Human Rights Defenders issues on the agenda of 43rd Human Rights Council

February 24, 2020

On 17 February 2020 the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) published – as usual – its excellent “HRC43 | Key issues on agenda of March 2020 session”. Here some excerpts that relate directly to human rights defenders in the 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Council, which runs from 24 February to 20 March 2020.  If you want to stay up-to-date: with all issues follow @ISHRglobal and #HRC43 on Twitter.

Here are some highlights of the session’s thematic discussions

Protection of human rights defenders including women human rights defenders. The Council will consider a resolution, presented by Norway, to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. The mandate gathers and responds to information on the situation of defenders around the world, engages constructively with governments and non-State actors and provides recommendations to promote the effective implementation of the Declaration on human rights defenders. In 2019, the Council and the General Assembly unanimously affirmed the vital work defenders play. The Council recognised the critical role of environmental human rights defenders in protecting vital ecosystems, addressing climate change, attaining the sustainable development goals (SDGs). The General Assembly passed by consensus a resolution focusing on implementation of the Declaration and some key elements of protection policy; the resolution also attracted a record number of co-sponsors. The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders will present his report on human rights defenders operating in conflict and post-conflict situations on 4 March, and country visits to Colombia and Mongolia.

Reports of cases of intimidation and reprisal against those cooperating or seeking to cooperate with the UN not only continue, but grow. Intimidation and reprisals violate the rights of the individuals concerned, they constitute violations of international human rights law and undermine the UN human rights system. [for some of my ealrier posts on reprisals, see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/reprisals/]. During the 42nd session, the Council adopted a resolution which listed key trends such as the patterns of reprisals, increasing self-censorship, the use of national security arguments and counter-terrorism strategies by States as justification for blocking access to the UN. The resolution also acknowledged the specific risks to individuals in vulnerable situations or belonging to marginalised groups, and called on the UN to implement gender-responsive policies to end reprisals. The Council called on States to combat impunity and to report back to it on how they are preventing reprisals, both online and offline. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/11/08/michel-forst-in-last-address-to-general-assembly-pleads-to-fight-reprisals/]. Item 5 of the Human Rights Council’s agenda provides a key opportunity for States to raise concerns about reprisals, and for governments involved in existing cases to provide an update to the Council on any investigation or action taken toward accountability to be carried out.

At this 43rd session, the Council will discuss a range of economic, social and cultural rights in depth through dedicated debates with mandate holders alongside the annual report of the Secretary-General on the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights globally. These include interactive dialogues with the following:

  • The Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing on her annual report and country visits reports to Nigeria and France.
  • The Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights on her annual report on cultural rights defenders and country visit report to the Maldives and Poland.
  • The Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment on his annual report and country visits to Fiji and Norway.

The Council will discuss a range of civil and political rights through dedicated debates with the mandate holders, including interactive dialogues with:

  • The Special Rapporteur on torture on his annual report and visit to Comoros.
  • The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief on his annual report and visits to the Netherlands and Sri Lanka.
  • The Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism on her annual report and visit to Kazakhstan.
  • The Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy on his annual report.

Country-specific developments

China Confronted with mounting evidence of serious human rights violations in China, specifically the mass internment, ‘re-education’, surveillance and harassment of Turkic Muslims in the western province of  Xinjiang, the view of many parts of the UN is incontrovertible. Beginning with a major UN review in August 2018, the UN High Commissioner has pressed for access, while the Special Procedures have expressed serious concerns about protection of freedom of religious belief, the impacts of counter-terrorism and counter-extremism measures, and the imposition of the death penalty in at least one case, that of university president Tashpolat Tiyip. In light of these concerns and the continued deterioration of the situation for human rights lawyers and defenders; the attacks on cultural rights and other freedoms in Tibet; and criminalisation of peaceful assembly and excessive use of police force in Hong Kong, it is high time for the Council to act. Member States should take concrete steps to call for independent, expert monitoring and reporting on the situation in Xinjiang, including access to the region, and urge accountability for actions by public authorities. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/07/12/joint-letter-by-22-states-to-human-rights-council-re-chinas-uighurs/ and https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/07/20/china-coalition-anti-human-rights-un/]

Saudi Arabia The Council’s action on Saudi Arabia has contributed to the provisional release of at least seven women’s rights activists from detention. However, they are still facing trial and many remain in detention. Recent revelations of phone hacking, surveillance and possible blackmail and extortion of the owner of the Washington Post demonstrate the measures that the State is prepared to take to silence any form of criticism or dissent. The joint statement delivered by Australia in September sets out benchmarks for the Saudi government to take to demonstrate its willingness to improve the human rights situation. These benchmarks have not been met. States should ensure that Council scrutiny is maintained and in particular establish a monitoring and reporting mechanism over the situation. [for other posts on Saudi Arabia, see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/saudi-arabia/]

Egypt The lack of action by the international community has emboldened the Egyptian government to continue to violate fundamental rights of its citizens. Special Procedures have rung the alarm bell regarding the pattern of reprisals against individuals and groups who sought to or engaged with the UN. In the last quarter of 2019 alone, more than 3,000 people were arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted under counter-terrorism laws in a nationwide crackdown against all forms of peaceful expression. The Committee against Torture has found that torture in Egypt is widespread and systematic and the situation meets all of the objective criteria for situations requiring the Council’s attention. States should initiate Council action on the situation before it further deteriorates. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/egypt/ ]

India The High Commissioner expressed concern over India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (CAA) for being ‘fundamentally discriminatory’ as it fails to extend protections to Muslim asylum seekers. Nationwide demonstrations and protests have been met with police brutality and arbitrary detentions. Vigilante groups allegedly affiliated with right-wing Hindu nationalist groups close to the government have physically attacked student protestors. Human rights defenders involved in organising peaceful assemblies have been detained and faced online harassment. ISHR calls on States to raise these concerns in their national statements including during the high level segment. [See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/06/27/ngos-come-out-in-support-of-indias-lawyers-collective/]

Burundi. At the last Council session, the Council renewed the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, which will present its oral briefing on 10 March at 10:00. ISHR remains highly concerned about the human rights situation in Burundi and its refusal to cooperate with the Council’s mechanisms. For more information on the situation of human rights defenders in Burundi, check ISHR Briefing Paper for the UPR here. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/03/29/ngo-statement-condemns-new-irregularities-in-the-case-of-germain-rukuki-burundi/

Sri Lanka. Civil society groups are concerned over the backsliding on the commitments made by Sri Lanka in Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1. The recently elected president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, along with his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has been appointed prime minister, have been implicated in war crimes and numerous human rights violations when they were defence secretary and president respectively from 2005 to 2015. The new Government has made clear its intention to walk away from the Council process on Sri Lanka, a process that is currently the only hope for victims of human rights violations that truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-recurrence are possible. [see https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2020/feb/23/sri-lanka-details-un-case-pullout/] Meanwhile, the relatively open climate for human rights defenders and journalists of the past few years seems to be rapidly closing. More than a dozen human rights and media organisations have received intimidating visits by members of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, while death threats against journalists have resumed. ISHR calls on States to urge for continued cooperation of the Government of Sri Lanka with OHCHR and the Special Procedures. The Council should reiterate the reference in Resolution 40/1 to “the adoption of a time-bound implementation strategy” for implementation of all elements of Resolution 30/1. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/01/22/sri-lankan-government-accused-of-embarking-on-process-to-silence-critics/]

Other country situations:

    • Interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner on the Occupied Palestinian Territories
    • Interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea
    • Interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar
    • Interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
    • Interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner on Libya
    • High-level interactive dialogue on the Central African Republic
    • Interactive dialogue with the Commission on human rights on South Sudan
    • Interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Iran
    • Interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Syria
    • Enhanced interactive dialogue on the High Commissioner’s report on the Democratic Republic of Congo
    • Interactive dialogue with the Independent Expert on Mali 
    • Interactive dialogue on the High Commissioner’s oral report on Ukraine
    • High Commissioner briefings on the following countries: Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Nicaragua, Yemen, Venezuela, Myanmar, Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Iran, Eritrea, Afghanistan

During this session, the Council will adopt the UPR working group reports on Italy, El Salvador, the Gambia, Bolivia, Fiji, San Marino, Kazakhstan, Angola, Iran, Madagascar, Iraq, Slovenia, Egypt and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This session of the Council will provide an opportunity for Angola, Egypt and Fiji  to to accept recommendations made in relation to human rights defenders, as proposed in ISHR’s briefing papers.

Council programme, appointments and resolutions

The President of the Human Rights Council will propose candidates for the following mandates:

  1. Two members of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (one from Asia and one from the Arctic);
  2. Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Somalia;
  3. Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context;
  4. Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and its consequences;
  5. Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples;
  6. Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, including child prostitution, child pornography and other child sexual abuse material;
  7. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders;
  8. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

Some resolutions werealready announced (States leading the resolution in brackets):

  1. Prevention of genocide (Armenia)
  2. Special Rapporteur on Torture, mandate renewal (Denmark)
  3. Freedom of religion or belief (EU)
  4. Situation of human rights in Myanmar (EU)
  5. Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, mandate renewal (EU)
  6. Mandate renewal of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants (Mexico)
  7. Protecting the rights of human rights defenders, mandate renewal (Norway)
  8. Technical assistance and capacity-building to improve human rights in Libya (African Group)
  9. Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against persons based on religion or belief (Pakistan on behalf of the OIC)
  10. The human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic (France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Netherlands, Qatar, Turkey, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
  11. Situation of human rights in South Sudan, mandate renewal (Albania, Norway, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
  12. Situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, mandate renewal (North Macedonia, Republic of Moldova, Sweden, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
  13. Freedom of Expression, mandate renewal (Netherlands, Canada)

Officers of the Human Rights Council

Newly appointed members of the Bureau for the 14th cycle comprises of the following Ambassadors:

  • Ms. Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger (Austria), President of the Human Rights Council
  • Mr. Yackoley Kokou Johnson (Togo), Vice-President and Rapporteur
  • Mr. Nasir Ahmad Andisha (Afghanistan), Vice-President
  • Ms. Socorro Flores Liera (Mexico), Vice-President
  • Mr. Juraj Podhorský (Slovakia), Vice-President

Panel discussions

During each Council session, panel discussions are held to provide member States and NGOs with opportunities to hear from subject-matter experts and raise questions. All panel discussions will be broadcast live and archived on http://webtv.un.org. Four panel discussions are scheduled for this upcoming session:

  1. Annual high-level panel discussion on human rights mainstreaming titled “Thirty years of implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child: challenges and opportunities” will take place on 24 February at 16:00
  2. High-level panel discussion commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action with a particular focus on their implementation will take place on 25 February at 09:00
  3. Annual interactive debate on the rights of persons with disabilities, titled “Article 8 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, on awareness-raising”, will take place on 6 March at 16:00
  4. Debate on the midterm review of the International Decade for People of African Descent will take place on 13 March at 16:00.

NOTE: The UN’s liquidity crisis is having a serious impact on this session and the next one (44th in June) and ISHR – jointly with 26 other NGOs – have expressed their concerns to the UNSG that in light of the special emergency measures and ongoing budget constraints, further measures may be imposed to restrict civil society participation at the Council. Despite the adoption of a number of measures by the Council over the years to address the budgetary constraints faced by the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), the Director General of UNOG informed the Council’s President that the Council may not be able to carry out all its mandated activities in 2020. This is due to the special emergency measures instituted by the UNSG to respond to the UN’s liquidity crisis which prohibit all lunch-time meetings, thus making it impossible for UNOG to provide conference services to all the Council’s required meetings. The President of the Council requested the UNSG to issue an exemption of these measures to ensure that the Council can hold all its meetings. The UNSG issued an exemption for meetings during the High-level Segment and voting on resolutions, but not for other meetings in the March session. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/05/20/lack-of-funds-forces-lack-of-oversight-by-un/]

For more information contact: Salma El Hosseiny at s.hosseinyATishr.ch 

For a survey of the 42nd session, see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/10/02/result-of-the-42nd-session-of-the-un-human-rights-council/

See also CIVICUS advisory on this Council session: https://www.civicus.org/index.php/media-resources/news/united-nations/geneva/4282-advocacy-priorities-at-43rd-session-of-un-human-rights-council

https://www.ishr.ch/news/hrc43-key-issues-agenda-march-2020-session

4 Responses to “Human Rights Defenders issues on the agenda of 43rd Human Rights Council”


  1. […] issues left hanging when its 43rd session was suspended in March because of COVID-19. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/02/24/human-rights-defenders-issues-on-the-agenda-of-43rd-hum…%5D  The 44th session, which opens today, will employ a so-called hybrid approach, with a mix of both […]


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