were often attacked for exposing or researching abuse of power, graft, bribery, fraud and other related malpractices, and these attacks took many forms. Governments and business targeted anti-corruption fighters as they feared exposure. Corruption was deeply rooted in some societies and could not be rooted out overnight, but States needed to publicly recognise the work of human rights defenders, and openly combat attacks against them.

In the ensuing dialogue, speakers said the international community should work to better support human rights defenders and protect them from retaliation. Human rights defenders played a vital role all across the globe. States should end impunity for those seeking to stifle the voices of human rights defenders, and work better to protect them, amplifying their voices in the United Nations system. Human rights defenders protected and fought for the core values of the international community; they should be given an enabling environment. Corruption was, as the Special Rapporteur’s report said, a human rights issue, and national legislators were obliged to defend those investigating it. Work needed to continue to create an environment where human rights defenders and all civil society workers could operate without fear of violence and reprisals, which would further reinforce democratic and legislative institutions.

At the beginning of the meeting, the Council concluded its interactive dialogue with Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The interactive dialogue with Mr. Melzer started in today’s morning meeting and a summary can be found here.

In the discussion, speakers said torture was an abhorrent violation of human rights and human dignity, with long-standing effects both on individuals and on the community. There should be redress for cases of torture and ill treatment. Torture and ill treatment should be prohibited everywhere, for everyone, and under all circumstances, and those who committed them should be brought to justice. The international community needed to do more - to come up with a clear definition of torture, ensure policy and institutional reform in all relevant areas, and ensure effective remedies to the victims of torture.

In concluding remarks, Mr. Melzer encouraged States to acknowledge the value of the thematic reports and other Special Procedure mandates as they represented a wealth of expertise that could be used in the implementation of human right laws. Considering that the challenges described in the report were likely to arise between States and other Special Procedures, he recommended that other mandate holders engage in similar procedures. The faithful exercise of his mandate required an uncompromising stance and a significant degree of perseverance and far too often the cost of achieving real impact had been far too high.

Speaking in the dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on torture were Afghanistan, United Kingdom, Azerbaijan, South Sudan, Georgia, Malawi, Switzerland, Cyprus, Mauritania, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Also speaking were the National Human Rights Council of Morocco, World Organisation Against Torture, Conectas Direitos Humanos, International Federation of ACAT (Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture), Association for the Prevention of Torture, Lawyers' Rights Watch Canada, International Lesbian and Gay Association, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, IDPC Consortium, Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos and Asociación Civil, and Meezaan Center for Human Rights.

Speaking in the dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders were European Union, Lithuania (on behalf of a group of countries), Australia (on behalf of a group of countries), Liechtenstein, Germany, Paraguay, Philippines, Egypt, UN Women, Norway (on behalf of a group of countries), Sierra Leone, Montenegro, Slovenia, Iraq, Cuba, France, Venezuela, Luxembourg, China, Burkina Faso, India, Namibia, Marshall Islands, Lesotho, Armenia, Netherlands, Switzerland, Russian Federation, Cambodia, Indonesia, Peru, Morocco, Algeria, Togo, Ireland, Belarus and Uruguay. Tunisia, United States, Belgium, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Côte d'Ivoire, United Kingdom, Niger, Czech Republic, Albania, Botswana, Malta, Vanuatu, Italy, Georgia, Mauritania, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Republic of Moldova, Saudi Arabia, Viet Nam, Iran and Pakistan.

Also speaking were SUHAKAM, Morocco National Human Rights Institution, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, American Association of Jurists, Sociedade Maranhense de Direitos Humanos, International Service for Human Rights, Dominicans for Justice and Peace - Order of Preachers, World Organisation Against Torture, Oidhaco, Bureau International des Droits Humains - Action Colombie, Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND), Peace Brigades International, and Il Cenacolo.

Speaking in right of reply were Armenia, Israel, Lithuania, China, Indonesia, Cambodia, Cuba, Azerbaijan and Bahrain.

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-ninth regular session can be found here.

The next meeting of the Council will be on Monday,14 March at 10 a.m., when it will hold an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, followed by an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Torture

The interactive dialogue with Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, started in today’s morning meeting and a summary can be found here.

Discussion

In the discussion on torture, speakers said that all human rights mechanisms should take concrete action in response to the events on the ground and hold those guilty of human rights violations and torture to account. Torture was an abhorrent violation of human rights and human dignity, with long-standing effects both on individuals and on the community and there should be redress for victims of torture and ill treatment. Those States which had not yet done so should ratify the Convention against Torture, as a global step towards eliminating this scourge. Torture and ill treatment should be prohibited everywhere, for everyone, and under all circumstances, and those who committed them should be brought to justice.

The international community needed to do more - to come up with a clear definition of torture, ensure policy and institutional reform in all relevant areas, and ensure effective remedies to the victims of torture. The analysis in the report highlighted the interaction between domestic policy and bilateral and multilateral cooperation, and this was very positive. However, the lack of cooperation from countries with the Special Rapporteur on torture was a matter of serious concern. The work of the mandate was very important, and all countries should cooperate with the mandate holder, as this would contribute towards combatting torture and ill treatment. States should take into account the conclusions and recommendations in thematic reports, order enquiries into all allegations, prosecute perpetrators, and ensure remedy for victims. The Council should pay more attention to worsening human rights situations in certain countries.

Sufficient financial resources should be given to mandate holders, and they should be given provisions to undertake in-depth investigations of certain events. Mandate holders should be supported in the development of human rights reports; they should develop standards and norms for international compliance. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons were more likely to be targets of torture or cruel and inhuman treatment, including forced attempts at conversion, and this was a form of torture and should be banned by States. All forms of criminal acts of mistreatment should be punished. Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine was a matter of concern, as it could be linked to events of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Many speakers wished the Special Rapporteur well in his new functions once he left the mandate at the end of the month of March 2022.

Concluding Remarks

NILS MELZER, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, said that since he was on his way out, he would not make any commitment to certain topics and contexts as it would be up to his successor to do so. He encouraged States to acknowledge the value of his thematic reports and those of other Special Procedure mandate holders as they represented a wealth of expertise that could be used in the implementation of human right laws. Considering that the challenges described in the report were likely to arise between States and other Special Procedures, he recommended that other mandate holders engage in similar procedures. The faithful exercise of his mandate required an uncompromising stance and a significant degree of perseverance and far too often the cost of achieving real impact had been far too high. He had always conducted his mandate in good faith and in full independence. If some of his statements had created some frictions, he assured that that had never been his desire: it was just an effect of speaking truth to power. He regretted that the very limited resources at his disposal had only allowed him to act on a limited fraction of the allegations brought to him and he recommended that States picked a female candidate from a non-western country as his successor.

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders

Documentation

The Council has before it (A/HRC/49/49), report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders entitled at the heart of the struggle: human rights defenders working against corruption.

Presentation of the Report

MARY LAWLOR, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said she had spoken to thousands of human rights defenders since her appointment, and knew from them that the Council often felt far from them, and they asked why States did not do more to protect them. She had been speaking to human rights defenders for many months, and especially over the last few weeks, and many felt abandoned by the United Nations, as did others in Afghanistan. Women human rights defenders across the world also suffered. The Russian invasion of Ukraine had also coincided with a sustained attack on human rights defenders in that country and in Belarus. These were bleak times, and States had a duty to defend human rights defenders.

Last year she had presented a report detailing the shocking scale of killings of human rights defenders across the world - in almost a third of the Member States of the United Nations. Words of support had been heard from States on her presentation, saying they would work with her to stop this scourge - to date, she had received no invitations from any States as to ways to discuss how to stop these killings, and she had received more communications on killings. She repeated her call to States to engage, to seek to stop these killings, and begged them not to fail human rights defenders. Today’s report was on human rights defenders working on anti-corruption, attacks against whom continued on all continents.

Activists, whistle blowers, journalists, academics, lawyers, medical workers and others fighting against and exposing corruption were human rights defenders if their work was peaceful and motivated by human rights. Based on inputs received, she said the report concluded that these human rights defenders faced severe risks. Some attacks on anti-corruption defenders were gender based, and many defenders had been targeted for their work in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, or for advocating against corruption affecting their local communities. Human rights defenders who worked against corruption were often attacked for exposing or researching abuse of power, graft, bribery, fraud and other related malpractices, and these attacks took many forms. Governments and businesses targeted anti-corruption fighters as they feared exposure.

Despite often very dangerous circumstances, some had achieved real success in their work against corruption, including in Pakistan, Kenya and Guatemala, and this was vital anti-corruption work that should be protected, not vilified or attacked. Corruption was deeply rooted in some societies and could not be rooted out overnight. States needed to publicly recognise the work of human rights defenders, and openly combat attacks against them.

Discussion

In the ensuing discussion, speakers said that many attacks against human rights defenders took place in an aura of impunity. Whistle blowers, human rights defenders and journalists were commended for their work that exposed corruption. The use of judicial harassment, cyber-campaigns and other forms of intimidation should not be condoned. There should be safe reporting channels and means protecting whistle blowers from retaliation. The international community should work to better support human rights defenders and protect them from retaliation. Human rights defenders played a vital role all across the globe. The concerns of the Special Rapporteur on the threats facing human rights defenders across the globe were shared by many speakers.

Some speakers raised the issue of the manipulation of United Nations human rights mechanisms by politically motivated disinformation campaigns, and underlined that mandate holders had to be careful to live up to their code of conduct. The killings of human rights defenders in Ukraine could amount to war crimes, some speakers said, urging the Special Rapporteur to investigate the issue urgently. States should end impunity for those seeking to stifle the voices of human rights defenders, and work better to protect them, amplifying their voices in the United Nations system. Covering corruption involved the investigation of power structures, and this was a dangerous field for human rights defenders across the world, where in many places their work was crucial for the implementation of human rights law, even as they became victims themselves of human rights violations. Human rights defenders protected and fought for core values of the international community and should be given an enabling environment.

Gender-based attacks on human rights defenders was an issue of particular concern for many speakers. Human rights defenders were crucial to uphold human rights in the most difficult environments, and better and more effective ways should be found to protect them, by all means. Corruption was a disease knowing no borders, and human rights defenders required cross-border protection. Violent attacks on human rights defenders who investigated or reported incidents of corruption and abuse were condemned in the strongest possible terms, as were harassment and reprisals in any form. Legal guarantees and freedoms should ensure their security at all times and in all places, and States should develop, where necessary, protective mechanisms in order to ensure this. Corruption was, as the Special Rapporteur’s report said, a human rights issue, and national legislators were obliged to defend those investigating it.

Interim Remarks

MARY LAWLOR, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, explained that a way to help anti-corruption defenders and human rights defenders was to give them visibility and legitimacy as well as backing them up by law. States could do more, including by inviting human rights defenders to events, making sure they were included, and working with them. She suggested that the Human Rights Council invite more women human rights defenders and that more actions were taken against reprisals against women human rights defenders. All regions needed to do better. She said she did not singularise a region or a country; rather, she focused on those who were at risk and were in need of protective measures. If countries were to implement half of what was already there, including over 100 recommendations contained in her reports, it would be a huge step forward. The Special Rapporteur said she had been doing this work for 44 years and so she knew the difference between a human rights defender and a political activist or a terrorist. Yes, human rights defenders were not above the law, but States were not above international laws either and had to abide by them. She had no prejudice against any States, she had nothing to prove and nowhere to go, except in a coffin, Ms. Lawlor concluded.

Discussion

Continuing the discussion, speakers said that promoting and ensuring a democratic environment was the best way to ensure the protection of human rights defenders at all levels, as well as to fight corruption. As defenders experienced mounting threats online, they were more likely to self-censor, with a correspondent decline in freedom of expression and in civic space. The recommendations of the Special Rapporteur to States and civil society were appreciated, and a speaker asked how to tackle the drivers of corruption in order to limit the attacks on human rights defenders. Human rights defenders performed a crucial function in society - defending the rights of fellow citizens, including the marginalised, exposing corruption, and challenging poor governance. However, this was not always appreciated. All attacks on human rights defenders were part of a wider restriction on civic space that must be reversed, and the United Nations should work in this direction. The situation of women human rights defenders was of particular concern.

Human rights defenders contributed towards the realisation of human rights and the strengthening of the rule of law. All channels should be safe and open to engage with Governments without fear of any harm, and human rights defenders should be able to carry out their activities and their profession. All defenders faced the risk of aggression and subsequent human rights violations, including harassment and killings. Protection and practices linked thereto should be developed more by States in order to protect them further, both online and offline. Work needed to continue to create an environment where human rights defenders and all civil society workers could operate without fear of violence and reprisals, which would further reinforce democratic and legislative institutions. The report of the Special Rapporteur was insightful on the convergence between the role of human rights defenders and the fight against corruption. The Council should adopt a strong resolution on human rights defenders in conflict and post-conflict situations, integrating an age and gender approach therein.

Concluding Remarks

MARY LAWLOR, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, reiterated that the key to protect all human rights defenders, including anti-corruption human rights defenders, was to give them visibility, recognition and legitimacy and put in place policies and laws that would ensure their protection. On online and offline threats, the Special Rapporteur said that States needed to take seriously digital threats because it had been seen from past years that there was a pattern: from online to offline to physical threats to killing. She called for special attention to be given to this as well as the use of Pegasus and spyware on human rights defenders. She was very disappointed that States did not see that anti-corruption human rights defenders were at the heart of the struggle for human rights. On organized crime and non-State actors who were also targeting human rights defenders, she said that States were indeed responsible for protecting human rights defenders but the presence of corrupt officials and corrupt police, among others, was to be noted. Ms. Lawlor concluded that she understood that States came from their national interest but she had to come from an human rights interest based on conventions that these States had agreed to respect, so she asked the States to please work with her.

Produced by the United Nations Information Service in Geneva for use of the information media;
not an official record. English and French versions of our releases are different as they are the product of two separate coverage teams that work independently.

HRC22.027E