Freedom of peaceful assembly, global refugee protections, women’s civil liberties and the well-being of human-rights defenders are values under siege, United Nations experts told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as delegates continued their debate on the promotion and protection of human rights.
“We are witnessing an increase in xenophobia, hate speech, push-backs on women’s equality and the rights of minorities,” warned Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, also highlighting the ever-widening gaps in global wealth and access to resources.
Moreover, underfunding has hampered the growing workload of the entire treaty body system, she said. Committees do not have adequate resources to carry out inquiries into grave or systematic violations. This results in a “credibility crisis” for all treaty bodies — and a denial of justice for the victims of human-rights violations.
In the ensuing dialogue, many delegates took the opportunity to spotlight countries where such abuses take place and to raise the possibility of improved mechanisms to investigate them. The representative of the United States expressed support for the establishment of investigative mechanisms in Venezuela and Syria, among other countries, while Peru’s representative, speaking for several countries, said the violations in Venezuela could amount to crimes against humanity.
Georgia’s delegate said that the situation in Abkhazia is worsening, and asked the High Commissioner for her views on mechanisms to address the issue. Latvia’s representative noted reports of violations in “illegally annexed Crimea” and asked whether there could be better access for international monitoring of its places of detention.
Among the day’s three other briefers was Obiora Chinedu Okafor, Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity, who focused on the issue of human-rights based solidarity in global refugee protection. The current refugee “crisis” was not caused by large numbers of refugees, but rather by States’ unwillingness to accept refugees into their countries — evading their responsibilities. Moreover, the rise of extremist political parties is complicating the issue, he said, as the “alternative right” and other racist civil society groups target any kind of solidarity with refugees.
Echoing those words, the Russian Federation’s delegate noted that certain extremist political parties are impeding the entry of refugees into the European Union, and that the Independent Expert’s report lay the blame for this squarely at the feet of foreign interference in internal State affairs.
In his presentation, Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human-rights defenders, highlighted that 431 defenders were killed in 2017 and 2018. With that in mind, combating impunity is not only a legal obligation of States, but also a moral one. He further noted that “98 per cent of the killings of rights defenders remain unpunished” and that unless impunity is ended, the violence against them will continue. A zero-tolerance policy towards such attacks must be adopted, and the lack of political will — and of State recognition of rights defenders — addressed.
Reacting to those comments, several delegates raised questions about digital attacks on human-rights defenders, with Germany’s representative underscoring that female defenders of human rights often face particular threats, such as the publication of private information. Mr. Forst responded that he has found research by the Special Rapporteur on freedom of association and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression helpful in this context, with a particular focus on advocating for social network businesses to provide better protections.
To concerns raised by an observer for the State of Palestine and the representative of Georgia, he noted that his subsequent report will make specific proposals to assist defenders living in fragile States, as well as those living in conflict or post-conflict situations.
The Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voulé, also presented his report.
The Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on 16 October to continue its consideration of the promotion and protection of human rights.
The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) continued its debate on the promotion and protection of human rights today (for background, see Press Release GA/SHC/4266).
Interactive Dialogues on Human Rights
TIJJANI MUHAMMAD-BANDE (Nigeria), President of the General Assembly, said that human-rights issues addressed by the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural), such as crime prevention, criminal justice and questions related to people with disabilities, are foundational to peace, prosperity and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Stressing that conflict prevention, poverty eradication and quality education are “also in my priorities”, he said inclusion is the bedrock of rights and must be guaranteed at all levels.
Turning to women’s issues, he urged States to work harder to remove structural and cultural impediments and foster equal participation for women and girls. On education, which is guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he pointed out that one in five children around the world is not in school today. He urged all entities, including the Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to work towards ensuring a better world for all.
MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, presenting her Office’s report (document A/74/36), said the world undeniably is facing rising challenges to multilateralism. “We are witnessing an increase in xenophobia, hate speech, push-backs on women’s equality and the rights of minorities,” she said, also pointing to widening inequalities in income, wealth, access to resources and access to justice. Yet, work can be done with Member States to strengthen consensus around the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No matter their type of Government or economic system, all States have an obligation to respect economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. In line with the 2030 Agenda, they have committed to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goals help realize all human rights, including to development. Thus, partnerships must be forged to address financing gaps, identify innovative strategies and ensure safe participatory spaces. Stressing that gender equality is at the core of OHCHR’s efforts, she said that in Argentina, Panama, the United Republic of Tanzania and Uruguay, it has worked with judicial authorities and institutions to address gender stereotypes and bias in the justice system and ensure greater access to justice for women and girls.
The world’s climate emergency constitutes a major threat to human rights, she said, noting that her Office signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in August. It has also devised a joint work plan with the World Health Organization (WHO) to advance the human right to health and support both the 2030 Agenda and the Secretary-General’s Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health 2016-2030. The Office has also forged agreements with African Union entities. In the Americas, it continues to strengthen its partnerships with the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Noting that the human rights treaty body review will take place in 2020, she said international human-rights treaties — and jurisprudence by the treaty bodies themselves — constitute the legal backbone of the entire human-rights protection architecture. A stronger treaty body system would bolster work done by human-rights actors. Unfortunately, the General Assembly’s funding has not kept pace with the steady increase in the treaty bodies’ work, she said, noting that the Committees do not have adequate resources to pursue regular dialogue with all States Parties or to carry out inquiries into grave or systematic violations. This constitutes a credibility crisis for all treaty bodies in terms of the effectiveness of a vital protection system. More importantly, it constitutes a denial of justice for victims of human-rights violations. Her Office is exploring interim solutions, but this comes at the cost of other activities and cannot solve the underlying issues, she said.
When the floor was opened for questions and comments, Spain’s delegate reiterated his country’s commitment to multilateralism, the 2030 Agenda and the promotion of human rights, expressing support for the independent character of OHCHR’s work.
Sudan’s representative meanwhile reiterated his country’s full commitment to facilitating OHCHR’s mission. A candidate for the Human Rights Council, Sudan is fully committed to fulfilling its obligations regarding the ratification of treaties and achievement of peace. Holding legal and fair elections, ending poverty and offering better opportunities for women and youth are among its priorities.
Morocco’s delegate welcomed the High Commissioner’s efforts to fight hate speech and uphold human rights in the digital era. Similarly, Mexico’s representative said hate speech leads to racism and xenophobia, and asked for recommendations on how to prevent it. Sweden’s representative, on behalf of the Nordic Countries, condemned reprisals against those who cooperate with the United Nations, asking how Member States can best work with the United Nations to support civil-society actors.
Iran’s representative said it is essential that the Office hears the voice of the most vulnerable, pointing to unlawful unilateral measures imposed on Iran, affecting the most vulnerable, and expressing disappointment that every respect of human rights is subject to unilateral coercive measures.
The United Kingdom’s delegate welcomed the way in which the Office provides evidence, stressing the importance of independent investigative mechanisms whose work is vital in shining light on crimes against humanity. Noting that the United Kingdom provided $9 million to OHCHR in 2018, he welcomed the Memorandum of Understanding between OHCHR and Sudan, asking how the High Commissioner can ensure the full cooperation of States.
Senegal’s delegate asked how the momentum generated by United Nations reforms can be used to advance human rights and both prevent and resolve conflict.
The representative of Germany, associating himself with the Human Rights/Conflict Prevention Caucus, the group of Nordic Countries and the European Union, noted the High Commissioner’s words on increasing xenophobia and a pushback on women’s rights and also highlighted a pushback on sexual and reproductive rights. Switzerland’s delegate expressed alarm over the chronic underfunding of the High Commissioner’s Office.
An observer for the State of Palestine said that given the independence of the Office, it should treat all States equally without political considerations. This should also be the case regarding Human Rights Council resolution A/HRC/RES/31/36 to establish a database of all businesses in the occupied territories. She asked if there were any updates regarding this mandate.
Georgia’s delegate said the human-rights situation in Abkhazia has deteriorated and asked the High Commissioner if she had any views on possible mechanisms to address human rights in the occupied regions of Georgia. Romania’s delegate asked how social media and artificial intelligence can be used for the benefit of human rights.
Liechtenstein’s delegate reiterated his country’s support for the High Commissioner’s work, expressing concern over the Office’s financial situation. It is unacceptable that one of the United Nations pillars is underfunded, he said, adding that Liechtenstein is a long-standing financial supporter of OHCHR — number one per capita. He welcomed the High Commissioner’s commitment to strengthen accountability and asked how the Office would do so.
Peru’s delegate, on behalf of several States, condemned the serious human-rights situation in Venezuela, which has led to a daily exodus of Venezuelans fleeing hunger and despair. The situation in Venezuela — which violates the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Venezuelans themselves — may amount to a crime against humanity. He stressed the importance of cooperating with the independent international fact-finding mission on Venezuela, underscoring that based on the clear evidence put forward by international organizations, the country is not respecting the rights of its citizens.
The representative of Ireland asked the High Commissioner what Member States could most usefully do to support her Office. Chile’s delegate said that the negative repercussions of climate change can be seen on a daily basis and he welcomed that the High Commissioner had highlighted this matter.
The representative of Pakistan welcomed the recent statement of the High Commissioner in Geneva with regard to Jammu and Kashmir, in which she expressed deep concern about the impact of India’s recent actions, including the detention of local political leaders and activists. The people of Jammu and Kashmir should be engaged in any decision-making processes that impact their future, she said.
Italy’s delegate asked how the Universal Periodic Review system could help to underline where countries most need support, while the representative of Zambia, speaking for the African Group, expressed concern over the Office’s growing reliance on extrabudgetary resources.
Myanmar’s representative recalled that States have the primary responsibility for protecting the rights of their people, and underscored the importance of accurate information when investigating violations.
Latvia’s delegate asked the High Commissioner how she would assess the situation in illegally annexed Crimea, especially as related to freedom of expression after the introduction of new laws by the Russian Federation on 18 March 2019 on offences of “public insults towards State authorities” and “the distribution of false information of public importance”. Citing reports of rights violations in illegally annexed Crimea — notably torture and a lack of medical assistance in detention places — he asked how to provide better access to detention centres for international monitors.
Poland’s delegate, associating with the European Union, expressed alarm over continued efforts in certain countries to violate the rights of civil society actors. He underscored the importance of free association and assembly, decrying the violation of rights because of a person’s religion or belief. The representative of the European Union, meanwhile, called for strengthened cooperation among the United Nations bodies, asking how to best support civil society in defending human rights, and more broadly ensure better cooperation between New York and Geneva.
Egypt’s representative, associating with the African Group, expressed support for OHCHR’s advocacy of the right to development. Given the persistent challenges posed by poverty, migrant and refugee flows, and the impact of climate change, he welcomed the High Commissioner’s emphasis on the environment. Access to water is considered a fundamental human right and he called for greater cooperation among Governments to improve the situation in the region.
Indonesia’s delegate said dialogue and cooperation are effective ways to promote human rights, calling for greater such efforts with the High Commissioner. Human rights can best be protected through constructive dialogue and respect for the principle of impartiality.
Slovenia’s delegate, associating with the European Union, welcomed the High Commissioner’s focus on climate change. He expressed concern that OHCHR remains underfunded, and also support for the Office, particularly its regular briefings to the Human Rights Council.
The representative of the United States, recalling his country’s withdrawal from the Human Rights Council, expressed support for the establishment of independent investigative mechanisms, pointing to repressive and totalitarian regimes and the situations in Venezuela, Syria, Myanmar and South Sudan.
The representative of Cuba expressed concern about the irresponsible actions of the United States, which withdrew from the Human Rights Council and climate commitments, adding that “xenophobic hate speech from the highest part of that Government undermines the safety of migrant communities”. China’s representative said States’ rights to development must be respected and expressed concern about the “serious geographic imbalance” in staffing of the High Commissioner’s Office. On actions in Xinjiang, which he characterized as measures to target terrorism, he welcomed visits by “impartial people” and said that the United States and Germany’s representatives were “distorting facts”.
Syria’s representative meanwhile said sovereignty is the best means to promote human rights and avoid the absence of consensus. The office in Beirut does not cooperate with Syria’s Government, and thus provides mistaken information about the country. The representative of the Russian Federation called on the United States’ representative to desist from using the General Assembly to go after its political opponents. In addition, the treaty bodies are “undertaking functions not in their mandates,” he explained.
The representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea called for more impartiality and asked that human rights not be used as a tool to violate the sovereignty of States. Mali’s representative, clarifying the situation in his country addressed in the High Commissioner’s report, said that armed groups and traffickers were responsible for cases of violations. The Government is committed to accountability and eliminating impunity, he stressed, adding that it has arrested human-rights violators. However, more support is needed in evidence gathering and investigation, he said, welcoming the Human Rights Council’s decision in March to bolster capacity.
Also speaking in the interactive dialogue were representatives of Belarus, Luxembourg, Canada, United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Japan, Qatar, Armenia, Portugal, Malaysia, Tunisia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Algeria and Costa Rica.
Ms. BACHELET replied that OHCHR welcomes voluntary contributions as they permit the Office to do what countries ask of it. Pointing to the example of the Maldives, where the legal framework required change, she said the Office uses voluntary contributions to work in countries that would otherwise not be prioritized. Stressing that the Office is underfunded and understaffed, she called for supporting it both politically and financially so it can continue to carry out its work based on informed decisions. It would be useful for various treaty bodies to sit together at the General Assembly and discuss the issues, avoiding duplication of efforts. She went on to underscore the importance of having the broadest geographical representation possible, based on the widest possible range of nationalities.
Turning to the Universal Periodic Review and the Sustainable Development Goals, she said the Review aims to address the causes that obstruct development and fuel tensions, adding that it can also meaningfully contribute by identifying disadvantaged groups, although this is impeded in some States by the lack of disaggregated data. Better statistical data can help guide policy choices and prioritize more vulnerable groups, as was being done in Kenya.
Noting common ground between work done by the Security Council and the Human Rights Council, she called for more communication between the bodies in both directions, so as to identify unfolding crises early. In the past, special procedure mandate holders had been the first to draw attention to issues, such as the food crisis in 2008, and emerging risks, such as the use of drones and privacy concerns.
On the pushback against human-rights defenders — on which her Office partners with UNEP, among others — she urged States to do more to extend front-line protection and support, as attacks on defenders were tantamount to attacks on their institutions. In Latin America, she called on more States to adopt the Escazú Agreement, adding that her Office has also given Mexico recommendations for more effective protection of rights defenders and journalists.
Turning to hate speech, which is “unacceptable and triggers violence”, she called on leaders to use language that promotes social cohesion and does not foment “us and them” divides. She said that social media companies can find ways to block hate speech messages and prevent the misuse of their technologies, adding that visits to Silicon Valley had revealed that the developers of algorithms tended to be white men, whose platforms tended to reflect their biases. Recalling a report released in June by a high-level panel on digital technologies convened by the Secretary-General, she said the United Nations can link together developers and civil society, and underscored the need for a global response to challenges relating to emerging technologies.
As for interreligious dialogue, she said hate speech must be avoided and messages of solidarity on faith-based projects spread. On the issue of climate change, which is not under OHCHR’s mandate, she said it is producing a number of human-rights violations, pointing to the water issue — especially in the Sahel and parts of Africa — as well as conflict and internal displacement of people living on small islands.
More generally, she said States can facilitate the efforts of her Office by providing it access, if needed, and working to bridge the gap between New York and Geneva. It would also be helpful if States shared good human-rights stories, as this incentivizes countries to do more. “Give us facts,” she asserted.
OBIORA CHINEDU OKAFOR, Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity, said that his report covers the issue of human rights-based solidarity in global refugee protection. Given that only 0.3 per cent of the world’s population has attempted to seek refuge within or outside their home countries in recent years, the current refugee protection “crisis” is much more a function of States’ unwillingness to accept as many refugees as they can and should. The imperative of providing international protection to refugees encourages States to embrace solidarity as a core value. Some States have refugee-specific legislation that explicitly prohibits the extradition of a refugee, while others have similar extradition legislation. Some cities have expressed human rights-based international solidarity with refugees, whatever their status, while progressive civil society groups have done so by conducting search-and-rescue missions at sea to save refugees in distress, or providing shelter, food, clothing and free legal services.
Nonetheless, there are extensive human rights-based international solidarity gaps in the responses of States and other stakeholders to global refugee flows, he said. All too often, these gaps have produced negative consequences for refugees. In theory, the legal framework of the European Union Common European Asylum System provides common standards based on international refugee law. In practice, however, important gaps exist in application and implementation. Similarly, serious gaps exist in the expression of human rights-based international solidarity in refugee protection between States in the global North and those of the global South. Global refugee protection is also troubled by the deployment of the principle of international solidarity in ways that allow States to evade, or violate, their international legal obligations under the 1951 Convention and other regional refugee instruments. Extremist political parties, vigilante groups and even paramilitary organizations have also acted against those expressing solidarity with refugees and migrants, he said, noting that racist civil society groups such as the “alternative right” oppose any solidarity with refugees. In certain countries, armed private individuals and groups patrol borders seeking to block or round up refugees engaging in irregular migration.
When the floor opened for questions and comments, the representative of Venezuela, associating himself with the Non-Aligned Movement, said international solidarity is critical to human rights, adding that South-South cooperation strengthens and unites countries, promotes equality and is an example to follow in responding to pandemics and natural disasters. Recalling the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Caracas earlier this year, he said international solidarity represents the “highest expression of respect between States”.
Cuba’s representative objected to paragraph 48 of the report, stating that the United States’ wall-building is xenophobic and contrary to the spirit of solidarity. By contrast, Cuba contributes to a more equitable world order, extending health and education services to other countries.
Meanwhile, the representative of the Russian Federation expressed concern about the actions of militarized organizations and extremist political parties, which are impeding refugees’ entry to the European Union, adding that the Independent Expert’s report laid aside the prime cause for the crisis: foreign interference in the affairs of foreign States.
Mr. OKAFOR responded that solidarity is indeed essential for the realization of human rights and pointed out that the draft declaration on the right to international solidarity touched on the virtues of preventive and reactive solidarity in cases of disaster and pandemic.
To Cuba’s representative, he said that some forms of solidarity, such as anti-immigrant and anti-refugee solidarity, are not conducive to enjoyment of human rights. He went on to clarify that the passage in question merely serves to state that walls do not express solidarity. “Something may have been lost in translation,” he stated. He shared the Russian Federation representative’s alarm at the attacks on immigration, including legal migration. “Given that we live in an interconnected world with dense interactions and flows, it behooves all stakeholders to adhere to well-established human rights,” he emphasized.
CLÉMENT NYALETSOSSI VOULÉ, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, presented his report, which examines the ways in which closing civic space is associated with negative development outcomes, including in the fight against poverty and economic inequality. He explored how restricted space for civic engagement exacerbates the exclusion of those living in poverty. Civic freedoms are proven to advance sustainable development, he said, stressing that civil society is essential to ensuring transparency and accountability in the implementation of poverty-eradication strategies. During his visit to Sri Lanka, he witnessed civil society’s many positive contributions to development, in particular with non-governmental groups providing life-saving access to justice, health, education and humanitarian assistance.
Underscoring that many Governments use legal and extra-legal measures to suppress individual and civil society rights to peaceful protest, he said the separation of human rights and development is both contrary to international law and bad policy. “Closing civic space is considered ‘bad news’ for sustainable development and poverty-eradication efforts,” he said, noting that corruption thrives in restricted civic space. Indeed, such limitations are linked to the exploitation of workers and reduced income, since a legal environment that suppresses workers’ rights to associate amplifies low-income workers’ economic vulnerability. Restrictions to civic space also negatively impact resilience to climate events, as efforts to carry out climate-change plans hinge on the participation of community and civil society actors. This demonstrates that economic progress is fragile without advancements in the realm of civic freedoms.
In the ensuing interactive dialogue, Switzerland’s delegate said the right to peaceful assembly and association is essential, stressing that economic progress can only take place when human rights are upheld. The representative of the Czech Republic, underscoring the importance of an enabling environment for civic society to operate freely, asked for positive examples. Indonesia’s delegate, calling freedom of association and assembly “pillars” of human-rights protection, asked about the best policies for ensuring civil society participation.
Estonia’s delegate, on behalf of Nordic Countries, meanwhile welcomed efforts to end poverty and fully agreed that the right to peaceful assembly is crucial in order to achieve other rights. Stressing the importance of an active civil society, he asked what positive measures can be taken to create an environment of peaceful assembly for those living in poverty.
The United States’ delegate pointed to several countries that violate the right to peaceful assembly, among them Iran, Uzbekistan, Nicaragua, Togo, Kazakhstan and China, asking the Special Rapporteur for recommendations to address areas of concern and for examples of good practices.
The European Union’s delegate said unobstructed exercise of the right to freedom is crucial in achieving sustainable development. States should abolish the criminalization of peaceful protests, he stressed, calling for a safe and enabling environment for civil society, faith-based groups and human-rights defenders.
The representative of the Russian Federation expressed surprise over the choice of the topic. The right to peaceful assembly does not play a primary role; ending poverty is a transcendent issue, as it is a precondition for the implementation of all rights. The Special Rapporteur should choose his topic more carefully so he does not go beyond his mandate.
China’s delegate categorically rejected comments made by her counterpart from the United States, calling the allegations groundless. She restated China’s position: there is no human-rights issue. The position taken by China is to counter terrorism, not target a specific group or religion. The United States’ tactic of “naming and shaming” is nothing more than bullying against China, she said, pointing to a double standard on human-rights questions and asking the United States to take measures to resolve its own issues of drugs, crime and immigration and to stop interfering in other countries’ internal affairs.
Mr. VOULÉ welcomed that States recognized the need to protect civic space in order to achieve sustainable development. To objections that the report should normally come under a different mandate, he said the topic is within the scope of his mandate. Push-back against demonstrations can be perceived as a foreign agenda, he noted, stressing that civil society should not be seen as an enemy to development.
Recalling examples of good practice, he referred to Tunisia, where he saw civic society work with local communities and — through the freedom of assembly and association — develop ways to carry out anti-poverty programmes. As for the private sector, he said civic space that protects civilians offers guarantees for companies to devise a long-term strategy in a country. He called on business to engage with local communities as opposed to perceiving them as threats, more broadly underscoring the important role of civil society in tackling climate change. It is important to ensure that civic society and space are protected. Driving that point home, he said that if an individual throws a stone at a police officer, it does not mean the entire demonstration should be discredited. The actions of one or two individuals cannot define a demonstration as violent. It is crucial to aspire to shared development.
Also participating in the interactive dialogue were the representatives of Mexico, the Netherlands, Iran and the United Kingdom.
MICHEL FORST, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human-rights defenders, said that from his experiences with surviving family members of slain rights defenders, he understands that while justice protects the most vulnerable, impunity is the “best weapon” against those who struggle to uphold the rule of law. “I am not naïve,” he emphasized. “I know that impunity is a political choice; how else to explain the fact that 98 per cent of the killings of rights defenders remain unpunished?” Unless impunity against rights defenders is seriously addressed and ended, the violence against them will continue, endangering the realization of human rights for all. Human-rights defenders are subjected to a wide range of violations and abuse by States and non-State actors, including businesses, armed groups and organized crime. In 2017 and 2018, the United Nations verified 431 killings of rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists in 41 countries. The prevailing impunity does not only have a negative impact on defenders, who are prevented from accessing justice, but also on the organizational movements they are affiliated with, as well as society as a whole.
According to international human-rights law, defenders must have accessible and effective remedies to claim their human rights — especially their right to defend human rights, he said. States have an obligation to investigate allegations of violations promptly, thoroughly and effectively by the judiciary or administrative authorities. Human-rights defenders face additional barriers to accessing justice that arise from the work they do, ranging from a lack of political will and State recognition of defenders, to the limited resources and capacities of investigative bodies. In his report, he has identified guidelines for States and principles that constitute the minimum requirements for compliance with due diligence in investigations of violations against defenders and their families. These guidelines note that investigations should be geared towards determining degrees of responsibility and commensurate penalties. Combating impunity is not only a moral obligation for States, it is a legal one. States must develop a policy of zero tolerance towards attacks on human-rights defenders, as well as create the conditions for establishing a safe environment that is conducive to human-rights defence efforts, he said.
When the floor opened for questions and comments, the representative of Ireland, associating herself with the European Union, noted that the report draws a distinction between human-rights violations by States and non-State actors — including businesses — and asked what role businesses can play in the protection of human rights.
The representative of the United States expressed concern that human-rights defenders face harassment and attacks for doing work that is integral to democracy, including in places like Venezuela, Zimbabwe, China, Iran, Syria, the Russian Federation and Myanmar. Australia’s delegate asked about best practices for holding perpetrators to account for digital attacks on human-rights defenders. Along similar lines, Germany’s representative, associating himself with the European Union, highlighted online and offline threats faced by female human-rights defenders, including the threat of publication of private information, and asked the Special Rapporteur to elaborate on the ways in which Member States can ensure that human-rights defenders are protected online.
The representative of the United Kingdom asked how States can support human-rights defenders in countries where access to justice is lacking. Echoing his concern, Georgia’s delegate asked how the United Nations should respond to challenges in the regions where international monitoring presence is denied, while several delegates including Norway’s asked what States can do as part of the United Nations to strengthen political will to recognize the work of human-rights defenders. The Netherlands’ delegate suggested that human-rights defenders could participate in the United Nations in drafting plans and asked how States could integrate an “intersectional approach” in investigating impunity.
The representative of the European Union expressed concern over increased attacks against defenders devoted to environmental protection. He welcomed the report’s focus on impunity and said it makes a crucial point about the essential role of human-rights defenders in society.
Meanwhile, several States, including the Russian Federation’s representative, criticized the “invalid” and “artificial division” of human-rights defenders into a separate group irrespective of their role in society. China’s representative went on to assert that the definition of “human-rights defender” is not “universally accepted,” and that it is often abused. In this regard, she expressed concern about the person mentioned in the Special Rapporteur’s report, who she said is not a rights defender, but a person “engaging in acts that violate the law.”
Also speaking were representatives of Mexico, France, Brazil, Slovenia, Belgium, Colombia, Canada, Norway, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Germany, Indonesia, the Russian Federation, Georgia, Cameroon and Syria, as well as an observer for the State of Palestine.
Mr. FORST, on the topic of non-State actors and their role in the fight against impunity, replied that the primary responsibility falls to States. Other stakeholders have a role to shoulder, including transnational companies operating in the South. The guidelines on businesses and human rights state that companies have a duty to respond to any attacks against human rights in the countries in which they operate. On digital and online attacks against human-rights defenders, in particular female and young defenders, he said that he has been working with his colleagues, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of association and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression. Their research informs his guidance for social network businesses to provide better protections for human-rights defenders.
On defenders who live in isolated areas, he said they are often not given sufficient attention by the international community. Ambassadors should leave their capitals and go into these far-flung areas to see where these defenders work, he said. Those who work on sexual and reproductive health and rights often bear the brunt of attacks, while those working on gender identity are harassed and threatened. Referring to comments by the representatives of Georgia and the State of Palestine, said that he will dedicate his next report to those defenders who live in conflict or post-conflict situations or fragile States, with a view towards proposing recommendations for those contexts.