24 October 2011
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on Annual Report of Observatory

 

for Protection of Human Rights Defenders

 


While pro-democracy gains and demands for freedom and justice were sweeping the Middle East, threats and attacks against human rights defenders in that region and elsewhere around the world continued at a disturbing rate, according to a report released at Headquarters today by a leading global coalition of rights activists.


“Sadly, it’s an alarming picture that transcends from this report,” Gerald Staberock, Secretary-General of the World Organization against Torture, said during a press conference called to launch Steadfast in Protest, the fourteenth annual publication of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.


The 617-page report, published jointly by Mr. Staberock’s Geneva-based organization and the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, documents from January 2010 to April 2011 individual cases of repression against human rights advocates in 66 countries worldwide.


The launch was attended by a diverse group human rights activist that included Margaret Sekaggya, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Souhayr Belhassen, President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH); Radwan Ziadeh, Chair of Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies:  and Tawakkul Karman, President of the Yemen-based Women Journalists without Chains and a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who addressed the gathering in pre-taped video.


Mr. Staberock said there was still a “long way to go” to end repression in many Arab nations and to enable human rights defenders to serve as agents of change and guarantors of society at large.  The report chronicled the growing trend in Latin America, Asia and elsewhere to criminalize social dissent and social protest.  Marginalized groups and defenders of the rights of the poor and indigenous people were particularly threatened.  Laws, instead of protecting human rights defenders, were too often manipulated to abuse them.


He cited the example of Ales Bialiatski, President of the Belarus-based Viasna and Vice-President of the International Federation of Human Rights, currently in jail in Minsk for allegedly violating a national law governing financing for non-governmental organizations, after having accepted European Union funding to perform legitimate human rights work.


In addition, working to end impunity had become a dangerous task in many regions, Mr. Staberock continued.  Defenders of human rights were attacked, threatened and detained arbitrarily for attempting to bring perpetrators of human rights abuses to justice or for trying to ensure free, fair and transparent elections.


Better national systems to physically protect human rights defenders were needed, as was international solidarity for their causes, and a legal protection framework that permitted social protests.  He warned that in the absence of those steps, attacks against human rights defenders would likely escalate.


Ms. Karman made a plea to support and aid human rights defenders in order to create a world based on justice and love, and free of violence and hate.  The plight of Ms. Karman, who, since October 2010, was arrested twice by, and received a death threat from, Yemeni authorities after having organized peaceful protest movements, was among the more than 1,000 cases referenced in the Observatory’s report.


Mr. Ziadeh praised the report’s documentation of serious abuses, including murder, detention and harassment, against human rights defenders in Syria since the start of that country’s peaceful protest movement in March 2011.  The network of Syrian human rights activists had been forced underground to compile that data.  Since the protests began, more than 3,000 Syrians had been killed and more than 30,000 had been detained, including three of his relatives.


Continuing, he said the Syrian Government had converted the country’s soccer stadiums into detention centres; its security forces were killing between 30 and 40 peaceful activists every day in the central Syrian cities of Homs and Rastan.  Mr. Ziadeh criticized the Security Council for failing to act thus far against the Syrian Government and implored it to push both the Syrian and Yemeni regimes to embrace a peaceful transition to democracy.


Ms. Belhassen lauded Tunisia’s historic democratic elections held on Sunday, the first in the country’s history and the first in the region to result from the tumult of the Arab Spring.  But she pointed to the challenges ahead to anchor democracy in Tunisia and the need to address abuse against human rights defenders in Syria and Bahrain, as well as in Egypt, where it was resurfacing.


For her part, Ms. Sekaggya said abuses against human rights defenders, which were detailed in her fourth report presented to the General Assembly earlier in the day, were “simply unacceptable”.  She called on States to take concrete steps to promote tolerance and an open attitude towards human rights defenders and to bolster efforts to implement the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.  (For more information, see Press Release GA/SHC/4018.)


Asked by a correspondent about the case involving Mr. Bialiatski and the European Union’s responsibility to simultaneously enforce laws and protect him and other human rights defenders, Mr. Staberock said that in receiving funding for his legitimate human rights activities Mr. Bialiatski had not broken any laws.  Rather, the issue was how legislation was used to repress rather than protect human rights defenders.  International donors must speak out against such abuses.


Asked to cite the most blatant examples of the Arab Spring inspiring other countries to repress human rights defenders, Ms. Belhassen said in April the Chair of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights was arrested and in September sentenced to life imprisonment.  She pointed to a law enacted in September in Algeria to limit freedom of association, access to funding and the ability to register of non-governmental organizations operating in the country.  In Egypt, the military had maintained its grip on power following the fall of the Mubarak regime, and was now prosecuting human rights defenders and journalists in military courts.


Asked to comment on Morocco’s election last week to the Security Council, in light of that country’s refusal to allow a prominent human rights defender to return home from the Western Sahara, Mr. Staberock said States should closely study the Observatory’s annual report for information on the human rights records of would-be Council members.  He noted that the report had detailed serious abuses in 2010 and 2011 against human rights defenders in Kyrgyzstan, which was currently vying for a non-permanent Council seat.


Asked why the map in the Observatory’s report showed the situation of human rights defenders in Yemen to be better than in most of Latin America, Mr. Staberock said in the last few months the human rights situation had developed dramatically in Yemen.  The map, however, was based on cases documented by the Observatory from January 2010 to April 2011 only.


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For information media • not an official record