Reprisals for Reporting Human Rights Violations

The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, will present his annual report on government reprisals against persons who report human rights abuses to the UN at the Human Rights Council in September 2012. The Secretary-General’s report (A/HRC/21/18) presents numerous countries and cases where human rights defenders were subjected to intimidation and harassment by government for interacting or communicating with the UN through human rights mechanisms that include “the Human Rights Council, special procedures, human rights treaty bodies, the universal periodic review mechanism and United Nations peace missions.”

The Secretary-General confirms that several countries engaged in a pattern of reprisals over recent years; among these are Bahrain, Belarus, Malawi, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. The systematic persecution of Bahraini human rights defenders stands out, such as with leaders of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, including Mr. Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja who is “serving a life sentence handed down by a military court on terrorism-related charges” and Mr. Nabeel Rajab who has been repeatedly attacked by government security forces and was banned from traveling in 2011.

(Watch the IJRC interview with Mr. Nabeel Rajab)

The UN Secretary-General further reports this repression continued with:

reprisals against human rights defenders took place in the context of the universal periodic review of Bahrain on 21 May 2012. Reportedly, a number of Bahraini newspapers, including El Watan and the Gulf Daily News published articles labelling human rights defenders in Geneva who had provided information for the consideration of Bahrain in the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review as “traitors”.

… One prominent lawyer and human rights defender was subjected to a smear campaign upon his return to Bahrain from the session of the Working Group. Another human rights defender was injured by riot police while peacefully demonstrating in Bahrain; allegedly he was targeted because of his previous attendance at the universal periodic review session.

Subsequently in June 2012, Mr. Nabeel Rajab was also sentence to three years imprisonment for “his participation in peaceful gatherings in favour of fundamental freedoms and democracy, including a peaceful protest to denounce the detention of fellow human rights defender Abdulhadi Al Khawaja.

The Secretary-General also detailed the systematic and intense reprisals of human rights defenders in Sri Lanka during and following the Human Rights Council’s 19th Session in March 2012 where the Council adopted resolution 19/2 concerning violations of human rights in Sri Lanka. The intimidation campaign against human rights defenders from Sri Lanka even reached into the corridors of the Human Rights Council.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights specifically … observed that “during this Human Rights Council session, there has been an unprecedented and totally unacceptable level of threats, harassment and intimidation directed at Sri Lankan activists who had travelled to Geneva to engage in the debate, including by members of the 71-member official Sri Lankan Government delegation. … In Sri Lanka itself, newspapers, news websites and TV and radio stations have since January been running a continuous campaign of vilification, including naming and in many cases picturing activists, describing them as an NGO gang ‟and repeatedly accusing them of treason, mercenary activities and association with terrorism. Some of these reports have contained barely veiled incitement and threats of retaliation.” The High Commissioner also noted that “some of the attacks on human rights defenders were carried in Sri Lankan state media and Government websites or were filed by journalists who had been officially accredited to the Human Rights Council session by the Sri Lankan Permanent Mission”.

Other cases reported during the period of 15 June 2011 to 15 July 2012 come from a variety of countries, and included: the intimidation of family members for reporting torture in Algeria; police questioning participants returning to China from an international training on human rights; death threats against a former Colombian soldier’s personal testimony regarding extrajudicial killings; Iran’s systematic campaign of intimidation against advocates for women’s rights; coercion to force a withdrawal of torture allegations against police in Kazakhstan; and, interrogations by the Lebanese military to suppress the documentation and reporting cases of torture and arbitrary detention. The Secretary-General also notes several cases of reprisal in previous years in KenyaRwandaUzbekistan, and Venezuela, which remain unresolved .

Although the Secretary-General observes that his report does not comprehensively record all cases of reprisal, it does nonetheless provide a clear index that reprisal are not limited to one particular social or political context, but rather occur in all regions across the globe. The report further emphasizes that the Secretary-General, High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Council Presidents, Special Procedures, treaty bodies, and numerous countries have repeatedly and universally condemned government reprisals against individuals or groups who report violations of human rights to the United Nations.

However, the continuing prevalence of reprisals and impunity of countries attempting to repress human rights reports by civil society indicates the vivid need for regional communities and governments to take a direct responsibility. Countries must apply their political influence and pressure wherever possible to demonstrate that government reprisals against human rights defenders will not proceed unnoticed and without consequences for their diplomatic, economic, and social relations.