Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemns continuing reprisals against civil society engaging with the UN

Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, released his annual report entitled "Cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights", pointing out various cases of reprisals against “individuals or groups seeking to cooperate, cooperating or having cooperated with the United Nations in the field of human rights”. The Secretary-General mentioned 30 new cases covering four continents; these cases show the unfortunate truth many human rights defenders have to face in their countries when it comes to participating in UN Human Rights mechanisms. Four of the outlined cases relate to civil society engaging in the UPR process.
 
In Honduras, prior to its universal periodic review on 8 May 2015, government officials reportedly proceeded to issuing warnings and stigmatizing declarations aimed specifically at NGOs submitting information for the UPR, claiming these organisations would try to sabotage the review through smear campaigns, tainting the image of country. The media allegedly repeated these claims for various days. In a public statement on 10 April 2015, “a parliamentarian reportedly implied that these organizations received payments for discrediting the country”. Up until the finalisation of the Secretary-General’s report, the Government of Honduras has made no response to these allegations.
 
Mr. Nawaf al-Hendal, founder of the Kuwait Watch Organization for Human Rights, was in Geneva to attend the review of Kuwait during the UPR when, on 22 January 2015, when he “learned that an arrest warrant had been issued against him by the State security apparatus of the Ministry of the Interior in relation to messages he had posted on his Twitter page”. Upon his return to Kuwait, officials interrogated him at the airport on his engagement in the review of his country. In March 2015, after a second trip to Geneva, where he made a statement to the Human Rights Council, “Mr. Al-Hendal monitored – without participating in – a protest outside the National Assembly in Kuwait City in his capacity of Director of his organization”. After having physically dispersed the crowd, the police “reportedly identified Mr. Al-Hendal and assaulted, arrested and detained him at the Criminal Investigations Department in Al-Salmiya”. He was released two days later, but “prohibited from travelling pending his trial on charges of “participating in an illegal demonstration”. In three individual responses, the Kuwaiti Government stated that Mr. Al-Hendal had not been subject to reprisals and that his travel ban had been suspended.
 
In Maldives, the five members of the Human Rights Commission of Maldives were summoned to appear before the Supreme Court of the Maldives “after having submitted a report to OHCHR on 14 September 2014 in view of the review of Maldives at the twenty-second session of the universal periodic review, and publishing it on its website”. Initiating a suo moto case, the Court charged them with “spreading wrongful information and giving a wrongful impression of the constitutional mandate of the Supreme Court” and questioned them on the content of the report they were writing for the UPR. During the countries review on 6 May 2015, the “Government stated that the Human Rights Commission staff members enjoyed immunity from prosecution or complaints for acts done in good faith within the purview of their functions”. However, on May 19, the Court found that “the Commission’s submission for the universal periodic review was unlawful and declared that the Commission had to comply with a set of 11 guidelines”. The President of the Human Rights Council proceeded to raising the case with the Council Bureau on 19 June and mentioned it when he opened the general debate under item 6 at the twenty-ninth session of the Council.
 
Referring to the follow-up of cases mentioned in the previous annual report of the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon referred to Cao Shunli, a Chinese human rights defender advocating for greater civil society participation in the UPR, who was reportedly arrested, detained and denied medical treatment, resulting in her death on 14 March 2014. In a report published on 10 June 2015, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and association “urged the authorities to inform him of the results of the investigations of the circumstances leading to Ms. Cao’s death, as soon as possible”. Up until the finalisation of the Secretary-General’s report, the Government of China has given no response.
Another follow-up case mentioned by the Secretary-General was the Coalition of Malaysian Non-Governmental Organizations, which was declared illegal by the Malaysian Ministry of Home Affairs after submitting a report for the UPR and launching an online forum entitled 'Facing the threat of liberalism and Shi’ites'. In a press statement on 8 January 2014, the Malaysian Secretary-General of the Ministry of Home Affairs stated that the Coalition was not declared illegal or unlawful, but rather just not registered under the Societies Act 1996; “no investigation and judicial or other inquiries were carried out in relation to the Coalition as no report by or against the Coalition were lodged with the relevant authorities”.
 
Noting that “the types of acts reported seem to have become more varied and severe over time, targeting not only the individuals or groups concerned but also their families, legal representatives, non-governmental organizations and anyone linked to them”, Mr. Ban Ki-moon pointed out that reprisals “not only show a complete disregard for the functioning of the United Nations as a whole but also highlight the fact that, despite repeated calls for action by States to end all such violations, impunity continues to surround them.” Despite this unsettling reality, the Secretary-General reiterated the UN’s commitment to “work for a solid and coordinated response to reprisals throughout the United Nations system as a whole” and called upon civil society participation and State action at the national level on this issue.

Photo credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider