human rights defenders


  • This Mandela Day lets redouble efforts to free imprisoned human rights defenders

    Protest Venezuela

    By Benjamin Tonga and Mandeep Tiwana

    On 18 July, people in South Africa and around the world will mark Nelson Mandela Day to commemorate the courage and sacrifice of one of the greatest political leaders and human rights defenders of our times. Nelson Mandela was unjustly imprisoned for over a quarter of a century until South Africa’s apartheid regime finally acknowledged the travesty of his incarceration and ordered his release. It took concerted global pressure and organising by concerned citizens and civil society groups to achieve this feat.


  • Tibetan activist jailed for advocating cultural rights

    A Chinese court has sentenced a Tibetan activist to five years’ imprisonment under a national security law, for peacefully advocating cultural rights in Tibet.


  • Timor-Leste: Civil society has played a critical role in strengthening democracy, but civic space shortfalls remain

    Statement at the 50th Session of the UN Human Rights Council 

    Adoption of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report of Timor-Leste

    Delivered by Marta da Silva, La'o Hamutuk

    Thank you, Mr President.

    La'o Hamutuk, JSMP, HAK, Forum Asia and CIVICUS welcome the government of Timor-Leste’s engagement with the UPR process.

    Civil society played a critical role in achieving Timor-Leste’s sovereignty and strengthening democracy, and human rights defenders, journalists and other civil society members are largely able to work without fear of reprisals.

    However, there is still more to be done to strengthen the right to freedom of expression. Some journalists have faced threats, and some practise self-censorship to deal with such intimidation. We welcome that Timor-Leste accepted a recommendation to revise the Media Law, which contains provisions that can undermine freedom of expression and media freedom. During the review, states also made recommendations in relation to attempts by the government to introduce draft laws that could further stifle freedom of expression, including the proposed Criminal Defamation Law and Cyber Crime Law. We are further alarmed by restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly and the arbitrary arrests of protesters.

    We call on Timor-Leste to address these concerns and ensure a safe, secure and enabling environment for human rights defenders and journalists to carry out their work. Specifically, the government should implement recommendations relating to civic space and:

    • Revise the Media Law to ensure it is in line with international standards and refrain from introducing new laws or provisions limiting either offline or online expression.
    • Ensure that journalists and civil society organisations can work freely and without fear of retribution for expressing critical opinions or covering topics that the government may deem sensitive.
    • Ensure that human rights defenders are able to carry out their legitimate activities without fear or undue hindrance, obstruction or harassment and adopt a specific law to ensure the protection of human rights defenders.
    • Amend the Law on Freedom of Assembly and Demonstration to guarantee fully the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly in line with international law and standards.
    • Improve avenues for transparency and public participation in policy-development to ensure that all citizens’ needs and wishes are heard.

    We thank you.

    Civic space in Timor Leste is rated as "Obstructed" by the CIVICUS Monitor 


  • UAE: Freedom of expression must be upheld at all times

    Freedom of expression must be upheld at all times, not only tolerated during Hay Festival Abu Dhabi


    As the Hay Festival Abu Dhabi opens on 25-28 February 2020 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), we the undersigned call on the Emirati authorities to demonstrate their respect for the right to freedom of expression by freeing all human rights defenders imprisoned for expressing themselves peacefully online, including academics, writers, a poet and lawyers. In the context of the Hay Festival, the UAE’s Ministry of Tolerance is promoting a platform for freedom of expression, while keeping behind bars Emirati citizens and residents who shared their own views and opinions. We support the efforts of festival participants to speak up in favour of all those whose voices have been silenced in the UAE. We further support calls for the UAE authorities to comply with international standards for prisoners, including by allowing prisoners of conscience to receive books and reading materials.

    The country’s most prominent human rights defender, Ahmed Mansoor, is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence after being convicted on the spurious charge of “insulting the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols including its leaders” in reprisal for his peaceful human rights activism, including posts on social media.

    Mansoor is being held in solitary confinement in an isolation ward in Al-Sadr prison, Abu Dhabi, in dire conditions with no bed or books. In the nearly three years since his arrest in March 2017, he has only been permitted to leave his small cell for a handful of family visits, and only once has he been allowed outside to the prison sports yard for fresh air. In protest, he went on two separate hunger strikes which have harmed his health - harm which has been exacerbated by the lack of adequate medical care. By holding Mansoor in such appalling conditions, the UAE authorities are violating the absolute prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment under international law. We urge the Emirati authorities to comply with international law and we appeal to the humanity of members of the government to provide Mansoor with acceptable conditions until he is released.

    Mansoor, who has four young sons, is also an engineer and a poet. He serves on the advisory boards of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division. In October 2015, Mansoor gained international recognition for his vital work when he received the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

    Mansoor undertook a month-long hunger strike in March 2019 to protest his punitive prison conditions, arbitrary detention, and unfair conviction. In May, seven United Nations independent experts expressed grave concern about Mansoor. Again, in early September 2019, after being tortured through beatings by prison guards, he began a second hunger strike. Due to the lack of independent human rights NGOs in the country, it is very difficult to obtain news about his current situation, including whether or not he remains on the hunger strike since the last report that he was still not eating solid food in January 2020, leaving him unable to walk.

    In October 2019, over 140 NGOs worldwide appealed to the UAE authorities to free Ahmed Mansoor, who spent his 50th birthday in isolation and on hunger strike.

    UAE Activists

    Other prisoners have been tortured in prison in the UAE. A Polish fitness expert, Artur Ligęska, was held in the same isolation ward as Mansoor, in conditions he described as “medieval”. After his charges were dismissed and he was freed in May 2019, Ligęska wrote a book in which he recounted the prison conditions in Al-Sadr’s isolation wing, where prisoners were held without running water for many months in very unhygienic conditions, and some were subjected to torture, abuse and sexual assault. He was instrumental in getting the news about Mansoor’s hunger strike out to the world from prison in March 2019, at great personal risk.

    Other human rights defenders have faced similar mistreatment in prison, where they are often held in isolation, resorting to hunger strikes to try to bring attention to their unjust imprisonment and ill-treatment in detention.

    Human rights lawyer Dr Mohammed Al-Roken, who has been detained since July 2012 solely for peacefully exercising his rights to freedom of expression and association, including through his work as a lawyer, is serving a 10-year prison sentence for signing - along with 132 other people - an online petition calling for political reform. He was convicted and sentenced following a grossly unfair mass trial of 94 people (known as the “UAE 94” trial) including human rights lawyers, judges and student activists. Among them, was another human rights lawyer, Dr Mohammed Al-Mansoori who was also arrested in July 2012 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Dr Al-Mansoori had not been allowed to contact his family for over a year, and was only permitted to do so recently. Both men are being held in Al-Razeen prison, a maximum-security prison in the desert of Abu Dhabi, which is used to hold activists, government critics, and human rights defenders. They face arbitrary and unlawful disciplinary measures, such as solitary confinement, deprivation of family visits, and intrusive body searches.

    Dr Al-Roken was a member of the International Association of Lawyers (UIA) and the International Bar Association, and both Dr Al-Roken and Dr Al-Mansoori served as president of the UAE’s Jurists Association before its arbitrary dissolution by the Emirati authorities in 2011. Dr Al-Roken has authored books on human rights, constitutional law, and counterterrorism. He dedicated his career to providing legal assistance to victims of human rights violations in the UAE, for which he was awarded the Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize in 2017. Over two dozen NGOs called for his release in November 2019.

    Academic and economist Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith, a lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the Paris-Sorbonne University, was sentenced on 29 March 2017 to 10 years in prison for critical comments he made online about human rights violations in the UAE and Egypt.

    In a letter written from prison, Dr. Bin Ghaith stated that “the verdict proves that there is no place for freedom of speech in this country” and announced that he would begin a hunger strike until he was released unconditionally. He has also undertaken subsequent hunger strikes to protest conditions in Al-Razeen prison, including to demand his immediate release following the pardon of British academic Matthew Hedges on 26 November 2018, a week after he was sentenced to life in prison on spying allegations. Hedges was held, mainly incommunicado and in degrading and inhuman conditions for seven months, until he faced an unfair trial on charges of spying for the United Kingdom government.

    In October 2018, the European Parliament adopted a resolution, calling on the UAE to, among other demands, stop all forms of harassment and immediately lift the travel ban against human rights defenders, and urging the authorities to “guarantee in all circumstances that human rights defenders in the UAE are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities, both inside and outside the country, without fear of reprisals”.

    The Hay Festival Abu Dhabi is supported by the UAE’s Ministry of Tolerance, in a country that does not tolerate dissenting voices. Regrettably, the UAE government devotes more effort to concealing its human rights abuses than to addressing them and invests heavily in the funding and sponsorship of institutions, events and initiatives that are aimed at projecting a favourable image to the outside world.

    With the world’s eyes on the Hay Festival Abu Dhabi, we urge the Emirati government to consider using this opportunity to unconditionally release our jailed friends and colleagues, and in the interim, to at least allow prisoners of conscience to receive books and reading materials, to have regular visits with family, to be allowed outside of their isolation cells to visit the canteen or go outside in the sun. In particular, we ask that Ahmed Mansoor be given a bed and a mattress so that he no longer has to sleep on the floor, and that prison officials cease punishing him for public appeals that are made on his behalf. We ask the authorities to improve their prison conditions as a sign of goodwill and respect for people who wish to organise and participate in events in the UAE, such as the Hay Festival Abu Dhabi or the upcoming Expo 2020 Dubai, in the future. By doing so, the UAE would demonstrate that the Hay Festival is an opportunity to back up its promise of tolerance with actions that include the courageous contributors to freedom of expression who live in the country.


    Access Now
    Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain

    Amnesty International

    Arabic Network for Human Rights Information

    Association for Victims of Torture in the UAE 

    Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC)

    Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)

    Campaign to FreeLatifa


    Committee to Protect Liberties and Human Rights in Tunisia

    Detained in Dubai

    Detained International

    Electronic Frontier Foundation

    European Center for Democracy and Human Rights 

    FIDH, in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

    Front Line Defenders

    Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)


    International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE

    International Centre for Justice and Human Rights 

    International Press Institute (IPI)

    International Publishers Association (IPA)

    International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)

    Lawyers' Rights Watch Canada 

    Maharat Foundation

    MENA Rights Group

    No Peace Without Justice 

    Norwegian PEN

    PEN America

    PEN International

    Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)

    Rights Realization Centre

    Tunisian Association for the Defense of Individual Liberties

    Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights

    Tunis Center for Press Freedom

    Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State, Tunisia

    World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

    April Alderdice, CEO MicroEnergy Credits

    Fadi Al-Qadi, author and MENA human rights expert

    Noam Chomsky, Professor

    Ronald Deibert, Director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto

    Brian Dooley, human rights advocate

    Drewery Dyke, human rights advocate

    Jonathan Emmett, author

    Stephen Fry, author and presenter

    Ahmed Galai, Ex-Vice President of the Tunisian Human Rights League (member of the National Dialogue Quartet, co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 2015)

    Melanie Gingell, human rights lawyer

    Chris Haughton, author

    Matthew Hedges, PhD candidate and former prisoner in the UAE

    Bill Law, journalist

    Artur Ligęska, Polish activist and former prisoner in the UAE

    Danielle Maisano, novelist, poet and activist

    Michael Mansfield QC, Barrister

    Albert Pellicer, poet and lecturer

    Simone Theiss, human rights advocate


  • Un appel urgent à la libération des défenseurs des droits de l'homme en l'honneur de la Journée internationale Nelson Mandela

    Twitter Facebook Free HRDs campaign 2

    Chers dirigeants mondiaux,

    À l'occasion de la Journée Nelson Mandela, les organisations de la société civile du monde entier vous demandent de libérer les défenseurs des droits de l'homme et les prisonniers d'opinion emprisonnés.

    Comme Nelson Mandela qui a passé 27 ans en prison pour son opposition à l'apartheid, des milliers de défenseurs des droits de l'homme et de prisonniers d'opinion sont accusés à tort et emprisonnés dans le monde entier. Ils ont été emprisonnés pour avoir recherché la justice sociale, politique, économique et environnementale, pour avoir défendu les personnes exclues et pour avoir promu les valeurs démocratiques. 

    Nombre de ces défenseurs des droits de l'homme et prisonniers d'opinion purgent des peines pour des crimes qu'ils n'ont jamais commis, après avoir été condamnés à l'issue de procès inéquitables. Depuis plusieurs années, nos organisations ont documenté les peines de prison illégales infligées aux défenseurs des droits de l'homme dans plusieurs pays.

    Nous sommes particulièrement préoccupés par le fait que les autorités de nombreux pays continuent de détenir des défenseurs des droits de l'homme et des prisonniers d'opinion pendant la pandémie COVID-19. Nous remercions les gouvernements d'Iran, d'Éthiopie, de Turquie, de Bahreïn et du Cameroun d'avoir libéré des prisonniers dans le cadre de leur réponse à cette crise sanitaire sans précédent. Cependant, peu de défenseurs des droits de l'homme et de prisonniers d'opinion ont été inclus, et il est maintenant plus urgent que jamais de les libérer.  

    Il y a également des centaines de défenseurs des droits de l'homme qui sont toujours en détention préventive et qui n'ont pas été inculpés ou jugés. La surpopulation et les mauvaises conditions sanitaires dans les prisons augmentent le risque d'infection au COVID-19 et devraient être des facteurs importants de réduction de la population carcérale.

    Nous vous demandons également de mettre fin aux arrestations et aux détentions arbitraires de journalistes en prison uniquement pour avoir fait des reportages sur les violations des droits de l'homme pendant la pandémie. Bien que les restrictions relatives au COVID-19 soient levées dans certaines régions du monde, certains pays ont utilisé la pandémie comme prétexte pour restreindre les libertés civiques. Des journalistes et des défenseurs des droits de l'homme ont été agressés physiquement et soumis à des détentions arbitraires et à des persécutions judiciaires pour avoir fait des reportages sur le virus. 

    Nous avons plus que jamais besoin de défenseurs des droits de l'homme. Il est de leur devoir de demander des comptes aux gouvernements, de veiller à ce que les États respectent les lois internationales sur les droits de l'homme pendant la pandémie et de s'attaquer à la dégradation de l'environnement et aux inégalités qui ont accéléré l'impact du COVID-19.

    La Haut Commissaire des Nations Unies aux droits de l'homme, Michelle Bachelet, a récemment déclaré:

    "Dans cette crise, les gouvernements sont confrontés à d'énormes besoins en ressources et doivent prendre des décisions difficiles. Mais je leur demande instamment de ne pas oublier ceux qui sont derrière les barreaux, ou ceux qui sont confinés dans des lieux tels que les établissements fermés de santé mentale, les maisons de soins et les orphelinats, car les conséquences de leur négligence sont potentiellement catastrophiques".

    Malheureusement, certains défenseurs des droits de l'homme emprisonnés sont morts dans des circonstances suspectes dans différents pays pendant la pandémie.

    Alors que nous commémorons la Journée Nelson Mandela le 18 juillet, nous nous souvenons que M. Mandela nous a tous exhortés à assumer le fardeau du leadership dans la lutte contre les injustices sociales. Nous vous demandons de donner à des millions de familles, d'amis et de collègues de défenseurs des droits de l'homme et de prisonniers d'opinion du monde entier une raison de renouveler leur espoir d'un avenir meilleur en ces temps sans précédent.

    Nous vous invitons à :

    • Libérer immédiatement et sans condition tous les défenseurs des droits de l'homme et les prisonniers d'opinion emprisonnés uniquement pour leurs activités pacifiques en faveur des droits de l'homme, et cesser toute persécution judiciaire à leur encontre.
    • Donner la priorité aux détenus qui n'ont pas été inculpés et à ceux qui sont en détention préventive, et les libérer.
    • Cesser de procéder à de nouvelles arrestations et détentions, en particulier pour les journalistes et les militants qui font des reportages sur la pandémie COVID-19, et pour ceux qui sont accusés d'avoir enfreint les règles de confinement.

    Appuyé par :

    1. A Common Future
    2. A.C. Reforma Judicial
    3. Abraham's Children Foundation
    4. ACPDH
    5. ACSIS
    6. Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture
    7. Action D'urgence pour Toute Détresse
    8. Action for Humanity and Social Progress
    9. Action pour la Lutte Contre l'Injustice Sociale
    10. Action pour le Développement
    11. Action To Heal Foundation Sierra Leone
    12. Actions pour la Protection des Femmes
    13. Active  Vision
    14. Admiral development organization
    15. Adolescents Initiatives Support Organization
    16. Afghanistan Democracy and Development Organization
    17. Africa Intercultural Development Support Trust
    18. Africa Rise Foundation
    19. African Center for Solidarity and mutual Aid between the Communities  CASEC - ACSAC
    21. African Holocaust
    22. African Observatory Of Civic Freedoms And Fundamental Rights OCFFR-AFRICA
    24. ALUCHOTO
    25. Amis des Étrangers au Togo
    26. Amnesty International
    27. Asia Pacific Forum on Families International
    28. Association des blogueurs pour une citoyennetà active
    29. Association Femmes et Enfants
    30. Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives Trust
    31. Association for Health, Safety and Environmental Awareness International
    32. Association pour les droits de l'Homme et l'Univers Carcéral
    33. Association pour les victimes du monde
    34. Association pour l'Integration et le Developpement Durable Durable au Burundi, AIDB
    35. ASUTIC Senegal
    36. Avenir Jeune de l'Ouest
    37. AWHES
    38. Bangladesh Institute of Human Rights
    39. Banjul Youth in Community Services
    40. Banlieues Du Monde Mauritanie
    41. Bareedo Platform Somalia
    42. Bella Foundation for Child and Maternal Care
    43. Bousla Organisation
    45. Burundi Child Rights Coalion
    46. CAHURAST-Nepal
      Campaign Against Ignorance and Illiteracy
    48. Capellanes conacce
    49. CAPTE - Uruguay Silvia FLORES MOSQUERA
    50. CareMe E-clinic
    51. CEAMUJER
    52. Center for the Development of Civil Society
    53. Centre d'Initiatives et d'Actions pour le Développement durable au Burundi
    54. Centre for Human Rights and Social Advancement CEFSAN
    55. Centre Oecuméniquepour la Promotion du Monde Rural
    56. Centro para la Acción Noviolenta y Cultura de Paz en CentroamÃrica
    57. CESPHA
    58. ChildHelp Sierra Leone
    59. Circles of Hope Community Support Group for PLHIVAIDS
    60. CIVICUS
    61. Commonwealth Society of Nigeria
    62. Cooperation for Peace and Development
    63. Corporacion Regional Yariguies GEAM
    65. Differentabilities
    67. Domestic workers Union
    68. DreamBoat Theatre for Development Foundation
    69. Droits de l'homme sans frontières 
    70. Edmund Rice International
    71. Edo Civil society organisations
    72. EIP
    73. Fater Bibi Technologies
    74. FCPEEP
    76. FINESTE
    77. Formidable Initiatives for Women and Girls
    78. Foundation for Democracy and Accountable Governance
    79. Fraternity Foundation for Human Rights-Birati
    80. Free political prisoners
    82. Fundación T.E.A. Trabajo - Educación - Ambiente
    84. Global Witness
    85. Give Hope Uganda
    86. Governance and Forest Initiatives
    87. GreenLight Initiative
    88. Hadejia youth movement for social cohesion
    89. Health NGO's Network
    90. Healthy Choices Ic.,
    91. Human Rights Committee
    92. Humanitarian Care for Displaced Persons
    93. IFAN
    94. INSPIRIT Creatives UG NGO
    95. Institute for Public Policy Analysis and Implementation
    96. Integrated Agricultural Association-I,A,A
    97. International Dalit Solidarity Network
    98. International Falcon Movement - Socialist Educational International
    99. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
    100. Iraqi journalists right deafenc association
    101. International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
    102. Justice Acess Point
    103. JusticeMakers Bangladesh
    104. Key Populations Alliance of Zambia
    105. Khpal Kore Organization
    106. Kibera Joy Initiative
    107. Kumakomo Community Radio
    108. Le Réseau Nigérien des Défenseurs des Droits Humains
    109. Leadership initiative network for the Advancement of women and youth
    110. Local  Community Development Association
    111. Lumiere Synergie Developpement
    112. Maecenata Foundation
    114. Manna Development AGency
    115. Marketplace 247
    116. MFFPS
    117. Millennium Sistahs Trinidad and Tobago Inc
    118. Missing Link Uganda
    119. Mouvement des Femmes et Filles pour la Paix et la Sécurité au Burundi
    120. Mouvement Populaire pour la Santé au Gay
    121. Movement for Social Justice MSJ-4
    122. National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders Uganda
    123. Network of Civil Society Organisations for Election Observation and Monitoring - ROSE
    124. Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago  for the Advancement of Women
    125. New Owerri Youth Organisation
    126. NGO Collective for Food Security and Rural Development - COSADER
    128. NGO Defensoria Ambiental
    129. NGOs Council ASDGC Kenya
    130. Nipe Fagio
    131. Nouveaux Droits de l'homme Congo Brazzaville
    133. ONG BAL'LAME
    134. ONG Programa sociocultural CRP
    135. Palestinian Non Governmental Organizations Network
    137. Partenariat pour la Protection Integree
    138. PAYNCOP
    139. Peace and Life Enhancement Initiative International
    140. PHY ORG
    141. Plan international
    142. Princegnf
    143. Prisma European Network
    144. Psychologues du Monde Afrique
    145. Reacción Climática 
    146. Real Agenda For Youth Transformation Trust
    147. REDHNNA-Red por los Derechos Humanos de los niños, niñas y adolescentes
    148. REPONGAC
    149. Research and Advocacy Unit
    150. Root Change
    151. Ruheso Tanzania
    153. Safety and Risk Mitigation Organization
    154. Save Our Continent, Save Nigeria.
    155. Save the Climat
    156. Secours de la Femme Rurale au Developpement, Safrd
    157. SHAKHI 'Friends of Women'
    158. Shanduko Yeupenyu Child Care
    159. She's  Writes
    160. Sierra Leone School Green Clubs
    161. Social Justice Forum
    162. Social Mission Catalysts LLC
    163. Solidarity health Foundation
    164. Solidarity Youth Voluntary Organisation
    165. SOS Jeunesse et Enfance en Détresse - SOS JED
    166. South Sudan Civil Society Forum
    167. Sustainable Develipment and Peace Building Initiatives
    168. Tanzania Development Trust
    169. Tanzania Peace Legal Aid and Justice Center  PLAJC
    170. Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai
    171. the  Wuhan election campaign
    172. The Angelic Ladies Society
    173. Transitional Justice Working Group
    174. Tsoro-o-tso San Dev Trust
    175. Ugonma Foundation
    176. Ukana West 2 Community Based Health Initiative
    177. Unión Nacional de Instituciones para el Trabajo de Acción Social- UNITAS
    178. Unique Foundation The Gambia
    179. Vijana Corps
    180. Wacare Organization
    181. Welfare Association for Development Alternative -WADA
    182. Women Against Violence and Expediency Handling Initiative
    183. Women Friendly
    184. Women Working for Social Progress
    185. World Federalist Movement Canada
    186. World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
    187. WORLDLITE
    188. Young Professional Development Society Nepal
    189. Your Health Your Responsibility
    190. Youth Alliance for Rural Development in Liberia Inc.
    192. Youth Arm Organization
    193. Youth For The Mission
    194. Youth Harvest Foundation Ghana
    196. Zambian Governance Foundation
    197. Zimbabwe We Want  Poetry Campaign



  • UN Member States must hold South Africa accountable for the escalating crackdown on human rights defenders

    Statement at the 51st Session of the UN Human Rights Council 

    Item 6 General Debate

    Delivered by Mqapheli Bonono, Abahlali baseMjondolo

    Mr. President,

    This Council recognises that civil society is a critical component of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process.

    As we look forward to South Africa’s UPR in November, we cannot be silent on the killing of human rights defenders, particularly those working to defend land, housing and environmental rights, as well as corruption activists.

    I address you today with all the pain I carry from South Africa as the Deputy President of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a social movement of shack dwellers fighting for the right to housing, land, and dignity of the poor.

    It is my colleague, Lindokuhle Mnguni, the chairperson of the eKhenana Commune, who should be addressing you. Last month, Lindokuhle was gunned down for fighting for land and equality in South Africa. He was 28 years old. In the last six months, our movement has had to bury four of our members murdered by the police and suspected members of the ruling party.[1]

    Since 2009, 24 members of Abahlali baseMjondolo were killed with only two convictions secured. I was arbitrarily detained for 20 days on fabricated charges. Land and housing defenders are increasingly at risk in South Africa.

    The South Africa UPR is an opportunity for the country to address these violations, including the root causes leading to the killings of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) with impunity.

    We call on States to submit strong recommendations for South Africa to address historically unresolved issues of land, security of tenure and adequate housing; to adopt legislation that ensures the protection and promotion of HRDs and to allow Special Rapporteurs on housing and HRDs to visit the country.

    South Africa is contesting membership to the Human Rights Council. It must fulfill to the highest standards its obligations as enshrined in the Constitution and under International conventions.

    Thank you.

    [1] For more information, see letterendorsed by more than 100 civil society organisations

    Civic space in South Africa is rated as Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor 


  • Upcoming UN review critical moment for Malawi to address civic freedom gaps

    CIVICUS, the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) and the Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP) call on UN member states to urge the Government of Malawi to double its efforts to protect civic freedoms as its human rights record is examined by the UN Human Rights Council on 3 November 2020 as part of the 36th session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). 

    At the county’s second UPR five years ago, UN member states made 53 recommendations that directly related to civic space. Malawi subsequently committed to taking concrete measures to protect freedom of assembly by ensuring that relevant constitutional provisions relating to freedom of assembly are allowed to thrive without undue interference.  It also agreed to fully investigate all cases of harassment and intimidation of journalists and human rights defenders with a view to bringing the perpetrators to justice and to ensure the protection of human rights defenders. 

    In a joint submission to this UPR cycle, our organisations assessed the implementation of these recommendations and compliance with international human rights law and standards over the last five years. Since Malawi’s second UPR, the authorities routinely restricted freedoms of assembly, association and expression by violently dispersing peaceful protests, arresting human rights defenders and targeting independent media outlets.  These restrictions on fundamental freedoms increased substantively after the controversial elections of May 2019.  In the aftermath of the elections, human rights defenders were subjected to smear campaigns, judicial persecution and detention by the authorities.  

    “Human rights defenders are, particularly under threat. Member states should take this opportunity to make recommendations to support them, including by calling on the Government of Malawi to enact a long-overdue specific law for the protection of Human Rights Defenders,” said Gift Trapence, Executive Director, Centre for the Development of People.

    The June 2020 elections and the coming to power of a new government presents an opportunity for Malawi to reset its human rights record and place the respect for the rule of law and fundamental freedoms at the centre of government actions and policies. In our joint UPR submission, we expressed concerns over the use of the NGO Act (2000), the Penal Code and the use of other legislation which limit the operations of CSOs.  The increase in registration fees for CSOs provided for in the Non-Governmental Organizations (Fees) Regulation and the requirement for CSOs to submit a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with relevant government ministries and departments increase the administrative burdens on CSOs and restrict their abilities to respond to the needs of communities in an agile manner. 

    Restrictive provisions in the Penal Code and the Cyber Security Law adopted in 2016 were used to limit freedom of expression and target journalists, bloggers and media houses.  The Penal Code provided for prison sentences to those found guilty of “insulting” the Head of State while the Cyber Crimes law allows for the imprisonment of those who simply post “offensive” content. In addition, there were several instances where journalists were subjected to judicial persecution while others were attacked by state and non-state actors. 

    The Malawian authorities must do more to protect journalists from state and non-state actors and create an enabling environment for journalists and independent media outlets to report on issues affecting citizens without fear of intimidation or harassment.  In August 2020 for example, two journalists from the independent Mibawa Television Station were subjected to threats, harassment and smear campaigns following utterances they made on-air about the Covid-19 pandemic.  Other journalists were threatened under similar circumstances for comments made about the pandemic. 

    The Operationalization of the Access to Information (ATI) law is a move in the right direction and will ensure that journalists and citizens will have access to information from state actors.  The operationalization of the ATI should be followed by an annulment of restrictive provisions in the Penal Code and the Cyber Crimes Law to enhance freedom of expression and media freedoms. 

    “We are concerned that all of the recommendations Malawi accepted during the previous UPR review relating to journalists and human rights defenders have not been implemented. This highlights the need to reiterate to Malawi that its continued disregard of the rights of journalists and human rights defenders remains unacceptable.  It also highlights the need keep a close eye on the human rights situation in Malawi after the outcome of the review has been adopted to ensure compliance with the recommendations,” said Michael Kaiyatsa, Acting Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation.  

    The examination of Malawi will take place during the 36th Session of the UPR. The UPR is a process, in operation since 2008, which examines the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States every four and a half years. The review is an interactive dialogue between the State delegation and members of the Council and addresses a broad range of human rights topics. Following the review, a report and recommendations are prepared, which is discussed and adopted at the following session of the Human Rights Council. 

    Civic space in Malawi is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor


  • Venezuelan government must protect not persecute human rights defenders

    Johannesburg. 29 July 2010: A group of civil society organisations from across the globe have expressed alarm about systematic restrictions on civil society freedoms of expression, association and assembly in Venezuela, including persecution of human rights defenders. On 14 July, President Chavez had called for a criminal investigation of human rights organizations accused of taking funds from the United States government for the purpose of destabilizing the Venezuelan government. The call for an "in depth investigation" into the funding sources of Venezuelan NGOs is seen as the latest in a long series of growing restrictions on human rights, particularly the freedom of expression. 

    Harassment tactics, including public threats and judicial proceedings, are regularly used by the government of Venezuela to silence critics and undermine human rights defenders and journalists. Earlier this year, a member of the opposition political party - Oswaldo Alvarez Paz - was arrested for commenting on Venezuela's involvement in the drug trade on charges of "conspiracy against the government". He is currently facing a possible two to sixteen year sentence. On 11 June, journalist Francisco Perez was given a 3 years and 9 months prison sentence, stripped of his professional certification, and ordered to pay a nearly $ 20,000 fine for publishing an article on corruption in the local Valencia government. Reports of threats, harassment, and abuse on the ground continue as many activists and members of the media are forced to operate in dangerous circumstances.


  • VIETNAM: ‘Failure to address torture of political prisoners should trigger a review of trade deals’

    88ProjectCIVICUS speaks with Kaylee Uland and Jessica Nguyen, co-director and advocacy officer with The 88 Project, about the criminalisation and repression of human rights activism in Vietnam.

    The 88 Project is a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for and shares the stories of Vietnamese political activists who are persecuted because of their peaceful activism for human rights.

    What does The 88 Project do?

    The 88 Project is a research and advocacy organisation that maintains the most comprehensive and up-to-date database on the situation of political prisoners and human rights activists in Vietnam. Our database informs media coverage and policy debates on Vietnam and is used by journalists, diplomats and policymakers. According to our database, as of 24 June 2022, there are at least 208 known political prisoners behind bars in Vietnam, the highest number of any country in Southeast Asia.

    What is the current situation of civic freedoms in Vietnam?

    The 88 Project has tracked very negative trends regarding the Vietnamese government’s crackdown on political dissent. These include an increase in arrests of those in formal and informal media professions over a period of four years from 2018 to 2021. The arrests of media workers as a percentage of total activist arrests went up from less than three per cent in 2018 to 18 per cent in 2020 and 34 per cent in 2021.

    The use of harsh sentences of at least five years in prison to stifle critical voices has also increased: while such sentences were 23 per cent of total sentences of activists in 2018, the rate rose rapidly to 44 per cent in 2019, 48 per cent in 2020 and 72 per cent in 2021.

    The practice of holding activists and political prisoners incommunicado for extended periods of time – of eight months or more – has become increasingly common: it was applied to 12 per cent of all activists arrested in 2018 and to 21 per cent in 2019, surging to 49 per cent in 2020, before slightly decreasing to 42 per cent in 2021.

    The crackdown on dissent has also expanded to include new issues and groups, as seen in the recent arrest and imprisonment of four CSO leaders working on climate change and environmental issues. They were charged with ‘tax evasion’, a tactic used by the government to silence critics who cannot be tried under the national security provisions of the criminal code. This sent tremors of fear through the environmental movement in Vietnam.

    Efforts to censor social media have intensified, as has compliance with government censorship requests by US-based tech companies. With a population of 98 million, Vietnam is one of Facebook’s top 10 markets by user numbers, with 60 to 70 million people on the platform. Facebook provides one of the few spaces where Vietnamese people can communicate relatively freely. This space is, however, rapidly closing as Facebook increasingly complies with censorship requests from the government and allows bad actors to exploit content moderation rules to have accounts locked and posts deleted. Exacerbating the situation, Vietnam is now planning to impose new rules that require social media firms to take down content it deems illegal within 24 hours.

    Further, the deliberately complex law regulating the ability of CSOs to receive and spend domestic or foreign funding gives the government control over organisations and individuals. CSOs find it hard to comply fully with these laws, which makes them vulnerable to government scrutiny. Punishment for tax violations may include heavy fines, closure and criminal charges that lead to the imprisonment of CSO managers.

    What is the situation of political prisoners?

    The authorities commonly use torture and other inhumane treatment against political prisoners, particularly those in pretrial detention. The most common perpetrators of these violations are public security officers at the provincial level, followed by those at the district and city levels, and then those at the national level. Occasionally, activists who are at risk but not imprisoned are assaulted or otherwise harassed by people suspected to have ties to the government, such as plainclothes police.

    The government insists that there is no incommunicado detention in Vietnam, while acknowledging that for national security cases, a ‘very special measure’ applies, under which detainees are not allowed to see their defence counsel until after the investigation has concluded. Activists are often subjected to unobservable interrogation and to conditions that begin to break down their emotional and physical health. Isolation also removes their plight from the public eye, as information about their condition is sporadic and incomplete at best. Thirty-five activists arrested in 2020 and 2021 were held in incommunicado pretrial detention for eight months or longer.

    Eight people who were arrested in 2020 have not yet been brought to trial. Journalist Le Anh Hung, arrested in July 2018, has not only not yet been brought to trial but has also been repeatedly transferred to mental health facilities for forced psychiatric treatment. 

    Political prisoners are often denied legal representation during the investigation period and at trial. The 88 Project has documented the cases of at least 14 political prisoners who were denied legal representation in 2020 and 2021. When political prisoners are denied legal representation, they are often less aware of their rights and lack a critical communication channel to their families and the outside world. Often, families do not know about trial dates well in advance; sometimes, they learn nothing until after activists have been sentenced. An emblematic case of denial of legal representation is that of two activists from the Hmong minority, Lau A Lenh and Sung A Sinh, who were charged with overthrowing the state and attempting to establish a separate state in north-western Vietnam and sentenced to life in prison.

    Prisoners are often denied medical treatment and family members are prevented from providing medication to them. Many with pre-existing conditions or those who experience health problems while imprisoned have claimed that inadequate medical treatment resulted in greater long-term health complications. Some, including Huynh Huu Dat, have died in prison due to lack of proper healthcare. 

    The government claims that prison conditions have improved, but political prisoners and their families continue to report unclean food, overcrowding, lack of access to clean water, poor sanitation and lack of lighting. Virtually all prisoners suffer from harsh prison conditions, and they are often disciplined and retaliated against if they try to petition for improved prison conditions for themselves or others.

    Cutting prisoners off from family and support networks is yet another way to mistreat them without using force. The authorities often limit family visitation rights or detain political prisoners in places far from their homes, making it extremely difficult for families to visit. Under the pandemic, ‘COVID restrictions’ were also used as an excuse to deny family visits. The 88 Project identified at least 21 political prisoners subjected to this treatment in 2020 and 2021.

    We have also documented many cases of physical and psychological pain, which often amount to torture as defined under international law, inflicted to coerce confessions, obtain information, or punish political dissidents for their opinions. A frequent form of psychological abuse consists in sending political prisoners to mental health institutions against their will, even if they have no history of mental illness. Examples of political prisoners subjected to forced mental health treatment include Le Anh Hung, Nguyen Thuy Hanh and Pham Chi Thanh. Another harsh aspect of prison treatment is the use of solitary confinement to isolate political prisoners and punish them for asserting their rights.

    Is there any accountability for cases of torture and ill-treatment?

    Unfortunately, there is very little accountability. Regarding COVID-19-related restrictions, the government argued that the right to health of the community took priority over prisoners’ right to see family members. The authorities also justify forced mental health treatment tactics on ‘humanitarian aid’ grounds. They say they are respecting and protecting political prisoners’ right to health by sending them to mental health institutions for medical treatment. However, to the best of our knowledge, most cases are of forced treatment, used to isolate political prisoners from their support networks and to discredit them.

    The Vietnamese government has been repeatedly warned about its failure to meet its international obligations against torture. The United Nations (UN) Committee Against Torture (CAT) has stressed the importance of proper criminalisation of torture, fundamental legal safeguards, direct applicability of the Convention against Torture by domestic courts and independent investigation concerning allegations of excessive use of force or deaths under custody.

    During Vietnam’s 2019 UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a number of states raised concerns about allegations of torture and the Vietnamese government voluntarily agreed to several important recommendations, such as making sure that evidence obtained through torture is inadmissible at trial and taking steps to prohibit harassment and torture during the investigation process and detention.

    Despite these international warnings, in its responses to CAT’s comments and recommendations from the 2018 Concluding Observations, issued in September 2020, Vietnam continued to maintain that ‘allegations of the widespread use of torture and ill-treatment, particular in police stations, and in certain places where persons are deprived of their liberty [...] are all unsubstantiated and inaccurate claims’. This contradicts the findings of our report.

    How have domestic and international CSOs raised these issues?

    Many international groups report on allegations of torture and inhumane treatment in Vietnam as part of their ongoing human rights research. However, torture is a difficult topic to research and report on, as information flowing out of Vietnamese prisons is minimal and often censored, and prisoners and family members may fear further retaliation for raising their concerns. Prisoners are often better able to report on prison conditions upon their release, as was recently the case of Tran Thi Thuy.

    Thuy was imprisoned for eight years and was denied communication with her family and adequate medical treatment despite having severe tumours. The authorities demanded a confession in exchange for treatment. Thuy was also forced to work under extreme labour conditions; by the end of her sentence, she could barely walk. The international community should question the treatment prisoners face, and whether it may be even worse than what is reported in the news that reach international outlets.

    Regardless of the obstacles they face, activists, their families and CSOs continue to raise the issue of ill-treatment of political prisoners via research and direct advocacy. For example, in April, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the International Federation on Human Rights jointly issued an urgent appeal for international intervention in the case of land rights activist Trinh Ba Phuong. Groups also petition the UN, and especially its Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, to investigate cases where inhumane treatment is suspected. Further, abuse by Vietnam’s police force more broadly is well-documented.

    What can the international community do to address the issue of torture in Vietnam?

    Given the absolute nature of the right to freedom from torture, failure on the part of the Vietnamese government to address issues of torture and inhumane treatment of political prisoners should trigger a review of its trade deals and other relationships with international actors. We urge human rights advocates and representatives of the USA, the European Union, and others to demand that Vietnam implement the concrete actions that are clearly stated in CAT’s Concluding Observations in the Initial Report of Viet Nam of 208 and to follow up on the UPR recommendations that Vietnam accepted in 2019.

    We also urge the authorities to accept visits by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as visits by states’ consular representatives to conduct investigations of prison conditions in multiple locations.

    Civic space in Vietnam is rated ‘closedby theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with The 88 Project through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@The88Project on Twitter.


  • Violent attacks on peaceful protests in the DRC: Civil society writes open letter to President Joseph Kabila

    One hundred and eighty-five civil society organisations from 33 African countries have written an open letter to President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) raising concerns over ongoing attacks on protestors and the targeting of human rights defenders.

    Recently, on 19 September 2016, security forces violently dispersed protests by citizens who criticised the failure of the electoral commission - Commission Electorale Nationale Independente(CENI) to meet the deadline for announcing the timeframe for the next elections.  The government announced that 17 people, including three police officers were killed during clashes although civil society and political observers argue that the figure is much higher. Several protesters also suffered from gunshot wounds.  


  • Yemen: Over 75 organisations call for mandate of Group of Eminent Experts to be renewed

    Over 75 organisations call for mandate of Group of Eminent Experts to be renewed, emphasising violations against human rights defenders


    We, the undersigned more than 75 international, regional and Yemeni CSOs, call for the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) to extend and broaden the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen (GEE), including a thorough investigation into specific violations against human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers, and the closure of civic space.


  • Zimbabwe: Release abducted activist Obert Masaraure immediately

    CIVICUS calls on the Zimbabwean authorities to immediately release Obert Masaraure, an activist and human rights defender. Obert is the president of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ), which works, among others, to defend the labour rights of teachers. 


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