Reprisals against Human Rights Defenders breach obligations as Human Rights Council member

April 29, 2014

In a post dated 13 March 2014, I suggested the possibility of suspending the membership of countries in the Human Rights Council in case of serious reprisals against human rights defenders who coöperate with the UN. [].  The backdrop to this admittedly far-reaching proposal is that when the Council was created – as successor to the UN Commission on Human Rights – one of the much-touted improvements was Operative Paragraph 8 of General Assembly Resolution 60/251 which reads … “when electing members of the Council, Member States shall take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto; the General Assembly, by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting, may suspend the rights of membership in the Council of a member of the Council that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights…”. The only time it was actually used was in 2011 when the UN Human Rights Council recommended (unanimously) on 25 February to recommend “to the United Nations General Assembly, in view of the gross and systematic violations of human rights by the Libyan authorities, the consideration of the application of the measures foreseen in OP8 of General Assembly Resolution 60/251.” The General Assembly obliged quickly and on 2 March it suspended Libya. The then President of the General Assembly, Joseph Deiss, emphasised ‘the importance of a strong Human Rights Council whose members are committed to strengthening the protection and promotion of fundamental rights’.

The real ‘obstacle’ to invoking this clause in case of reprisals seems to be the test of “gross and systematic of violations human rights”. It could be argued that reprisals – even if taken in a limited number of cases – are considered “gross’ by their nature rather than their scale. A few instances of say ‘cannibalism’ or child sacrifice would pass the test. An argument could be made that when it comes to reprisals there is a qualitative issue at stake that also lowers the quantitive threshold .  ‘The right to submit information and complaints to UN human rights bodies and to be protected from prosecution, intimidation or reprisals for doing so is a well established principle of international human rights law,’ in the words of ISHR Director Phil Lynch. ‘Not only do such reprisals have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and association, but they amount to an attack on the integrity of the UN bodies which rely on NGO reports and information to carry out their important work.

The example is given of Russia where the prosecution of ADC Memorial relied on the fact that, in 2012, the organisation submitted a report on police brutality against Roma and other minorities in Russia to the UN Committee against Torture [Russia: Reprisals against NGOs breach international law and obligations as Human Rights Council member | ISHR.] or one could think of China and Sri Lanka where authorities have systematically intimidated and detained human rights defenders who wanted to cooperate with the UN. []

In the meantime, the UN is asking for inputs into the annual Report of the Secretary General on Reprisals against persons cooperating with United Nations human rights mechanisms, with a deadline of 23 May 2014

The next report is expected to cover the period from 16 June 2013 to 31 May 2014. Please send submissions as soon as possible to

These submissions should:

–  fall within the scope of Human Rights Council resolution 12/2;

–  pay attention to the security needs of the persons concerned; therefore please indicate if the victim (or his/her family) has been informed accordingly and has agreed to be mentioned in this report;

–  indicate if the alleged act of reprisal has been referred to in any UN documents (provide citations);

Any follow-up information on the cases included in the 2012 and 2013 reports is also welcome (whether additional reprisals took place, whether measures were taken by the State to investigate, etc.).  Note that in addition to cases of reprisals regarding cooperation with the Human Rights Council, Special Rapporteurs and Treaty Bodies, the report can also include cases of reprisals relating to cooperation with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, its field presences and human rights advisers, United Nations Country Teams, the human rights components of peacekeeping missions, etc.

The two last reports, which referred to cases in Algeria, Bahrain, Belarus, China, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Lebanon, Malawi, Maldives, Morocco, Philippines, Russian Federation, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Tajikistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Venezuela, are available via the following links:


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