The work of the International Service for Human Rights in the limelight

April 16, 2014

There are many international NGOs doing excellent work for human rights defenders, but I want to highlight one here in particular: the International Service for Human Rights. It has a clear mandate and niche, based in Geneva for 30 years (with a small office in New York) is the main advocate for human rights defenders in the UN. The Director, Phil Lynch, sent out an overview in April 2014 of its activities covering the recent months, especially the latest session of the UN Human Rights Council. Please read the statement in full and – if you want regular updates – subscribe to the ISHR Newsletter:

Preventing intimidation and reprisals
Like many of you, I was saddened and appalled by the death of Chinese human rights defender and former ISHR-trainee Cao Shunli.Cao was detained, denied adequate medical treatment and ultimately died in connection with her efforts to promote democracy and expose corruption in China through the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review.With the encouragement of activists on the ground, ISHR has sought to ensure that Cao’s voice continues to be heard and that, while nothing will atone for her death, it serves as an imperative for both the UN and States to strengthen the protection of human rights defenders against intimidation and reprisals.

Supporting freedom of expression
Shortly before Cao’s death, while she was still in a coma, I had the privilege of meeting with a number of Chinese human rights defenders. With their colleague in a critical condition, I asked whether traveling to Geneva and advocating at the UN is worth the risk.

Their answers were both illuminating and inspiring. Yes, they said, not only do recommendations from the UN Human Rights Council sometimes directly influence laws and policies on the ground, but being able to speak at the UN is a powerful exercise of the fundamental right to freedom of expression, especially coming from a context where that right is flagrantly denied at the national level.

Perhaps nowhere are the rights to freedom of expression and association more systematically denied than in North Korea.
In this context, ISHR was delighted to provide Shin Dong Hyuk, the only known escapee of North Korea’s notorious political prison Camp 14, a speaking platform at the UN Human Rights Council in March.Shin’s powerful testimony, in which he spoke of being forced to witness the public execution of his mother and brother, was one of the many contributors to the Council adopting a groundbreaking resolution on North Korea and taking an important step towards accountability for gross human rights violations in that country.

I’d also like to take the opportunity to acknowledge the phenomenal contributions of Commission of Inquiry Chair, Michael Kirby, and Human Rights Watch’s Geneva Director, Julie de Rivero, to the development and adoption of this landmark resolution.

Protecting the right to assemble and protest

Closely related to the right to freedom of expression is the right to freedom of association and assembly.During the course of the 25th session of the Human Rights Council ISHR was proud to be associated with successful advocacy efforts to address the severe and worsening crackdown on activists and journalists in Egypt and to secure an important resolution on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests.

More recently, we were pleased that, consistent with ISHR’s recommendations, the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights identified the need to ‘widen democratic space’ as a key global priority.

As my colleague Michael Ineichen said at the launch of OHCHR’s new strategic plan, ‘the trend to restrict civil society space is not limited to repressive governments alone.

Increasingly we see democratic governments using excessive force against protesters and justifying disproportionate restrictions on the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association by reference to economic or national security interests.

Translating resolutions into actions
In addition to supporting grassroots human rights defenders to inform the development of resolutions at the UN and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, ISHR is increasingly working with those defenders to translate such resolutions into action on the ground.

In February, my colleagues Clement Voulé and Eleanor Openshaw completed a successful three-year project with human rights defenders from Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The project assisted activists to work with government and other key stakeholders to implement UN recommendations on women’s rights and has already led to a range of positive developments in those countries, including the implementation of National Human Rights Action Plans by the governments of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

In a similar vein, my New York colleagues Madeleine Sinclair and Michelle Evans have been working with a coalition of international, regional and national organisations to ensure that a landmark UN General Assembly resolution adopted in December last year is used as a roadmap by States to develop specific laws, policies and programs to protect and support women human rights defenders.

Looking ahead

The coming months are shaping as busy and exciting for the ISHR team.

Later this month Clement Voulé and Heather Collister will travel to Angola to advocate at the African Commission on issues such as the protection of women human rights defenders.At the same time our New York staff, fresh from the relative success of the treaty body strengthening process, will shift their attention to supporting a range of NGOs, especially those focused on LGBT and sexual and reproductive rights, to access the UN.Looking further ahead to June, we’ll provide intensive training and advocacy support to twenty human rights defenders coming from all over the world to Geneva. We’ll also lobby at the Council for a new resolution on business and human rights to better protect defenders who work on issues of corporate accountability.


Directors update – April 2014.

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