Archive for the 'Human Rights Council' Category

As Iran prepares to execute Ahmadreza Djalali, the world reacts

November 26, 2020

Around the world, shock and outrage has been the reaction to the news that Iran is preparing to execute Swedish-Iranian emergency medicine specialist Dr Ahmadreza Djalali. In a call from Evin Prison on 24 November, Ahmadreza told his wife Vida, who lives in Sweden, that he believed he may be executed in less than a week. He has been transferred into solitary confinement and it has been reported that he will shortly be sent to Rajai Shahr Prison where this draconian death sentence would be delivered.

Dr Djalali has been used as a bargaining chip as part of Iran’s hostage diplomacy. A dual national, illegally detained in solitary confinement with no access to a lawyer before being sentenced to death in October 2017. The court based their sentence for “corruption on earth” on “confessions” elicited after torture, threats to kill Ahmadreza Djalali’s wife and two young children, solitary confinement and his prolonged ill treatment.

The UN, EU, Council of Europe, European governments, worldwide academic institutions, civil society and thousands of individuals have all called for Dr Djalali’s release.

UN experts Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran and Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions issued a statement saying: “We are horrified by the reports that Mr. Djalali is soon to be executed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. His torture, arbitrary detention, death sentence and now reported imminent execution are unconscionable acts that should be condemned by the international community in the strongest terms. We urge the Iranian authorities to take immediate action to reverse this decision before it is too late.

Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Diana Eltahawy, said:

“We call on members of the international community to immediately intervene, including through their embassies in Tehran, to save Ahmadreza Djalali’s life before it is too late.”

Valerie Peay, Director of the International Observatory of Human Rights said: “We stand in support of Dr Djalali and his family. Ahmadreza has already suffered gross injustice, pain and the cruel separation from his wife and two children. For three years he has faced a baseless death sentence while Iran has used him as a bargaining chip and sought to gain leverage with the international community by unjustly incarcerating Dr Djalali and other dual nationals. Now is the moment for the Islamic Republic to act to cease this action to execute Dr Djalali and instead, release him to return his life in Sweden with his family.

https://researchprofessionalnews.com/rr-news-europe-universities-2020-11-academic-groups-sound-alarm-over-djalali-death-sentence/embed/#?secret=xEX33rLMOr

UN human rights experts ‘alarmed’ by treatment of human rights defenders in Cambodia.

November 17, 2020

Voicing concerns over increasing restrictions on civil society in Cambodia, a group of independent UN human rights experts have called for an immediate end to the systematic detention and criminalization of human rights defenders. 

In a statement on 16 November 2020 Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said she was “alarmed” by credible reports that at least 21 human rights defenders have been subjected to threats, arbitrary arrests and detentions in the past three months. 

I have reviewed publicly available footage where excessive force has been used by the security forces to prohibit human rights defenders, many of them women, from exercising their rights to peaceful assembly. Promotion and protection of human rights through peaceful means is not a crime,” she said. 

Ms. Lawlor referred to several cases in which detention has reportedly been used to punish human rights defenders for carrying out their work.  

Rights defender Rong Chhun was arrested on 31 July after taking up the case of farmers in Tbong Khmom province who had their land taken in connection with a border demarcation between Cambodia and Viet Nam.  

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/07/16/even-simply-remembering-kem-ley-is-forbidden-in-cambodia/

Subsequently, several other human rights defenders who protested his detention were also arrested. Twelve remain in pre-trial detention, have been denied bail, and are facing charges punishable by up to two years in prison. 

Human rights defenders should never be criminalized for their courageous efforts to protect the rights of others … I am increasingly concerned by the circular pattern of detaining them for advocating against the detention of or violations against fellow defenders,” said Ms. Lawlor. 

There seems to be no limit to who the authorities will target, making their actions in recent months appear as a concerted attempt to erode civic space and stifle the work of human rights defenders,” she added. 

Rhona Smith, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, also voiced concerns over the restrictions, urging the authorities to end “this harmful approach to human rights defenders and facilitate freedom of expression and assembly, for the benefit of all members of society in Cambodia.” [see also; https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/03/11/even-landmark-un-decision-does-not-change-cambodias-treatment-of-human-rights-defenders/]

The statement was also endorsed by the special rapporteurs on the rights of peaceful assembly and association, and on the freedom of opinion and expression, and the members of Working Group on discrimination against women and girls

https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/11/1077702  

Mary Lawlor’s first report to the Third Committee of General Assembly

November 16, 2020

On 20 October 2020 (sorry for the delay) the ISHR reported on the new Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, presenting her first report to the General Assembly’s Third Committee. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/05/07/mary-lawlor-takes-up-post-as-un-special-rapporteur-for-human-rights-defenders/].

The Special Rapporteur appealed to States to help stop the killing of human rights defenders, which she identified as the mandate’s core priority. Defenders, she said, are ‘ordinary people doing extraordinary things to make all of our lives better‘ and shared her hope that all would work together to find ways to protect them. 

The Special Rapporteur’s report outlined how she intends to approach and develop the subject of her mandate in the coming years. Her priorities include: those defenders most exposed to killings and other violent attacks, with attention paid to the most marginalised and vulnerable, among them women defenders, those defending the rights of LGBTI persons, defenders who are children, defenders with disabilities, defenders working on the rights of migrants, the climate crisis, defenders working in isolated and remote areas, defenders serving long terms in prison, reprisals against defenders who cooperate with the UN, the issue of impunity for those who attack defenders, the role of businesses and financial institutions in both harming and protecting the work of defenders, and strengthening follow-up to individual cases brought to her attention. 

As the Third Committee continues to grapple with the difficulties of moving its work online, the dialogue was plagued by a number of IT issues, including not being webcast for the first 35 minutes, and several statements remained muted in the archived video made available later. 

A large number of States took the floor to welcome the Special Rapporteur’s report and echo her concerns and priorities. Many of the States that spoke touched on the need to address the worrying deterioration of civic space brought on by the COVID 19 pandemic. The UK delivered a joint statement on reprisals on behalf of 75 States, following up on its initiative last year when it delivered the first ever such statement.

The US raised a number of individual cases and country situations: Nasrin Sotoudeh in Iran; China’s systematic persecution and imprisonment of human rights defenders, including those from Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, naming Ilham Tohti and Joshua Wong in particular; in Zimbabwe, opposition leader Job Sikhala, parliamentarian Joana Mamombe and activists Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova. China used its time to question the notion of a human rights defender arguing there is no accepted definition of the term and that defenders are not ‘above the law’. China also accused the US of suppressing civil society during the pandemic. 

In her concluding remarks, the Special Rapporteur touched on the need for the UN’s human rights work to be properly funded and for States to cooperate fully with Special Procedures through standing invitations and positive responses to requests for visits. She emphasised her desire to cooperate with States, to have an open dialogue, and cited recent talks with Bahrain, Burundi and Iran in that regard. She indicated she hoped these talks would result in releases of defenders soon. The Special Rapporteur also emphasised that her approach would include specifically highlighting positive changes in each of her reports.  

https://www.ishr.ch/news/unga75-un-expert-urges-protection-defenders-ordinary-people-doing-extraordinary-things?fbclid=IwAR1j9EqgUZ4RKAcMH7nWp7AIAZUL3HqrAq_k8M9epUtlF_ECrNAaLCrbrJ0

UN Special Rapporteur Léo Heller, under attack from industry, gets support from many NGOs

October 22, 2020

Over 100 civil society organizations (for the names, click the link at the end of the post) published a joint letter on 21 October 2020 to express their strong support for the ​report​ on “The Privatisation of Water and Sanitation Services” of the United Nations (U.N.) Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Mr. Léo Heller. He will present the report to the U.N. General Assembly today. They also express deep concern about the attempts by a group of private water operators to undermine the independence of the Special Rapporteur and his work. Programmes.

This new report is an important contribution to a debate that is crucial in current times. The role of private actors in the delivery of public services, including water and sanitation services, has been increasing in the last decades. In recent years, at least four other U.N. Special Procedures ( extreme poverty and human rights, education, housing, and debt) have written on this topic in their respective reports. Just this week, eight current and former U.N. Special Rapporteurs and independent experts met at a ​major event on privatisation​ gathering hundreds of people online, and five of them released an ​op-ed​ published worldwide on the importance of the issue of privatisation and human rights.
 
Mr. Heller’s report is balanced and acknowledges the diversity of context. His report is the result of his work over the last six years and, remarkably, it was prepared through ​several consultations that go far beyond what is expected or what is the usual practice under U.N. Special Procedures. The consultations included a wide range of stakeholders, including States and the private sector, and were transparently shared on the mandate’s ​website​.

Yet, despite the importance of this issue and the measured and constructive solutions offered, the Special Rapporteur has faced considerable pushback from Aquafed, a lobby group for private water companies such as Veolia and Suez​. We are aware that Aquafed wrote to the President of the Human Rights Council, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and to States. These letters personalised the issue, questioning Mr. Heller’s impartiality and respect of the applicable rules. The concerns they raise are however unfounded; they aim at silencing and discrediting him, rather than debating substance.
 
This interference is a transparent and unacceptable attempt to protect the industry’s profits from exposure to the reality of the lived experience of far too many who have had their human rights violated under privatisation.
 
We would like to express our thorough support to Mr. Heller’s rigour and professionalism. Despite limited resources, he has consulted widely for this report, and for his previous reports. Throughout his six-year mandate, he paid attention to affected communities and families who do not enjoy the rights to water and sanitation. In strict adherence to the rules of conduct and the mandate of the Human Rights Council, he has conducted quality, evidence-based, thoughtful research. He has taken into consideration the views he received through consultations, but acted independently from States, the private sector, and other stakeholders, which is the pillar of the United Nations special procedures mechanism. ​There is no doubting his integrity, professionalism, or commitment to human rights.
 
The signatories would like to express our recognition for the work that the Special Rapporteur has undertaken in the last six years and in particular, we underline the importance of his work on privatisation. Mr. Heller makes recommendations for States, private actors and international financial institutions, which we believe merit due attention and action.  
 
We urge States, as duty-bearers, to continue placing their obligation to fulfill the human rights of all people above the financial interests of any private actor.

Sincerely,

Convening partners: Corporate Accountability Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Public Services International The Transnational Institute
 
https://www.tni.org/en/article/over-100-civil-society-organizations-stand-behind-un-special-rapporteur-leo-heller-denounce

UN rapporteur calls on Spain to release jailed Catalan activist Jordi Cuixart

October 17, 2020

Jordi Cuixart is the head of Omnium Cultural, a Catalonian cultural association

Jordi Cuixart is the head of Omnium Cultural, a Catalonian cultural association

THE UN’s special rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, has called for jailed Catalonian independence activist Jordi Cuixart to be freed.

Yesterday marked the third anniversary of the civic leader’s imprisonment for his role in the 2017 independence referendum. Writing in The National, Cuixart reveals the grim reality of life in a Spanish prison, saying that he’s forced to spend 23 hours a day in a room measuring just eight square metres. However, the father of two young children makes clear that he would make the same choices as before.”

He was handed a nine-year sentence after being convicted of sedition. Unlike the other eight imprisoned, Cuixart is not a politician, he is the head of Omnium Cultural, a Catalonian cultural association.

Taking to Twitter, Lawlor said it was time for Cuixart to be freed. “In 2019, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found his detention to violate both the [Universal Declaration of Human Rights] and [the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] and deemed it arbitrary. He should be released.”

https://www.thenational.scot/news/18801415.jordi-cuixart-un-rapporteur-calls-spain-release-jailed-catalan-activist/

De Lima fears weak UN HRC resolution provides for impunity

October 11, 2020

The resolution recently adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) failed to take concrete action against the summary killings in the country, detained Senator Leila de Lima said Saturday 10 October 2020. On Wednesday, the UNHRC adopted a resolution asking UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet to support the Philippines in fulfilling its international human rights obligations—not really an independent probe.

De Lima lamented that the resolution that could have strengthened human rights and accountability mechanisms in the country was instead “tantamount to absolving a murderous regime of its crimes against humanity.”…..

“Do we really expect this regime to stop the carnage and submit to technical cooperation and capacity building programs to promote the rights that it has been blatantly violating? No, we cannot tame a rabid mass murderer that is Duterte,” she said.

The senator reiterated the call for an independent international probe. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/07/11/un-council-agrees-action-on-philippines-in-spite-of-vehement-objection/]

We need to be more vigilant and well-informed in order not to be swayed by the deceptions and lies of government operators who curry favor with Duterte for selfish political interests. We vigorously assert our call for an independent international probe into the human rights crisis that continues to wreak havoc in our country,” she said.

Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Thursday said the Philippines would cooperate with the UNHRC resolution

https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/news/nation/759319/de-lima-unhrc-resolution-absolves-gov-t-of-crimes-against-humanity/story/

https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session41/Pages/ResDecStat.aspx

UN expresses deep concern over Egypt using special terror courts to silence human rights defenders

October 9, 2020

Cairo accused of ‘gravely endangering’ activists and infringing on their fundamental rights by imprisoning them during pandemic

Egypt has jailed more than 60,000 dissidents (AFP/File photo) By MEE staff

The Middle East Eye of 8 October 2020 reported that the UN Human Rights Council said in a statement on Friday that Cairo was treating free speech as terrorism.

“Terrorism charges and exceptional courts are being used to target legitimate human rights activities, and have a profound chilling effect on civil society as a whole,” according to 10 international specialists, including the UN rapporteurs on counter-terrorism and extrajudicial killings.

The use of terrorism courts to target and harass civil society is inconsistent with the rule of law.

The statement came days after Egypt executed 15 political prisoners who had been in detention since 2014.

The UN experts slammed the terrorism courts, saying that they undermine defendants’ basic legal rights, including the presumption of innocence. The special courts were created in 2013 after a Sisi-led coup overthrew the elected government of then-president Mohamed Morsi.

Defendants do not enjoy the right to confer safely and confidentially with their lawyer,” said the experts. 

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/09/25/rafto-prize-for-2020-goes-to-the-egyptian-commission-for-rights-and-freedoms-ecrf/

“In addition, when the accused are put on trial from behind glass or inside metal cages, sometimes cut off from proceedings at the discretion of the presiding judge, they cannot effectively use their right to be present at their own trial.”

Egypt has embarked on a brutal crackdown on dissent since 2013, jailing more than 60,000 activists and imposing strict censorship measures on public discourse.

Sisi has consistently denied that there are political prisoners in Egypt, framing the crackdown as part of the fight against terrorism. After coming to power, he outlawed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and blacklisted it as a terror group.

On Thursday, the UN advocates cited the case of Bahey El-Din Hassan, director and co-founder of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, who was sentenced to 15 years in absentia in August over his criticism of the government. See: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/08/27/egypt-15-year-term-for-human-rights-defender-bahey-el-din-hassan/

“It is an act of reprisal, seemingly punishing [him] for his cooperation with the United Nations,” the statement said. 

“The exercise of free speech and human rights work are being treated as terrorism, and it appears that the Terrorism Circuit Court is being used to retaliate against human rights activity protected by international law.”

—–

https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/egypt-terrorism-courts-jail-activists-un-experts

Mary Lawlor condemns ‘criminalization’ of those saving lives in the Mediterranean

October 9, 2020

Carola Rackete, the former captain of the rescue vessel Sea-Watch 3, and the ‘Iuventa 10’ crew members are human rights defenders and not criminals,” said Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders on 8 October 2020.

“I regret that the criminal proceedings against them are still open and they continue to face stigmatization in connection with their human rights work protecting the human rights of migrants and asylum seekers at risk in the Mediterranean Sea.

In September 2016, a criminal investigation was opened against some crew members of the Iuventa rescue ship. Charges against them included aiding and abetting in the commission of a crime of illegal immigration, an offence that carries a jail term of between five and 20 years, and a fine of 15,000 euros. On 18 June 2019, a motion for the dismissal of the preliminary criminal investigation against the ‘Iuventa 10’ crew members was filed, but a formal decision is still pending. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/07/31/absurd-prosecution-of-the-crew-of-the-ship-iuventa-continues-in-italy/

Ms. Rackete was arrested by Italian authorities on 29 June 2019 for docking her rescue ship, with 53 migrants on board, without permission. At the beginning of this year, acting upon appeal, the Italian Supreme Court ruled that she should not have been arrested. Despite this, Ms. Rackete continues to face charges, including aiding and abetting in the commission of a crime of illegal immigration. She risks up to 20 years of imprisonment , and various fines of up to 50,000 euros.

Since 2014, at least 16,000 migrants have lost their lives in the Mediterranean, according to the IOM’s ‘Missing Migrants’ project. “The Italian Government must publicly recognise the important role of human rights defenders in protecting the right to life of migrants and asylum seekers at risk in the Mediterranean and must end the criminalization of those who defend their human rights,” Lawlor said.

The expert’s call has been endorsed by: Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity, Mr. Obiora Okafor, Felipe González Morales, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants; Dubravka Šimonovic, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences; Elizabeth Broderick, Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls.

Ms Mary Lawlor, (Ireland) is the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. See: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/05/07/mary-lawlor-takes-up-post-as-un-special-rapporteur-for-human-rights-defenders/

The same day Human Rights Watch came out with an initial assessment by civil society of the legislative and non-legislative proposals contained in European Commission’s Pact on Migration and Asylum.: The commitment to a more human approach to protection and the emphasis on the fact that migration is needed and positive for Europe with which the European Commission launched the Pact on Migration and Asylum is welcome. However, this rhetoric is reflected only sparsely in the related proposals. Instead of breaking with the fallacies of the EU’s previous approach and offering a fresh start, the Pact risks exacerbating the focus on externalisation, deterrence, containment and return.


https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/10/08/pact-migration-and-asylum

UN SG Antonio Guterres rebukes Polisario for human rights violations

October 5, 2020

In a strong worded report, Guterres recalled that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has pointed out in multiple reports this year to the surge of “harassment, arrests and ill-treatment of bloggers, doctors and nurses” by the Polisario militias.

The Polisario used the Covid-19 pandemic to crackdown on dissent in a new wave of repression to silence critical bloggers, journalists, activists and anyone who challenges the authoritarian status quo in the camps.

Repression did not spare the medical staff and human rights activists in the Camps who exposed the cover up by the Polisario of the real scale of Covid-19 outbreak.

Last May, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said in a response to a complaint submitted by polisario opponent El Fadel Breica against the Algerian State, following his abduction by the polisario, that Algeria is responsible for the violations committed in its territory.

Similarly, the Human Rights Committee reaffirmed in its findings, in March 2020, the full responsibility of Algeria in the abduction and enforced disappearance of the Polisario dissident, Khalil Ahmed, whose case was raised in the Secretary-General’s report of 2019.

International rights watchdogs, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have on multiple reports drew attention to the plight of the population held against their will in Tindouf where the Algerian state has relegated the destiny of thousands of Sahraouis to the mercy of a separatist militia that trades in their suffering.

From humanitarian aid embezzlement by the Polisario officials to slavery and forced disappearances in the Tindouf camps, Algeria has abdicated its responsibilities and forsaken a civilian population to the mercy of a separatist militia.

The UN Security Council has repeatedly called on Algeria to uphold its responsibility and allow a census of the population held in the camps to enable them to enjoy full refugee rights including having the choice to return to their homeland Morocco.

https://northafricapost.com/44289-antonio-guterres-rebukes-polisario-for-human-rights-violations.html

Criminalisation of human rights defenders in Europe denounced in UN

September 30, 2020

 

In a statement delivered on 24 September 2020 in Geneva, ISHR was joined by human rights groups and other community organisations defending the rights of migrants to draw attention to the concerning trends of criminalisation of solidarity in Europe. Responding to the opening remarks of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, and building on years of work by other experts in the UN system, the groups highlighted the links between protecting the rights of migrants, and the creation of a safe environment for those who seek to protect them. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/07/31/absurd-prosecution-of-the-crew-of-the-ship-iuventa-continues-in-italy/

ISHR human rights advocate Sarah M Brooks, pointing to research conducted by Migration Policy Group (MPG), CEPS, PICUM and other partners within the frame of the ReSOMA project, noted that in the last five years – from 2014 to 2019 – at least 60 cases of criminalisation, concerning more than 170 individuals, had been documented across the European Union.

Carmine Conte, legal policy analyst at MPG, underlines that since the emergence of the ‘refugee crisis’, there has been an escalation of judicial prosecutions and investigations against volunteers, human rights defenders, crew members of boats involved in search and rescue operations, but also ordinary citizens, journalists, mayors and religious leaders helping migrants.

The European Fundamental Rights Agency has also spoken out on this concern. In the area of migrant search and rescue (SAR) NGOs alone, in the two years between 2018 and 2020, experienced 40 cases of criminal charges, disciplining including administrative fines, de-flagging, seizure and confiscation of ships, or their crews were otherwise were prevented from leaving or docking at port. The Council of Europe Commissioner of Human Rights has recently condemned Malta and Italy using COVID-19 as yet another excuse for non-rescue:

The rights of migrants cannot be fulfilled, Brooks said, without protection of fundamental freedoms for those engaged in the defence of migrants’ rights. ‘Whether it is through humanitarian assistance and search-and-rescue, legal aid or policy advocacy, exercising the right to protest and civil disobedience – including migrants’ own strikes,’ she said, ‘these are protected acts. ‘European governments must do more to protect the right to defend rights.

Lina Vosyliute, Research Fellow at CEPS, one of the leading think-tanks on the EU affairs, has described the increasing suspicion, harrasment, disciplining and criminalisation of those who help migrants  as ‘policing humanitarianism’. At the heart of the problem are so-called  ‘crimes of facilitation of irregular migration’, which Vosyliute deems ‘the most misused criminal provision against human rights defenders in Europe’. The EU Facilitation Directive falls short of the UN Migrant Smuggling protocol, since it does not require any evidence nor suspicion of ‘financial or other material gain’. Under this provision in the EU and Schengen states introduced laws that prosecute ‘any intentional assistance’ to migrants, leaving out the question of motive and, specifically, ‘material or financial benefit’ that are central to smuggling crimes.

Vosyliute concludes, ‘The vague definition of crime is counterproductive. While some prosecutors are investigating on human traffickers or migrant smugglers, who take thousands of euros from asylum seekers and migrants to board on unseaworthy dinghies, others keep policing humanitarians and human rights defenders.’  The prosecutions of Sea Watch 3 captain Carola Rackete in Italy, Team Humanity and Proem Aid volunteers in Greece, or farmer Cedric Herrou in France [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/07/18/interview-with-cedric-herrou-migrants-rights-defender-who-is-the-central-person-in-the-film-libre/], and many others, who helped migrants out of compassion, are used by governments to rather show a strong stance against irregular migration, than to fight the crime.

But far more simple acts of solidarity are also being met with administrative, civil and even criminal penalty. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/03/04/new-amnesty-report-on-human-rights-defenders-helping-migrants/]

Says Marta Gionco of PICUM, a platform representing more than 160 organisations across Europe and globally that defend undocumented migrants’ human rights: ‘In recent years,  people across Europe have been put on trial for simple acts of human kindness: giving someone a ride in their car in a mountainous area so that they won’t get hypothermia; saving someone’s life who is drowning at sea; giving someone food or shelter; providing shelter and food; or lending a cell phone’.

In response to this trend, last year more than 110 organisations signed a statement asking the European Union to revise the EU Facilitation Directive and support and defend the rights of migrant rights’ defenders across the EU.

Although the majority of documented cases end in acquittal, the financial, social and psychological impact of months, and often years, of criminal proceedings has had a clear chilling effect on their work.

When courts have determined that an individual is not guilty of a crime, state prosecutors – for example, in France – have nonetheless appealed. In the case of defender Pierre Manoni, despite a court decision finding that solidarity is constitutionally protected, prosecutors have filed four separate appeals to question his acquittal on the grounds that he acted out of compassion.  Short-term detentions are also common, with police often failing to substantiate charges. These lengthy and expensive judicial proceedings put peoples’ lives on hold risk.

When these human rights defenders are migrants themselves, the consequences of criminal proceedings are often harsher, frequently resulting in loss of residence permits and threats of deportation. For instance, in 2018 asylum seekers in Moria camp protested in Sappho square after the death of an Afghan asylum seeker.  They were violently attacked by extreme right groups. However, it was not violent attackers, but the asylum seekers themselves who were prosecuted, for the ‘occupation’ of public space.

In another case, Ahmed H – a long-term resident in Cyprus – organised a protest at Hungarian border zone. He has been accused of terrorism-related crimes, for holding a megaphone, and deprived family life for four years. Time and again, asylum seekers and migrants helping each other during the journey are prosecuted as criminals. And in some cases, when they arrive in their destination country, this ‘criminal record’ alone can preclude the access to the right of asylum.

Brooks notes that the European Union, and many EU member states, have been powerful voices at the Human Rights Council and abroad in defending and supporting human rights defenders. However, when it comes to policies at home – often driven by border management mindsets and national security rationales – those same governments are engaged in judicial harassment of defenders.

As Front Line Defenders has noted, criminalisation is only one way in which migrant rights defenders are being targeted, including within Europe. They are also subjected to physical and verbal attacks, short term detention, smear campaigns and arson attacks on their property. Their experiences are largely under-reported because, the organisation notes, human rights defenders and aid workers prioritise cooperation with the authorities; even if it’s extremely fragile, it can be beneficial to the protection of migrants.

‘Judicial harassment, trumped-up charges, threats and intimidation and chilling effects are not unique to countries outside of Europe’s borders. It’s time that European governments took seriously their obligations at home’, Brooks asserts.

The right to help is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that, as the UN has emphasised, ’no one is left behind’.

Says CEPS’ Vosyliute: ‘Our newest study on civic space shows that the work of human rights defenders is ever more vital. Volunteers are sewing masks and distributing soap and hand sanitizer to stop the spread of the virus among various marginalized communities, like those in Moria refugee camp. At the same time, human rights defenders are even more at risk’.

Yet, COVID-19 restrictions are also disproportionately targeting refugees and other migrants and those who assist them. ‘For instance, in France, volunteers helping those stuck in Calais Jungle, received fines for violating social distancing rules. In Greece, some NGOs could not provide psychosocial counseling in camps due prolonged quarantine imposed on refugee camps, but not on the rest of the island. Italian and Maltese governments have  prevented SAR NGOs to disembark rescued migrants for weeks’.

Civil society actors have raised concerned over worsening legal environment. For instance, the Greek authorities have advanced additional registration requirements targeting NGOs working in the area of migration, asylum and integration.

According to the NGO law experts of the Council of Europe, those regulations are incompatible with the freedom of association – ‘onerous, complex, time-consuming and costly for NGOs’ – especially given the context and dire needs among asylum seekers and migrants.

European governments and the EU should be expected to uphold their human rights obligations to create and enabling environment for human rights defenders, as outlined in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. A recent legal analysis of the so-called ‘Stop Soros’ legal package in Hungary, conducted by law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP on behalf of ISHR and the Slovenia-based Legal-Informational Centre for NGOs (PiC), found that such an obligation exists for European governments in view of international and EU law.

At the same time, clear expectations have been set out by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), whose human rights watchdog, ODIHR, has called out dangers for human rights defenders in similar situations. As early as 2014, their guidelines on protection of human rights defenders alerted European states that ‘[any] legal provisions that directly or indirectly lead to the criminalisation of such [human rights] activities should be immediately amended or repealed’. More recently, the Council of Europe’s NGO Expert Council came up with Guidelines that seek to prevent the misuse of criminal law provisions against NGOs that assist migrants and uphold their rights.

‘The framework is there’, the groups conclude, ‘but Europe needs to choose to do more’.

Watch the statement here: https://youtu.be/ZHat_xPd2z8

https://www.ishr.ch/news/hrc45-criminalisation-defenders-europe-must-end