Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, on Human Rights Defenders in Annual Report 2016

April 27, 2017

Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, devoted a short chapter to Human Rights Defenders in his Annual Report covering 2016 (Chapter 3 V p. 59 – 61):

Human rights defenders

The situation of human rights defenders and the responsibility of states to ensure a safe and enabling environment for their work remained at the forefront of the Commissioner’s attention in 2016. The Commissioner organised and participated in round tables and side events, and in two inter-mechanism meetings, related to the role and the situation of human rights defenders in various parts of Europe. He also published thematic documents relating to the important role and contribution of human rights defenders with respect to the protection of human rights. As part of his continued monitoring, the Commissioner published several statements on the situation of human rights defenders in various regions of Europe. Moreover, the Commissioner intervened before the European Court of Human Rights as a third party in three cases relating to human rights defenders: Khadija Ismayilova v. Azerbaijan; Svetlana Khusainovna Estemirova v. the Russian Federation; and Khalid Bagirov v. Azerbaijan (for further information on third party interventions, see chapter 6 of his report). In March, the Commissioner issued statements about a series of violent attacks against journalists, human rights defenders and NGOs in Chechnya and Ingushetia in the North Caucasus. The Commissioner contacted the Russian authorities indicating the need for immediate protection of those who had come under attack, and for a prompt and thorough investigation with a view to holding those responsible to account.

Round table on missing persons and victims of enforced disappearance in Europe

On 30 June and 1 July, the Commissioner organised in Strasbourg a round table with human rights defenders on missing persons and victims of enforced disappearance in Europe. In addition to human rights defenders from more than 20 different European countries, the event was attended by experts in the eld, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, and a member of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Henrikas Mickevičius. During the round table, the participants discussed the recommendations contained in the Commissioner’s Issue Paper Missing persons and victims of enforced disappearance in Europe. The participants also exchanged important information on issues relating to missing persons, victims of disappearances and transitional justice in European countries affected by these issues. In particular, they raised the importance of establishing the truth, instituting efficient and effective domestic legal and institutional frameworks, and combating impunity through prosecution and punishment of those responsible for enforced disappearances, and the necessity to provide support and reparation for victims. The round table was also aimed at reviewing the situation of human rights defenders working on those issues, including obstacles that human rights organisations and defenders face in carrying out their activities and possible ways to overcome them.

Human Rights Comment “Human rights defenders’ work is vital for redress to victims of enforced disappearance”

In August, the Commissioner published a Human Rights Comment “Human rights defenders’ work is vital for redress to victims of enforced disappearance”. In his comment, he raised a number of issues relating to the crime of enforced disappearance and the vital work of human rights defenders in this area. In particular, he highlighted the persisting problem of impunity for crimes of enforced disappearance as a result of the lack or ineffectiveness of criminal investigations. There is also the ongoing lack of or very slow implementation by respondent states of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights in cases of missing persons and enforced disappearance. The Commissioner underlined the crucial role of civil society actors and human rights defenders in establishing the facts and in pursuing justice. Specific attention was paid to the obstacles they face in their work, which include legal and administrative restrictions, judicial harassment, smear campaigns, threats and intimidation, unlawful arrest or detention, ill-treatment, and even killings and enforced disappearance of defenders themselves. The Commissioner recommended a series of measures to be taken by member states and emphasised the importance of building the capacity and expertise of human rights NGOs active in this field.

Side event “Addressing the deteriorating situation of civil society actors and human rights defenders in Europe”

In September, the Commissioner participated in a side event “Addressing the deteriorating situation of civil society actors and human rights defenders in Europe”, which was organised by the Council of Europe and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in the framework of the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting. Officials and representatives from the Council of Europe, the UN and the OSCE ODIHR participated in the side event. The Commissioner recalled that support to and protection of human rights NGOs and defenders are at the core of his mandate and referred to the main tools at his disposal to fulfill this task, including regular consultations with human rights defenders, intervention in urgent cases of defenders at risk, and assessment of laws and practices which a ect the working environment of human rights actors. The Commissioner described current trends and expressed concern about the numerous obstacles to the important work of human rights defenders as well as the shrinking space for critical voices in various European countries.

7th Inter-Mechanisms Meeting for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

On 30 November, the Commissioner participated in the 7th Inter-Mechanisms Meeting for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, in Brussels, which is aimed at discussing trends and emerging issues pertaining to the protection of human rights defenders, the exchange of experiences in responding to challenges and the identification of possible paths of co-operation and synergies between the existing mechanisms. Apart from the Commissioner, participants in the meeting included the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights; representatives of the Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights; the OSCE ODIHR; the EU External Action Service; the Chair of the EU Human Rights Working Group (COHOM); the European Commission (DG DEVCO); the international organisation of La Francophonie; the PACE Committee on Legal A airs and Human Rights; the newly established EU mechanism to protect human rights defenders; several international human rights NGOs, and human rights defenders. An interactive dialogue took place with EU representatives on ways to streamline the co-ordination between EU institutions and member states on the one hand, and intergovernmental mechanisms established to protect and support human rights defenders on the other, notably in difficult situations.

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