The 46th Session of the UN Human Rights Council will sit from 22 February - 23 March, 2021 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 #HRC46
The 46th Session of the Human Rights Council presents challenges and opportunities for civil society engagement. We encourage States to continue to raise the importance of civil society participation, which makes the Human Rights Council stronger, more informed and more effective.
We look forward to engaging on a range of issues in line with our civic space mandate, set out below. In terms of country-specific situations on the agenda of the Council, CIVICUS will be engaging on resolutions on Nicaragua, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and South Sudan. Other countries of serious concern as we approach the 46th Session include Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Russia.
With relation to thematic issues, CIVICUS will be engaging on the High Commissioner’s report on COVID and human rights, the Special Rapporteur’s report on human rights defenders, and the Special Rapporteur’s report on human rights and counter-terrorism.
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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Nicaragua (Civic space rating: Repressed)
Nicaragua is rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor. Ahead of elections in the country scheduled for this year, increasing restrictions on civic space and expressions of dissent remain a major concern, and likely to escalate.
A raft of repressive laws has been enacted that could seriously undermine freedom of association and free speech. In October 2020, Nicaragua’s lawmakers approved the “Foreign Agents Law” which expands government powers to control and muzzle civil society. The legislation requires civil society organisations that receive funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents” and bars them from intervening in “matters of internal politics.” In December 2020, Nicaragua's National Assembly approved a law that could prevent opposition candidates from participating in the upcoming presidential elections. This law prohibits "traitors to the fatherland" ("Traidores a la Patria") from running for public office, defining such people in general terms. In January 2021, lawmakers passed a constitutional amendment permitting life sentences for “hate crimes”. Human rights defenders and journalists continue to be targets of death threats, intimidation, online defamation campaigns, harassment, surveillance, and assault. According to data collected by the press organisation Periodistas y Comunicadores Independientes de Nicaragua (Independent Journalists and Communicators of Nicaragua - PCIN), police, paramilitary groups and government supporters continue to be the most frequent perpetrators.
Attacks against civil society organisations, journalists and human rights defenders are early warning signs of an impending human rights crisis. The Human Rights Council must operationalise its prevention mandate by responding robustly to the upcoming High Commissioner’s report, including by enhancing monitoring and reporting on human rights violations, particularly in the context of the elections. Specifically, a resolution should:
- Renew the enhanced OHCHR mandate to monitor and report on the human rights situation in Nicaragua, and ensuring it is adequately resourced.
- Mandate the High Commissioner to report regularly to the HRC on the situation in Nicaragua the context of interactive dialogues, including by intersessional briefings ahead of the elections in November.
- Establish clear benchmarks for cooperation for Nicaragua to meet in order to prevent further Council action, including the repeal of repressive laws.
- Express explicit support for human rights defenders and the role of civil society, including journalists.
Myanmar (Civic space rating: Repressed)
Myanmar is rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor. The Special Session on Myanmar this week is testament to the gravity of the situation in-country. A military coup d’état has left fundamental freedoms at grave risk; in a statement on 2 February, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet highlighted that the presence of militarised forces on the streets are giving rise to ‘deep fears of a violent crackdown on dissenting voices’.
As the military regime attempted to clamp down on information, pro-democracy activists launched a protest campaign dubbed the "Civil Disobedience Movement" in the capital Naypyidaw. They demanded the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other detained leaders and called on the military to respect the results of the country’s November 2020 election. Journalists in Myanmar have reported credible threats of an imminent, broader-sweeping crackdown on media workers, and several have told Human Rights Watch that they fear for their safety. Some local journalists had reportedly gone into hiding. According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), journalists are reporting increased surveillance of news reporting and journalists admitting to self-censorship since the coup.
The elections last November 2020 were not only affected by the COVID-19 pandemic but censorship and discrimination. The discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law and the Election Law have been used to disenfranchise Rohingya and other opposition candidates to prevent them from running for office.
The CIVICUS Monitor has documented a sustained attack on civic freedoms in the country over the last few years. A repressive legal framework has been used to criminalise individuals for speaking out, reporting or protesting again human rights violations, including independent journalists and human rights defenders. The situation requires strong response from the Human Rights Council.
We urge states to:
- Support the renewal and strengthening of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, ensuring that the Special Rapporteur has sufficient resources, including human resources, to continue robust and ongoing monitoring of the situation including, given the gravity of the situation, resources for holding intersessional briefings to the Council.
- Ensure inclusion in preambular and operative paragraphs in both resolutions of language around ending internet shutdowns, cessation of excessive use of force against peaceful protester, and protecting human rights defenders, and the need for accountability for violations perpetrated by state forces.
- Highlight the crucial role of civil society, including human rights defenders.
Sri Lanka (Civic space rating: Obstructed)
Sri Lanka is rated as obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor. Civic freedom violations have persisted in Sri Lanka as President Rajapaksa’s party expands its powers. In October 2020, Parliament adopted amendments to the Sri Lankan Constitution, which serve to expand the powers of the President, while encroaching on the powers of Parliament and the courts. In recent months, there have been targeted arrests, intimidation and threats against the lives and physical security of lawyers, activists, human rights defenders and journalists. Groups seeking transitional justice for crimes during the country’s 26-year civil war held protests seeking answers especially on the disappeared but face harassment from the authorities.
The UN has received continued allegations of surveillance of civil society organisations, human rights defenders, and families of victims of violations, including repeated visits by police and intelligence services, questioning organisations about their staff and activities related to the UN. Numerous civilian institutions, including the NGO Secretariat, have come under the control of the Ministry of Defence.
The current administration’s reneging on its international commitments has put accountability and reconciliation processes under grave risk. This is being compounded by an escalation of attacks against civil society, particularly against groups and people working to further human rights. With NGOs who document, monitor and report on historic and current rights violations being raided and attacked, it is clear that much-publicized national accountability processes are in name only. It is crucial that the international community maintains a strong position on Sri Lanka, through a non-consensual resolution if necessary. States should support a strong resolution which emphasises accountability and implements the recommendations in the High Commissioner’s report, with particular calls for the furthering of accountability processes and protection of civil society. Failure to do so would impact significantly the Council’s credibility.
Specifically, the resolution should:
- Request OHCHR to enhance its monitoring of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, including progress towards accountability and reconciliation, and report regularly to the Human Rights Council;
- Establish an independent international mechanism or process to investigate allegations of serious human rights abuses, war crimes and crimes against humanity, secure evidence, and identify perpetrators for future prosecution.
- Explicitly recognize civil society including human rights defenders for the role they play in documenting and monitoring.
Zimbabwe (Civic space rating: Repressed)
Zimbabwe is rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor. As the country’s economy continues to decline, workers and civil servants have sustained protest actions to call for better wages to cushion them from the resulting economic shocks. Protests have been met with forcefully dispersed, with police citing the ongoing curfew restrictions in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and arresting at least 20 protesters. The country’s situation has become a multi-layered crisis characterised by economic collapse, deepening poverty, corruption and human rights abuses.
Soldiers and police officers routinely forcefully dispersed the peaceful protest citing the ongoing curfew restrictions in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and arresting at least 20 protesters. It is commonplace for those arrested to be charged with inciting public violence. In 2020, the High Commissioner for Human Rights raised alarm at the situation when investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested on 20 July and charged with inciting public violence, after he tweeted his support for nationwide protests against government corruption and worsening economic conditions. He has since been released and re-arrested. Jacob Ngarivhume, an opposition leader who has been calling for the protests on 31 July, was also detained and similarly charged. These are warning signs of an escalating crisis. In the interests of furthering the Council’s prevention mandate, we call on states to raise Zimbabwe through statements, jointly or in their national capacity, offering support to civil society on the ground.
Such statements could include specifically:
- Concerns about the worsening crackdown in Zimbabwe, particularly in the context of the debate on the High Commissioner’s report on COVID and human rights.
- Urging Zimbabwe to engage with civil society and other stakeholders to find sustainable solutions to grievances while ensuring that people’s rights and freedoms are protected in accordance with Zimbabwe’s human rights obligations.
South Sudan (Civic space rating: Closed)
South Sudan is rated as closed by the CIVICUS Monitor. In South Sudan, violence and harassment of human rights defenders and journalists continues as the UN extends the arms embargo and its sanctions regime. Despite hopes of peace following the formation of the transitional government of national unity formed by former warring factions on February 2020, fighting continues in several areas of the country, and dozens of people continue to die due to inter-communal fighting. The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) reported that at least 5,000 civilians had been displaced by heavy fighting in Jonglei State. On 4 August 2020, at least 23 people were reported killed and 20 others wounded in an attack on a religious compound, where unidentified gunmen killed the deacon of the church and at least 14 women and children seeking refuge in the compound.
Despite hopes of peace following the formation of the transitional government of national unity formed by former warring factions on February 2020, fighting continues in several areas of the country, and dozens of people continue to die due to inter-communal fighting. As the Council recognised in June 2020, the mandate of the CHRSS should continue until such a point as demonstrable progress has been made against human rights benchmarks, and based on an assessment of risk factors of further violations. Necessary progress has not yet been made to consider a change of approach in this regard. As the only mechanism currently collecting and preserving evidence of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law with a view to accountability and addressing human rights and transitional justice issues in South Sudan from a holistic perspective, the CHRSS remains vital.
A resolution extending the mandate of the CHRSS must:
- Extend the mandate of the CHRSS in full under the same agenda item.
- Call on the CHRSS to articulate clear human rights reform benchmarks or indicators against which any progress can be measured.
- Call on the CHRSS to enhance its engagement with civil society and human rights defenders on deliverance of its mandate, giving due attention to the increasing restrictions, threats, and attacks civil society and media actors face.
Tanzania (Civic space rating: Repressed)
Tanzania is rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor. In Tanzania, the increasing repression of democracy and civic space has deeply deteriorated environment for human rights. Several opposition parties have reported widespread irregularities in the process for enrolling candidates for the Presidential election on 28th October 2020. 17 opposition party members and critics of the government were arrested, with the increased oppression of opposition, suspension of human rights groups and the limiting of international media coverage of the elections being directly linked to the current government. In addition, the Tanzanian government continues to silence media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, most recently through the enactment of new online content regulations in early August 2020. Repression of what journalists can report on the pandemic is feared to stifle access to public health information.
In the interests of furthering the Council’s prevention mandate, we call on states to raise Tanzania through statements, jointly or in their national capacity, offering support to civil society on the ground.
Such statements could include specifically:
- Concerns about the worsening crackdown in Tanzania, particularly in the context of the debate on the High Commissioner’s report on COVID and human rights.
Russia (Civic space rating: Repressed)
Russia is rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor. The recent crackdown by the Russian authorities on independent civil society and dissenting voices in the country. Russian authorities are systematically using the tools of the state to arbitrarily deprive citizens of liberty and curtail the exercise of the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. The alarming trends the international community has observed in Russia for more than a decade have been drastically increasing since the end of 2020 and require urgent international action.
At the beginning of 2021, Russia took a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. As a member of the international body charged with the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe, Russia’s active efforts to attack human rights domestically is particularly cynical. Members of the Council must use the 46th Session - Russia’s first session under its current membership - to strongly denounce these actions to use the tools of the state to attack independent civil society, severely limit civic space and silence dissenting voices.
CIVICUS is among 85 local and international organisations which endorsed a letter sent to members of the Human Rights Council calling for immediate action to protect and promote human rights and strongly condemn the actions of the Russian authorities. Attacks by Council member states on independent civil society, civic space, and dissenting voices must not go unaddressed.
Other countries of concern
Poland and Togo, have been placed on the CIVICUS Monitor's Watchlist, along with Myanmar and Nicaragua, to reflect their sharp decline in civic freedoms.
In Poland, concerns about the deterioration of the rule of law and fundamental rights in Poland are long-standing and serious. Recently, a set of mass demonstrations against the near-total ban on abortion took place in Poland - a country whose abortion laws were already considered some of the most restrictive in Europe. There have been multiple reports of police brutality against protesters. The excessive use of force by police, disproportionate charges used against protesters, and speeches from public officials have encouraged further violence toward them. LGBTI rights remain under attack while public officials and opinion makers promote an atmosphere of hate and intolerance vis-à-vis LGBTI people in the country.
In Togo, civic space has been backsliding since the crackdown on anti-government opposition protests in 2017-2018 to demand a return to the provisions in the 1992 constitution that included a two-term limit on presidents. The detention of journalist Carlos Ketohou on 29th December 2020, the suspension of newspaper l’Indépendant Express in January 2021 and the detention of trade unionists are recent examples of civic space violations, highlighting the deterioration in the respect of civic freedoms in the country. Other violations since 2017 include the killing of protesters, the arrest and prosecution of human rights defenders, journalists and pro-democracy activists, banning of civil society and opposition protests, the suspension of media outlets, regular disruption of and shutting down of access to the internet and social media, the adoption of restrictive legislation such as the 2018 Cybersecurity Law and the 2019 modification of the law on conditions and exercise of peaceful meetings and protests.
Human rights defenders
A chilling report will be presented to the Human Rights Council on human rights defenders who have been killed by state and non-state actors. The report highlights the warning signs which precede such killings, as well as accountability and justice – or lack thereof – which follows them.
The work and protection of human rights defenders is integral to the mission of the Human Rights Council. Environmental human rights defenders are working to ensure we continue to live in an inhabitable planet; those whistleblowing government violations are critical for maintaining a society built on rule of law and respect for rights.
We call on states to respond robustly to the report of the Special Rapporteur, including by naming specific human rights defenders who are detained or at risk, which we and our partners offers material protection to human rights defenders.
COVID and human rights
The last months have demonstrated that more than ever civil society is needed in crisis response: in building and maintaining trust in the health system; identifying solutions that respond to the most urgent needs; and ensuring targeted and candid feedback on COVID-19 measures to improve responses. The report of the High Commissioner on the impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic on the enjoyment of human rights around the world reflects this: ‘A vibrant civil society is essential to “building back better”, and the free flow of information and broad-based participation by civil society actors can help to ensure that the recovery responds to real needs and leaves no one behind.’
Since the declaration of the pandemic, however, CIVICUS has documented a number of trends in governmental response which restrict civic space, including:
- Unjustified restrictions on access to information and censorship;
- Detentions of activists for disseminating critical information;
- Crackdowns on human rights defenders and media outlets;
- Violations of the right to privacy and overly broad emergency powers.
We call on states to raise these concerns and recommendations in their response to the High Commissioner’s report on COVID and human rights, in the interests of a collaborative, participatory and effective approach to “building back better”.
Counter-terrorism and human rights
According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights, two-thirds of all communications sent to the mandate as part of monitoring human rights abuses are related to States’ use of counter terrorism, or broadly defined security measures to restrict civil society. A recent report states that, this extraordinarily high figure “underscores the abuse of counter-terror measures against civil society and human rights defenders since 2005.
Human rights defenders from the Philippines, Pakistan and India, to name a few, have been targeted under misused counter-terror laws. We urge states to raise concerns about attacks and reprisals against human rights defenders in the name of countering terror and in driving a narrative of human rights defenders and civil society more broadly as antagonists rather than partners in counter-terrorism.
Current council members:
Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, China, Côte d'Ivoire, Cuba, Czech Republic, Denmark, Eritrea, Fiji, France, India, Gabon, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Libya, Malawi, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Mexico, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Republic of Korea, Russia, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela
Civic space ratings from the CIVICUS Monitor