The 45th Session of the UN Human Rights Council will sit from 14 September - 6 October, 2020 and there are a number of critical human rights resolutions up for debate and for the 47 Council members to address. Stay up to date by following @civicusalliance and #HRC45
CIVICUS will be engaging on a range of issues in line with our mandate to protect and monitor the rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of association. In terms of country-specific situations, CIVICUS will be presenting evidence and recommendations on rights abuses in the Philippines, Burundi, Cambodia, Saudi Arabia and China. With relation to thematic issues, CIVICUS will be engaging on deliberations related to the prevention of human rights abuses, reprisals, and arbitrary detention. Full summaries below.
Civil society Participation in times of COVID19
Like last session, civil society participation has been significantly impacted by COVID-19. Travel restrictions and distancing guidelines means that in-person participation is conspicuously limited, particularly for organisations from the Global South. Opportunities for remote participation via video messaging are providing a welcome alternative - because of this change, people and groups affected by issues being discussed will, to some extent, be able to address the Council without being limited by their ability to travel to Geneva, as is usually the case. But being able to meet with and hear directly from human rights defenders in the room and in-person, whether through side events or statements, has long been a strength of the Council. The human rights defenders who attend Council sessions strengthen resolutions by providing first-hand information and serve to hold states to account, and their participation reinforces valuable partnerships. Like last session, opportunities to do so in-person will be very much missed.
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The Philippines (Civic space rating:Obstructed)
- Extrajudicial killings of human rights defenders continue
- Abuse of COVID19 emergency measures to target government critics
- Serious concerns remain over domestic accountability mechanisms, and impunity still reigns for attacks on activists and journalists.
CIVICUS welcomed the resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council in June 2019 (41st Session) which mandated welcome monitoring of the human rights situation in the Philippines. The subsequent report by the Office of The Human Commissioner on Human Rights, presented in July 2020 (44th Session) shows clearly that human rights violations remain rampant, and that accountability for such violations remains distant. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing human rights conditions still further; in June, the Philippines was added to CIVICUS’s Watchlist, reflecting its sharp decline in civic freedoms.
CIVICUS joins civil society partners in the Philippines and internationally in calling for a Council-mandated independent investigative mechanism to address the ongoing systemic human rights violations perpetrated with impunity. This is clearly warranted by the situation set out in the OHCHR report, the lack of political will to engage and the demonstrable lack of adequate domestic investigative mechanisms.
Burundi (Civic space rating:Closed)
- Elections in May were marred by violence and rights violations
- The Youth league, the Imbonerakure, continue to carry out brutal attacks on critics of the government
- Activists and journalists remain imprisoned, while hundreds of thousands remain in exile.
An atmosphere of fear and violence prevails in Burundi, where state and powerful non-state actors are routinely allowed to imprison, seriously injure and kill people with impunity for attempting to exercise their rights to associate, peacefully assemble and express themselves. Any criticism of the ruling authorities is severely punished and there is virtually no media freedom. The internet is heavily censored, many websites are blocked and online criticism of power holders is subject to severe penalties.
CIVICUS calls for the renewal of the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Burundi. In the context of recent political developments, such a renewal, building off the investments to date in and from the CoI, would provide the best opportunity to prompt meaningful human rights progress in the country.
Cambodia (Civic space rating:Repressed)
- COVID-19 government measures have provided an opportunity to crack down on civil society groups.
- At least 22 people have been arrested for sharing allegedly ‘false news’ related to the pandemic.
- Opposition Leader, Kem Sokha, on trial since January on unsubstantiated charges of treason. Sokha has been barred from politics and could face up to 30 years in prison if convicted
The Cambodian government continues to crack down on civil society groups, independent media, and the political opposition and human rights defenders to silence critical voices in the country. In the past three years it has adopted a series of repressive laws that unduly restrict human rights. In November 2019, the Cambodian authorities had arbitrarily detained nearly 90 people solely on the basis of the peaceful expression of their opinions or political views as well as their political affiliations. The latest activists to be convicted of ‘incitement’, three employees of NGO Mother Nature, were sent to pre-trial detention on 6 September.
CIVICUS encourages States to deliver statements jointly or in a national capacity under the Item 10 interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Cambodia and the Item 2 general debate focusing on attacks against human rights defenders, journalists and other members of independent civil society, recommending a stronger approach to address the worsening situation. CIVICUS further encourages States to explore supporting a resolution which mandates yearly reporting from the High Commissioner, with updates in between Sessions.
Saudi Arabia (Civic space rating: Closed)
- It has been over two years since Saudi Arabia intensified its crackdown on women human rights defenders
- Reports of detined activists and critics of the government being subjected to torture in prison
- Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues to make direct orders for the arrest of activists
It has been over two years since women human rights defenders have been in prison, simply for demanding that women be treated equally to men. Punishment in the country is severe, with torture being formed used for many offences, and the country remains one of the world’s top executioners. When it comes to freedom of assembly, protesting is considered a criminal act and those who defy the ban can face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment.
States that flagrantly abuse human rights in their own territories undermine and delegitimise the work of the Council must be held up to scrutiny. Along with civil society partners, CIVICUS recommends that States ensure sustained attention by the Council at its 45th session by jointly reiterating calls on the Saudi government to implement the above-mentioned benchmarks, and by supporting the establishment of a monitoring and reporting mechanism over the situation.
China (Civic space rating:Closed)
- Mass detention, torture and mistreatment of millions of Uighurs and Turkic Muslims in Xianjang
- Chinese Communist Party continues to censor reporting about COVID-19
- Excessive use of force and arbitrary arrests around Hong Kong protests
On 26 June 2020, an unprecedented 50 United Nations experts called for “decisive measures to protect fundamental freedoms in China.” They highlighted China’s mass human rights violations in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang, suppression of information in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and attacks on rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and critics of the government across the country. They also raised concerns about the decision to draft a national security law for Hong Kong – without any meaningful consultation with the people of Hong Kong – which imposes severe restrictions on civil and political rights in the autonomous region. It was passed on 30 June 2020.
CIVICUS endorses the call by UN experts for a Special Session of the Human Rights Council to evaluate the range of violations by China’s government, and to establish an impartial and independent UN mechanism to closely monitor, analyze, and report annually on that topic. We urge the UN Secretary-General to appoint a Special Envoy, consistent with his Call to Action on Human Rights, and we call on the High Commissioner for Human Rights to fulfil her independent mandate to monitor and publicly report on China’s sweeping rights violations. We support the call that UN member states and UN agencies use all interactions with Chinese authorities to insist that the government comply with its international human rights obligations.
Prevention of human rights abuses
The ability to take Council action with regards to prevention of deteriorating human rights situations relies on an accurate flow of information from the ground, whether from human rights defenders or independent media. Civil society – including human rights defenders, journalists, and human rights monitors – are often the first affected by a worsening human rights situation. An increasingly inability to express dissent, gather in protest, or operate as independent civil society is often a clear signpost that further human right violations are to come, to be met by willfully restricted avenues of domestic resistance. As an immediate example, in the case in Tanzania, time is fast running out for the HRC to operationalize its protection mandate in order to prevent further deterioration.
In the report presented in March 2020 (the Council’s 43rd Session), the Rapporteurs highlighted this importance of civic space. As such, a resolution on the Council’s prevention mandate should highlight civic space restrictions as indicators for a worsening human rights situation. This would enable the Human Rights Council to take action to prevent severe human rights violations, including by working with the state in question constructively to roll back restrictions to civic space, before the situation becomes beyond repair. Specifically, that civil society indices, such as the CIVICUS Monitor, could be used to develop a more specific set of indicators and benchmarks relating to civic space which would then trigger intervention.
Further intervention could be operationalized through a Working Group on Prevention or the country level mechanism in New York.
CIVICUS encourages states to recommend that the use of such civic space indices is articulated in the resolution on the Council’s role in prevention. CIVICUS also recommends that states use civic space indicators in a systematic manner at the Human Rights Council in order to further operationalize its prevention mandate. This includes raising civic space concerns through individual and joint State statements at the Council, thematic debates, resolutions, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, and special sessions and urgent debates.
UN initiatives are only possible with strong engagement from civil society on the ground, who not only provide information and analysis, but are on the front line of ensuring that human rights standards are respected by their own governments, and that violations are held to account. Reprisals have a significant impact on citizen participation at every level of the international human rights infrastructure and are another example of civic space being squeezed.
There is no political cost to states engaging in reprisals, and we recommend that the new resolution incorporates an accountability mechanism. There are a number of emerging trends in types of reprisals leveled against individuals and civil society – false narratives driven on social media and the engagement of non-state actors being just two such escalating tends.
Often, the only deterrent to states engaging in this practice is to publicly name them. CIVICUS recommends that States use the Interactive Dialogue with the Assistant Secretary General to raise specific cases of reprisals – cases of reprisals in Egypt, Bahrain, Viet Nam and China are particularly prevalent. CIVICUS also recommends that reprisals taking place within the UN itself are highlighted.
Popular action is on the rise across the globe as people take to the streets to demand justice, equity and democratic rights. But this has been mirrored by an unprecedented use of excessive force and arbitrary detention to silence the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of assembly. In 2019, the CIVICUS Monitor found that one of the most commonly-logged violations of civic rights was against the right to peaceful assembly. This trend looks set to continue, with States both weaponizing repressive laws in order to create justification for detention and arresting peaceful protesters on vague and ill-defined grounds.
In July, the Human Rights Committee published its General Comment 37 on Article 21 of the ICCPR – the freedom of peaceful assembly. In its guidance relating to arbitrary detention around freedom of assembly, the GC highlights that ‘the procedural guarantees of the Covenant apply to issues such as detention in connection with peaceful assemblies’. It also states that ‘preventative detention of targeted individuals, to keep them from participating in assemblies, may constitute arbitrary deprivation of liberty, which is incompatible with the right of peaceful assembly’, and that practices of indiscriminate mass arrest prior to, during or following an assembly, are arbitrary and thus unlawful’.
The CIVICUS Monitor as well as other monitoring trackers show that states are falling well short of this guidance. In India, thousands have been held in preventative detention in the context of CAA protests. In Iraq, approximately 3,000 demonstrators were detained during mass protests between October 2019 and April 2020. In Zimbabwe, a number of activists were arrested or abducted to prevent the protests from taking place. Belarus’ practice of mass detentions in the context of protest has prompted condemnation from the UN. Reports from the United States of unidentified police officers detaining protestors may also give rise to arbitrary detention. In Hong Kong, new security law allows for retroactive detention of protestors, well after the protests had ended.
CIVICUS recommends that States raise arbitrary detention in the context of protests in statements, jointly or in your national capacity, during the interactive dialogue with the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and call on the Working Group to look specifically at this issue. CIVICUS further encourages States to name country situations in which individuals have been arbitrarily detained in the context of protests – for example the United States, Belarus, Zimbabwe.
Current council members:
Afghanistan, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chile, Czech Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Denmark, Eritrea, Fiji, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Libya, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Mexico, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, Nigeria, Poland, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Senegal, Slovakia, Somalia, Sudan, Spain, Togo, Ukraine, Uruguay, Venezuela
Civic space ratings from the CIVICUS Monitor