The 52nd session of the Human Rights Council was held over almost six weeks of debates, negotiations and events, drawing to a close on 4 April 2023 with 43 resolutions adopted by its 47 member states on a range of country situations and thematic issues. The civic space angle was central in all the country-specific resolutions addressing severe human rights crises, including Belarus, Iran, Myanmar, Nicaragua and South Sudan. The Council then renewed, among others, the critical mandates of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, on freedom of expression and on torture.
Civil society across the world made sustained calls upon the Council to step up to its mandate and address these crises, as well as to use its preventative mandate to avert escalation of human rights crises not on the agenda of the Council.
Read the joint NGO statement of key takeaways from the session here.
CIVICUS welcomes the resolution on the situation of human rights in Belarus in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election and in its aftermath. The resolution renews the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) examination mandate for a period of one year. The text of the resolution echoes our concerns over increasing restrictions of civic space and repression, harassment and detention of civil society activists. As clearly stated by the High Commissioner in his report, the human rights situation in the country is dire. We, therefore, regret that that the call of Belarusian and international organisations to establish an independent investigative mechanism went unheeded.
CIVICUS welcomes the adoption of the resolution on the human rights situation in Iran renewing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur. We also appreciate the willingness of the core group to move from a mere procedural resolution to a more substantial one, which addresses some of the key concerns, including violations committed in the context of the repression of recent protests, violations of women and girls’ rights, illegal use of the death penalty and widespread impunity. The adopted text further express concern over the ‘widespread, repeated and persistent’ violations and urges Iranian authorities to address them.
The crucial mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar was renewed by consensus for a further period of one year. This reaffirms the Council’s unified voice in condemning the grave human rights violations and the impunity thereof -, committed by the junta. We welcome the very substantial text addressing the continuous attempts by the junta to restrict civic space and the inclusion of a reference to the new Organization Registration Law, which represents a further threat to the exercise of right to freedom of association. We however regret to see that our suggestion to denounce the misuse of counter-terrorism legislation to target pro-democracy activists was not included in the text of the resolution.
We welcome the two-year renewal of the mandate of the Group of Human Rights Experts (GHRE) on Nicaragua. It represents an important victory for Nicaraguan and international civil society organisations which have long been advocating for its renewal. The strengthened resolution reflects the worsening human rights situation in the country, with crimes against humanity further worsened by the government complete lack of cooperation with the UN system.
CIVICUS welcomes the adoption of a new resolution on South Sudan extending for one year the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights (CHRSS). The Commission is the only mechanism tasked with collecting and preserving evidence of violations with a view to ensuring accountability and addressing human rights issues. Its work remains vital as the conditions that prompted the Human Rights Council to establish the Commission have not significantly changed to warrant less scrutiny. We feel however that a two-year renewal would have allowed the CHRSS to comprehensively report on the election and transition process.
Human Rights Defenders
CIVICUS welcomes the renewal by consensus of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur (SR) on the situation of Human Rights Defenders for a further period of three years. In the year of the 25th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, the SR, whose mandate includes study trends, developments and challenges on the right to promote and protect human rights as well as seek, receive, examine and respond to information on the situation of human rights defenders, is now more important than ever. By renewing the mandate of the SR, UN Human Rights Council’s member States reinstated the right to defend human rights and the right to be defended while doing so.
CIVICUS and several of our members used statements at the Human Rights Council to raise a variety of civic space related issues and priorities:
Sudan: Increasing violence require the Council’s attention
Despite the signing of the tripartite framework agreement, the human rights situation continues to deteriorate. The State has imposed excessively restrictive measures which have hampered access to humanitarian and life-saving assistance for people in conflict-affected areas, authorities have resorted to excessive force against protesters, and sexual and gender-based violence is increasingly used as weapons to intimidate pro-democracy activists. We called on the government to immediately put an end to the violence against women human rights defenders, women’s rights groups and women protesters.
Eritrea: A real challenge to the UN system and the international community
Eritrea’s continued failure to cooperate with UN human rights bodies and experts calls the credibility and integrity of the entire UN human rights system into question. We expressed our concern over reports of unlawful and arbitrary killings, forced disappearances, torture and arbitrary detentions, indefinite military service, lack of freedom of expression, opinion, association, religious belief, and movement. We hence asked what the Council should do to ensure steps are taken towards meeting the five benchmarks for progress developed by UN the Special Rapporteur.
Nicaragua: The Council must renew the mandate of the Group of Human Rights Experts
While welcoming the release of 222 political prisoners, we expressed our alarm for the the decision to banish and strip them and 95 other government critics, journalists, and human rights defenders of Nicaraguan citizenship, and to confiscate their assets. In light of the appalling human rights violations, impunity, and of lack of cooperation, we urged the Council to renew the mandate of the Group of Expert for two years and extend OHCHR mandate.
Myanmar: The junta’s efforts to erase religious minorities must be stopped
The illegal coup emboldened the junta to further persecute, marginalise and incite violence against religious minorities. Members of the six religious minorities in the country have seen their citizenship denied and have been often victims of divisive hate speech, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, and killings. The UN and the international community have not done enough. We urged the Council to play a more assertive role and ensure accountability for serious human rights, to cut revenue streams to the junta and to support Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar and those fleeing to neighbouring countries.
Afghanistan: The Council must expedite discussions towards a more robust international accountability mechanism
We expressed our grave concern over the ongoing discriminatory and regressive treatment against women and girls as well as the targeting of human rights defenders and civil society in the country. The international community has not done enough to hold the Taliban accountable for their abuses and discriminatory policies and it needs to act now to avert a further escalation of the crisis. We called on the Council to publicly call out the Taliban for the ongoing human rights violations and expedite discussions toward a more robust international accountability mechanism.
South Sudan: The Commission’s mandate remains crucial as the civil and political space continues to deteriorate
Freedoms of assembly, association and expression are under severe threat. In the past year, South Sudanese authorities have continued, with impunity, to repress and harass peaceful protesters and civil society actors. Many are subjected to arbitrary arrests, detentions and extrajudicial killings. In light of the ongoing restrictions on civic space in the country, we called on the Council to extend the mandate of the Commission for a further period of two years to ensure continued scrutiny on the human rights situation in the country and to enable it to comprehensively report on the election and transition process.
Guatemala: The international community must play an assertive role in protecting Guatemalans’ civic freedoms
Anti-corruption prosecutors, judges and journalists are criminalised by the authorities and face spurious criminal charges. Civil society groups are subjected to a climate of increasing hostility, harassment, and persecution, with a sharp increase of attacks in the last three years. Ahead of the June 2023 elections, we asked the international community to play an assertive role in protecting Guatemalans’ civic freedoms by monitoring the pre-electoral period and electoral process.
Myanmar: Civic Space is under assault – meaningful and robust resolution needed
We expressed our concern about the state of civic space in Myanmar, two years on from the unconstitutional coup. Human rights defenders and activists have continued to be prosecuted by the junta on fabricated charges and convicted in sham trials by secret military tribunals and given harsh sentences including the death penalty. We hence called on the Council to support a meaningful and robust resolution reflecting these serious concerns and renewing the critical mandate of the Special Rapporteur.
Ethiopia: International scrutiny must continue to ensure peace and stability in the country
Over the past two years, Ethiopia’s human rights situation has been marred by extrajudicial killings, rape and sexual violence, unlawful shelling, airstrikes and pillage. We called on the government to respect the right to freedom of expression and to cease all forms of intimidation and harassment of activists, journalists and other media actors. We then urged the UN Human Rights Council and the Commission of Experts to continue scrutinising the situation in Ethiopia to ensure peace and stability in the country.
Venezuela: Lack of guarantees for fundamental freedoms require the Council to continue scrutiny
We stressed how in Venezuela there are no guarantees for freedom of expression, peaceful protest and the right to association and how violations of civil liberties affect demands for economic and social rights. We therefore urged the Council to maintain its attention on Venezuela and we asked the High Commissioner what the Council can do to consolidate OHCHR presence in the country, to support the work of the Fact-Finding Mission and any initiative that avoids further restrictions to civic space in the country.
Prevention should be at the core of the Council’s approach to human rights crises
We once again stated that the Council should play a more assertive role in preventing rather than reacting to human rights crises, and the rapid deterioration of civic space is the first early warning sign on which the Council should act. For this reason, we raised country-specific situations which are not on the agenda of the Council yet, but should require its attention: India, Zimbabwe and Peru. We called on the Council to address these worsening situations and prevent further deterioration.
ADOPTION OF UNIVERSAL PERIODIC REVIEWS OUTCOMES
The Universal Periodic Reviews outcomes of 14 countries were adopted, with governments accepting a number of recommendations relating to civic space. CIVICUS and its partners delivered statements on Algeria, Brazil, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Poland, South Africa and Tunisia. We stand ready to monitor and support their implementation.
Algeria: Activists continue to be arrested for exercising their fundamental rights
We are concerned about the ongoing restrictions on civic space, as nearly 300 activists are still in prison for exercising their right to expression and assembly, association and expression. We called on the Algerian government to implement UPR recommendations, especialy those pertaining to restrictive laws, violations of the rights to peaceful assembly, association and expression and the detention of human rights defenders, activists and peaceful protesters.
Brazil: It’s time to rebuild a stronger democracy and a more open civic space
We reiterated our reproval of the official use of legal and extralegal instruments to intimidate, criminalize, and silence community leaders, journalists, and human rights defenders, as well as of the use of excessive force by police officers. We stressed the need for the new administration to conduct human rights training programs for police officers and reinforce State capacities for investigation and accountability for human rights violations committed by state agents.
Ecuador: Despite commitments, criminalisation and violence continue with impunity
While Ecuador committed to establishing protection mechanisms to ensure the safety of human rights defenders, journalists, and activists, efforts in this regard have stalled while judicial harassment, criminalisation and violence continue to take place with impunity. We asked the government to investigate all instances of excessive force in the context of protests, review and updating existing human rights training for police and security forces and implement comprehensive policies and mechanisms to protect civil society organisations, human rights defenders and journalists.
India: No commitment to review draconian laws
We expressed our disappointment to see that the government did not accept the many recommendations relating to restrictive laws and the arbitrary detention of human rights defenders. We reiterated our call to review all restrictive laws especially the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and oreign Contributions Restrictions Act (FCRA), to immediately release all HRDs and drop all charges against them and to review and amend existing laws in order to guarantee fully the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly and investigate all violations in the context of protests.
Indonesia: Restrictive laws used to target activists, journalists and government critics
It is extremely worrying that in recent years restrictive laws have been systematically used to arrest, prosecute and punish activists, journalists, and government critics. We called upon the government to drop all charges against activists for doing their human rights work, review and repeal existing restrictive laws, including the EIT Law Societal Organizations Law and the new criminal code, conduct thorough investigations of all incidents involving violence by the security forces against protesters.
Philippines: Persecution and criminalisation of defenders, activists and journalists continues
We called on the government to stop the persecution of defenders, journalists and dissenters, and to enact the Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill, while reiterating our view that the laws on terrorism and libel violate the right to due process, free expression, press freedom and freedom of association, among other constitutional rights. We then renewed our call to the Council for an independent investigation into the cases of extrajudicial killings and other grave rights violations in the Philippines.
Poland: complete failure in implementing civic space recommendations
We expressed our concern over the dismantling of judicial independence, the rule of law and media freedom, which has been used as a tool to violate civic freedoms. Women human rights defenders advocating for reproductive justice are facing judicial harassment and intimidation. We therefore asked to ensure that government officials and non-state actors perpetrating intimidation and harassment against HRDs defenders are effectively investigated, refrain from further persecuting independent judges and drop all SLAPPs against journalists and media outlets.
South Africa: Threats and attacks against civil society actors continue
Despite some improvements, threats, intimidation and attacks against HRDs, and the impunity thereof, remain a grave concern. The continued use of excessive force and arbitrary arrests by security forces in response to protests is another cause for concern. We therefore asked the government to develop a legislative framework to protect HRDs, take urgent measures to establish a commission of inquiry into the killings, and bring the Non-profit Organisation Amendment Bill in line with standards on freedom of association.
Tunisia: Adoption of UPR outcome in the context of increased civic space restrictions
In the context of a deep political and economic crisis, President Saïed has issued a number of decrees to consolidate power and weaken the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. Amidst this, space for civil society is increasingly being restricted in Tunisia. We called on the government to take concrete steps to address these concerns, including by withdrawing restrictive legislation that restricts freedom of expression and association.
Human Rights in the Philippines
Ahead of the Philippines’ UPR outcome adoption at the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council, Filipino human rights defenders and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders reflected on the state of civic and democratic space less than a year into the Marcos Jr administration, on the prospective narrative and responses during the upcoming adoption of UPR outcomes and on what lies ahead on issues of justice, accountability and protection of human rights. The panelists then discussed the role of the international community and, in particular, of the Human Rights Council and of the UN Joint Programme in ensuring accountability and access to justice for victims. Watch the recording here.