Questions around the right to free assembly, creation of an equitable world order and efforts to stem enforced disappearances — a crime that is soon to reach 1,000 cases a day — took centre stage in the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as delegates evaluated the human rights norms underpinning State relations since the Second World War.
Throughout the day, delegates engaged with United Nations experts in five interactive dialogues, held virtually, that explored the use of unilateral coercive measures, exercise of free assembly and association — online and offline — and protection of human rights defenders who are being killed by the hundreds for their peaceful efforts to turn an international spotlight on social ills.
“These murders are not random acts of violence and are not inevitable,” said Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, stressing that the pandemic has been used across the world as an excuse to attack them. Many defenders, including medics, have been targeted for telling the truth about the virus. Silencing them is “a danger to us all”, she asserted. “Human rights defenders are not our enemies; they are ordinary people doing extraordinary things to make all our lives better.”
During the interactive dialogue, several delegates underscored the importance of prevention and accountability measures, including robust investigations. Slovenia’s representative asked about best practices for protecting human rights defenders in rural areas, fighting impunity and addressing reprisals, while the United Kingdom’s representative condemned reprisals against defenders who cooperate with the United Nations. China’s delegate, meanwhile, criticized the special status of human rights defenders, stressing that they are not above the law. “Anyone violating law will be punished by law,” he declared.
Later in the day, Livingstone Sewanyana, Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, drew attention to the key role of international financial institutions in pushing local authorities to investigate acts of reprisal and bring the perpetrators to justice. In terms of State response, he called for human rights impact assessments to be undertaken by both lending and borrowing States, and similarly by international financial institutions prior to granting loans with conditionalities. In response to delegate concerns, he also criticized the use of unilateral coercive measures.
Mohammed Ayat, Chair of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, said tens of millions of disappearances are perpetrated around the world, with the daily number climbing towards 1,000 a day. “One thousand people disappeared, completely cut from the world,” he emphasized, drawing attention to the insufferable burden felt by their families and calling for universal ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
Also making presentations today were Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; and Luciano Hazan, Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
The Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 20 October, to continue its consideration of the promotion and protection of human rights.
Interactive Dialogues — Human Rights Defenders
The Committee began the day, with interactive dialogues featuring presentations by: Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; and Livingstone Sewanyana, Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order.
Ms. LAWLOR expressed great respect for human right defenders. “Working peacefully to build humane and just societies is in their lifeblood,” she stressed. “Despite great personal risk, they continue to work non-violently for the rights of others every single day. Often, they do not know when they get up in the morning if they will still be alive that night.” Pointing to the devastating impact of COVID‑19 on their work, she said the pandemic has been used across the world as an excuse to attack them. Many defenders, including medics, have been targeted for telling the truth about the virus. Some — confined to their homes, due to travel restrictions — now feel like “sitting targets”. On every continent, defenders are killed in the hundreds for their peaceful human rights work. “These murders are not random acts of violence and are not inevitable,” she said. Governments must have a main obligation to intervene, yet often ignore death threats and fail to protect their people. Her upcoming report to the Human Rights Council in March 2021 will focus on the most marginalized defenders: women defenders; those working to safeguard the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons; defenders who are themselves children; and advocates with disabilities. “Human rights defenders are not our enemies,” she asserted. “They are ordinary people doing extraordinary things to make all our lives better.”
During the interactive dialogue, delegates highlighted the utter importance of protecting human rights defenders, with Liechtenstein’s representative pointing to a key role for the private sector in such efforts and asking Ms. Lawlor to elaborate on the connection between corruption and human rights defenders.
In a similar vein, the representative of Spain, drawing attention to vulnerable human rights defenders in isolated areas, welcomed the Special Rapporteur’s goal to strengthen the role of business in such protection efforts, and incorporate a gender perspective into addressing the needs of female defenders.
The representative of the United Kingdom, on behalf of 74 countries, condemned any act of intimidation or reprisal, whether online or offline, against individuals or groups who cooperate with the United Nations. States should inform all relevant actors, and he urged them to enact prevention, awareness-raising and accountability measures, including robust investigations.
The representative of Slovenia expressed deep concern that human rights defenders — including those working to protect women, the environment, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual and intersex communities — still face discrimination and threats. She asked the Special Rapporteur how to best protect human rights defenders in rural areas, fight impunity and effectively address reprisals.
Meanwhile, the representative of China criticized the special status of human rights defenders, stressing that all people must enjoy human rights on the same level. “Human rights defenders are not above the law,” he asserted, stressing that “anyone violating law will be punished by law” and urging the United States to stop interfering with China’s judicial sovereignty. “Mind your business. Stop with the double standards,” he said, criticizing the United States for demonstrating ideological bias.
Ms. LAWLOR replied with a definition of human rights defenders and clarified the difference between defenders and activists. “I have nothing to lose,” she commented on her role as a Special Rapporteur. Expressing deep concern that reprisals persist, she said it is wrong for States to attack those who cooperate with the United Nations. Such attempts undermine the entire human rights system. Broadly, she called for more effective protection at the national level, adding that States should have relevant public policies in place, and more importantly, demonstrate political commitment to the work of human rights defenders. She drew attention to women defenders who have suffered tremendously, including online, reiterating her commitment to cooperate with Governments and welcoming recent engagement with Bahrain, Iran and Burundi.
Peaceful Assembly and Association
Mr. VOULE said his mandate, aimed at finding the best ways to protect the right to meet peacefully, is celebrating its tenth anniversary. The mandate has helped create a solid legal framework and focused attention on the importance of this fundamental freedom. Despite progress, the tendency to restrict civil protests is increasing amid threats, digital attacks, harassment and assassinations. For generations, women have been key players in contributing to civil society and inspiring people. He encouraged States to enact laws to protect women — and more broadly support organizations and movements that are led by them. Women and girls face obstacles and reprisals in their families, communities, in the digital space and during protests. Referring to COVID‑19, he said in April 2020 he launched a set of 10 guiding principles and indications. They give States and other key stakeholders recommendations to ensure their responses to the COVID‑19 pandemic do not infringe upon the rights to peaceful assembly and association. The guidelines are based on the premise that civil society organizations should be seen as strategic partners to fight the pandemic and help countries mitigate, adapt and transform the devastating and long-term socioeconomic effects of this crisis.
During the ensuing interactive dialogue, the representative of the Russian Federation expressed surprise over the report’s topic. While it is important to empower women, he expressed doubt that this report can bring anything new to the subject. The Special Rapporteur could have analysed other topics, such as the trend of growing absolutism and how it influences violent far-right movements and interference by foreign States in protests.
The representative of the United States asked which countries will be the focus of the Special Rapporteur’s future fact-finding missions, and about what issues will be highlighted.
Several delegates focused on Internet use, with the representative of the United Kingdom asking how States can best use the Internet as a forum to enable the freedoms outlined in the report, especially regarding women. An observer for the European Union meanwhile requested examples of good practices to protect peoples’ rights to assembly and association, both online and offline, during COVID‑19, especially for women’s organizations. The representative of the Czech Republic likewise shared concerns that the pandemic not be used to limit political participation, online or offline. In that context, he said 2020 has numerous gender-related anniversaries and called for enforcing the extensive international commitments to help women.
The issue of protection emerged as a theme throughout the dialogue. The representative of Switzerland asked how the international community can more effectively protect women engaging in peaceful protests from sexual violence during peaceful protests. The representative of Mexico asked about actions being taken to ensure women can continue their vital role as human rights defenders as they exercise their right to peaceful assembly. The representative of Estonia, speaking for the Nordic and Baltic countries, asked about specific measures to protect women from reprisals and ensure they have access to United Nations forums.
Mr. VOULE, in response, underscored the importance of recognizing women’s contributions to international peace and development, and ensuring their rights to equality and non-discrimination are protected, as certain States are not doing so. “It is time to move from commitment to action,” he said, and protect women’s movements, which are on the front line fighting against COVID‑19 and working at the grass-roots level to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.
He said that the report addresses actions communities can take to end sexual violence against women during protests. It is also important to help women form associations and participate in labour movements. Violence against women on the Internet in many ways stigmatizes women. States and technology companies have the responsibility to act, while the donor community can create a system that allows grass-roots women’s movements to access funding. As COVID‑19 has prevented him carrying out certain country visits, he urged Governments to respond to his written requests and expressed hope to visit these countries in 2021. He also pressed States to recognize peoples’ democratic right to peacefully protest, underscoring the need to recognize women’s contributions to peace and development and to properly fund their work.
Democratic and Equitable International Order
Mr. SEWANYANA said his report focused on the interplay between the economic policies and safeguards of international financial institutions, and good governance at the local level. All international financial institutions have adopted environmental and social safeguards that address stakeholder engagement, however, at the project level, stakeholder engagement remains a regular problem in many countries. While several institutions have disclosure policies regarding access to information for the projects they fund, he expressed concern over issues pertaining to confidentiality whereby — under the pretext of protecting “business-sensitive” information — client interests reportedly prevail over the right to access information for affected communities. Moreover, critics of development projects funded by these institutions are increasingly the subject of egregious acts of reprisal, ranging from intimidation to judicial harassment to killings. He expressed extreme concern that these acts occur against the backdrop of a global closing of civil society space. He drew attention to the key role of international financial institutions in pushing local authorities to investigate acts of reprisal and bring the perpetrators to justice. In terms of State response, he called for human rights impact assessments to be undertaken by both lending and borrowing States, and similarly by international financial institutions prior to granting loans with conditionalities.
In the ensuing dialogue, delegates called for multilateralism and opposed unilateral coercive measures. In that context, the representative of China said the pandemic demonstrates that “we are living in an interconnected global village” and objected to the insistence by the United States to implement these measures.
Along similar lines, the representative of the Russian Federation, noting that Governments bear the primary responsibility for fostering equality, said the COVID‑19 pandemic has not led to greater international solidarity. He criticized the use of unilateral coercive measures, drawing attention to an unfair economic competition in which international financial institutions are used as a weapon. The representative of Venezuela expressed similar concern that international financial institutions are having a detrimental impact on human rights during a global pandemic, citing States’ frequent use of unilateral measures.
Meanwhile, the representative of Azerbaijan, on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, underscored the bloc’s commitment to refrain from any action that contravenes the territorial integrity, sovereignty or political independence of any State or the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. Indeed, all States shall refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any other State.
“The promotion of equitable international order is more important than ever,” exclaimed Cuba’s representative, drawing attention to the pandemic’s disproportionate effects on countries in the global South. Warning against protecting the rich and subordinating the poor, she called for a new democratic and equitable international order, likewise requesting recommendations for making financial institutions more democratic.
Mr. SEWANYANA, in response, echoed the calls for multilateralism, unity, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, stressing that, from the perspective of the East-West global divide, multilateralism and unity are necessary tools for overcoming poverty and unemployment. It is especially important for countries in Eastern and Western regions to work together during the pandemic, and he cautioned countries against withdrawing from international institutions. He also strongly criticized the use of unilateral coercive measures, pointing to their devastating impact on citizens in target countries and their role in exacerbating human suffering.
Also speaking this morning were representatives of Colombia, France, Georgia, Germany, Ireland, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Malta, Morocco, Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Ukraine.
Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances
In the afternoon, the Committee continued its interactive dialogues on the broad theme of human rights, which featured presentations by: Mohammed Ayat, Chair of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances; and Tae-Ung Baik, Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
Mr. AYAT, presenting his ninth report, which covers the Committee’s seventeenth and eighteenth sessions, recalled that a campaign was launched in 2018 to double the number of ratifications of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. This goal remains elusive. While Oman ratified the Convention in June 2019, only 63 of the 193 United Nations Member States have ratified the treaty. He underscored the importance of universal ratification, stressing that tens of millions of disappearances continue to be perpetrated throughout the world and expressing concern that the number of those committed daily will soon reach 1,000. “One thousand people disappeared, completely cut from the world,” he said, drawing attention to the insufferable burden felt by their families and loved ones. Currently, cooperation with States does not allow for locating disappeared persons in 28 of these cases. He recalled that only 23 of 63 States Parties recognize the Committee’s competence to receive individual communications, noting that Mexico became the latest on 6 October 2020. Noting that the Committee examined the initial reports of Bolivia and Slovakia, he said the pandemic unfortunately forced it to postpone consideration of reports by Mongolia and Switzerland. He highlighted the importance of the treaty body review and decisions to be adopted by States in this context, as the Committee cannot continue to function with the same schedule and human resources allocated to it since its establishment.
In the ensuing dialogue, delegates condemned enforced disappearance and called for ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, with an observer for the European Union also encouraging States to take all measures possible to oppose grave human rights violations. Along similar lines, the representative of Argentina expressed support for the Committee’s work and encouraged ratification of the Convention.
The representative of Iraq meanwhile expressed surprise that the Committee neglected to mention 42 replies it had received from his country, stressing that the Committee does not have the appropriate mechanisms to investigate the alleged cases it receives.
The representative of India strongly condemned comments made by his counterpart from Pakistan, pointing to that country’s long history of enforced disappearances and widespread silencing of human rights defenders. Raising concern over the number of enforced disappearances in Pakistan, with 2,000 cases that remain unresolved, he asked Mr. Ayat what measures can be implemented to assist human rights defenders.
Mr. AYAT replied to comments by Iraq’s representative, underscoring that the Committee relies on State support, and welcomed that Iraq has both ratified the Convention and worked with the Committee. He said the Committee attempts to create space in which it can engage in dialogue, pointing to its extensive work on the issue of supplementary information and the fact that it opted for a flexible procedure. Committee members take utmost care to ensure that this procedure does not burden States and are fully committed to their work. He encouraged States to help raise the number of ratifications and bolster recognition of the Committee’s authority, adding that 66 States have accepted recommendations regarding ratifications of the Convention.
Also speaking were representatives of Pakistan and Japan.
Mr. BAIK said the Working Group is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year. The pandemic has generated new contexts of enforced disappearances and the Working Group has published eight key guidelines on COVID‑19 with the Committee on Enforced Disappearances. The guidelines make it clear that “enforced disappearances should remain strictly prohibited in all circumstances,” and that “search and investigation cannot be discontinued.” In its latest annual report submitted in September, the Working Group highlighted the transmission of 699 new cases of enforced disappearance to 26 States, including 105 cases transmitted under the urgent action procedure. Yet, these figures do not fully represent the magnitude of enforced disappearances. He expressed concern over the increasing number of reported cases allegedly perpetrated by non-State actors that exercise effective control or quasi-governmental functions in certain territories. Some States continue to justify abductions on foreign soil, under the pretext of combating terrorism. However, no circumstances whatsoever, including public emergency, may be invoked to justify enforced disappearance, and he reiterated the call for all States to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
In the ensuing dialogue, an observer for the European Union hailed the Working Group’s efforts, which include the registration of more than 58,000 cases of enforced disappearance. Noting that the pandemic has prompted a spike in the number of enforced disappearance cases, he wondered how the international community can maintain awareness about this trend.
The representative of Pakistan condemned remarks by India’s delegate about his country, citing forced disappearances in Jammu and Kashmir and asking about steps being taken to hold the perpetrators of these crimes accountable.
The representative of the United States meanwhile expressed grave concern about forced disappearances in Iran, the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine and Syria. He urged Member States to account for the disappeared and asked about steps the international community can take to encourage Governments to respond to such reports.
The representative of Japan said the forced disappearances by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea include many people who are aging, and some who have died. He called for the immediate return of all abductees and asked for the international community’s help. The representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea categorically rejected all statements made by his counterpart from Japan, stressing that the issue has been resolved and that Japan refuses to accept responsibility for past war crimes against humanity and issue an apology.
Mr. BAIK thanked the delegates for their constructive contributions and efforts to fight against enforced disappearances. The Working Group’s mandate is to help minimize the suffering of victims and families and to urge compliance by Governments. The pandemic is creating greater difficulty as quarantines are being used to carry out forced disappearances, compounding the suffering experienced by victims and their families. It is important for States to investigate and share information with the families.
He thanked the representative of the United States for raising important issues and reiterated that Governments should not attempt to justify any situations. Referring to comments by Japan’s delegate, he said the Working Group would like to continue a dialogue so as to resolve the problem. The Working Group is grateful to be in dialogue with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and likewise hopes to reach a resolution, encouraging that country to accept the Working Group’s request for a visit and to engage in constructive dialogue.
Also speaking were representatives of France and Syria.