On October 3, 2016, the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in consultation with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, announced a new mandate for the Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, to lead UN work on ending intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders. [United Nations Information Centre] In a recent report, Ban Ki-moon emphasized the range and severity that reprisals can take and their connection to engagement with and the functioning of the United Nations human rights system. See Human Rights Council, Cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights: Report of the Secretary-General, UN Doc. A/HRC/33/19, 16 August 2016. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders has similarly noted, in particular, the risk to human rights defenders who are also members of other vulnerable groups, such as women, and the need to put an end to impunity for attacks on them. See Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, UN Doc. A/70/217, 30 July 2015. The new mandate is in keeping with the Secretary General’s previous recommendation that United Nations bodies do more to respond to early warning signs before reprisals grow more severe. See Cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights, paras. 50-55. Civil society praised the Secretary General’s decision to entrust a senior official with leading these efforts. [ISHR]
Addressing Intimidation and Reprisals
The new mandate is precipitated by the increasingly frequent interference, or punishment, experienced by individuals engaging with the United Nations and other human rights mechanisms. [United Nations Information Centre] Accordingly the Assistant Secretary General Andrew Gilmour will now “receive, consider and respond to allegations of intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders and other civil society actors engaging with the UN.” [ISHR] United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated that acts of intimidation and reprisals against these individuals attack the credibility and the effectiveness of the United Nations system, which so often relies on the actors on the ground to monitor and to report on human rights around the world. [United Nations Information Centre]
Civil society celebrated this appointment as a step towards protecting the right of individuals to provide information to the UN safely, and towards increasing accountability by applying greater pressure on governments to respond to allegations of reprisals and intimidation. [ISHR] Further, Omar Faruk Osman, Secretary General of the National Union of Somali Journalists, suggested that the high-level appointment will, “increase the political risk and cost of perpetuating reprisals.” [ISHR]
Secretary General’s Report on Reprisals
In August 2016, the Secretary General submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Council detailing developments in relation to reprisals, and specifically addressing allegations of intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders based on information collected between June 1, 2015 and May 31, 2016. See Cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights. The Secretary General reaffirmed that every act of intimidation and reprisal must, without exception, be stopped, and that effective remedies and preventative measures must be pursued to deter future reprisals. See id. at para. 2.
The report noted several recent initiatives and recommendations to combat reprisals against human rights defenders. As of June 2016, eight out of 10 human rights treaty bodies had adopted the Guidelines against Intimidation or Reprisals (“San Jose Guidelines”), and the special procedure annual report presented at the Human Rights Council’s 31st session contained an exclusive section on reprisals. See Cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights, paras. 9-10. Additionally, the Secretary General’s report highlighted the President of the Human Rights Council’s call to implement its Resolution 24/24, which requested that the Secretary General, in cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to assign a UN senior focal point to engage with all relevant stakeholders to promote the protection against and accountability for reprisals and intimidation of human rights defenders. See id. at para. 4.
The report connected the issues of the promotion and protection of human rights and UN engagement with human rights defenders with the granting of consultative status on non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The Secretary General called on the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations, which considers organizations’ applications for consultative status with the Economic and Social Council, to assess organizations in a “fair and transparent manner” and to ensure the continuation of the “indispensable contribution” of such organizations to the United Nations. See id. at paras. 12-15. In doing so, the Secretary General raised incidents in which Member States have in the past denied consultative status to certain organizations, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, and referred to the denial as a restriction on NGO engagement. See id. at para. 14.
The report also included information on specific cases alleging reprisals and intimidation in a number of States. See id. at paras. 20-45. The reprisals and intimidation included harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention, travel bans, charges and sentencing, imprisonment, torture, sexual abuse, and in some cases, death. See id. at paras. 20-45, 47. The Secretary General noted that when the first warning signs are not addressed, reprisals may become more severe and target not only the human rights defenders working with the UN but also their loved ones, organizations, and legal representation. See id. at para. 48.
The Secretary General concluded the report with recommendations. Recognizing that government officials often perpetrate reprisals, the Secretary General called on every State to take preventative measures to deter the acts from occurring, and to raise awareness. See id. at para. 49. The report additionally recommended that the United Nations improve their response to acts of intimidation or reprisal to take preventative steps after initial warning signs; that future reports focus on the issue of reprisals and follow-up conducted by UN bodies; and that all relevant entities, including international and national human rights institutions, civil society, and individuals, “continue to make their voices heard and to contribute to the future consideration of the issue.” See id. at paras. 50-55.
The Situation of Human Rights Defenders
n July 2015, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders submitted to the UN General Assembly a report on the global trends in risks and threats facing human rights defenders. See Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. The report discusses the various ways that human rights defenders may be at risk, lending considerable attention to groups of human rights defenders that are particularly vulnerable. See id. The report highlights that some defenders face risks due to their identity, for example as women or members of the LGBT community; others in light of issues they seek to address, for example those that expose corruption or deal with development; and some because of the context of where they work, for example those working in conflict areas. See id. at para. 56, 61, 65, 68, 69-70, 71. The report also pointed towards the high levels of impunity for perpetrators of attacks on human rights defenders, and the conveyed human rights defenders’ sense that “they are on their own” due to a lack of support from the media, other defenders, and politicians. See id. at paras. 58-59.
The Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights has, since 2010, led the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ New York office and represents the High Commissioner in activities taking place at the New York headquarters of the UN. See OHCHR, Human Rights New York: About the NY Office. The current Assistant Secretary General, Andrew Gilmour, assumed the role earlier this month.
The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders is a mandate that falls under the UN Human Rights Council’s special procedures. The Special Rapporteur seeks, receives, examines, and responds to information regarding the situation of human rights defenders. See OHCHR, Special rapporteur on human rights defenders: Mandate.
For more information on the UN human rights system, UN special procedures, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, or civil society actors, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub. In particular, see IJRC’s Handbook: Human Rights Advocacy in the United States for information on the role of non-governmental organizations and civil society in the promotion and protection of human rights.