Illegitimate restrictions on human rights defenders’ legitimate work
Human rights defenders work to promote and protect rights of all – their work should be promoted and they should to enjoy protection in their work. However, throughout the world, they face harsh repression and often work in an unfavourable environment.
Tuesday, 20 March 2012, by HRHF Geneva Office
On 5 March, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Margaret Sekaggya presented her reports to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The Special Rapporteur’s focused on the situation of three groups of human rights defenders at particular risk: journalists and media workers, defenders working on environmental and land issues, and youth and student defenders.
Legal framework to restrict freedoms
The Special Rapporteur brought to light the issue of legal frameworks being used to restrict freedom of the press, and identified contexts in which journalists and media workers were most vulnerable, such as armed conflicts and post conflict settings, coup d’État situations, and in the aftermath of contested elections.
Margaret Sekaggya also drew attention to the issue of threat to human rights defenders' lives and physical integrity, recognizing that “physical attacks, arrests, detention, interrogation and torture or ill-treatment are being used to intimidate and silence human rights defenders”, and that journalists and media workers often pay with their lives for reporting on human rights abuses. In relation to youth and student defenders, the Special Rapporteur emphasized the practices of “enforced disappearances, forced labour and excessive use of force by police and security forces during demonstrations, arrests and while in detention”. In this respect, Austria stressed the necessity to address impunity more effectively in order to prevent not only violations of the right to life, but also violations of the individual and collective right to receive and access information.
The Special Rapporteur also underlined that most of the risks run by human rights defenders include the abuse of legal frameworks against them and the criminalization of their work. She emphasized “that restrictions on media and press freedom, and impunity around violations against journalists and media workers defending human rights, could foster a climate of intimidation, stigmatization, violence and self-censorship”. Furthermore, Margaret Sekaggya reiterated that youth human rights defenders could be isolated by the practice of extensive registration processes for NGOs. Poland expressed support for concerns related to the criminalization of human rights work, and highlighted the necessity for the Special Rapporteur to elaborate further on specific instruments that could be applied to improve their situation.
Judicial harassment of human rights defenders
Moreover, the Special Rapporteur specified that judicial harassment is also “frequently applied to limit the work of human rights defenders”. In a previous joint media communication of United Nations independent experts released in November 2011, the Special Rapporteur expressed fears regarding due process in the case of Ales Bialiatski.
Bialiatski, head of the Human Rights Centre “Viasna” and Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights has been sentenced to 4.5 years imprisonment on charges of financial irregularities, though in reality, is being punished for his legitimate work as a human rights defender. With other mandate holders, she also sent communications on this issue to the government of Belarus.
However, the arbitrary detention of Ales Bialiatski was vehemently denied by Belarus, who accused the Special Rapporteur of not fully understanding the case and not taking into consideration the information on the case provided by the State. Belarus claimed that the court judgment of Bialiatski had nothing to do with his human rights activities and was solely due to serious violations of fiscal legislation.
Legislative restrictions vs. public recognition of human rights defenders
Additionally, the Special Rapporteur expressed concern over the increasing legislative changes affecting freedom of the Internet, social media and instant messaging. She also called for new actors such as bloggers and community media workers in the human rights field to be recognised as human rights defenders and thus entitled to states’ protection in the same way as other defenders. Margaret Sekaggya underlined that according to article 2 of the UN Declaration on human rights defenders, legislative limitations criminalizing human rights activities, in particular through the NGO registration process, and the restriction of the scope of these activities, are not permitted. Also, States are required to guarantee an environment in which human rights defenders can work without persecution and without draconian laws on their activities.
The interactive dialogue concluded with the Special Rapporteur recommending states to “publicly recognize the role of defenders and to ensure prompt and impartial investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for violations against them, to refrain from the persistent use of legislative frameworks to silence legitimate dissent on human rights issues, and to ensure that all human rights defenders are not stigmatized, threatened or attacked, especially by law enforcement officers during peaceful demonstrations, and generally in observance of their work”. Furthermore, Margaret Sekaggya spoke out against reprisals in relation to human rights defenders who cooperate with UN mechanisms, including the Human Rights Council.
Interactive dialogue with the special rapporteurs on torture and human rights defenders, on 5 March 2012, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva:
HRHF Geneva Office
Communication on closure of Azerbaijan Human Ri…
The Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression addressed a communication on 16 March 2011 to the government of the Republic on Azerbaijan on the closure of the Human Rights House.
“Concern is expressed, the special rapporteurs write, that the closure of Human Rights House Azerbaijan will impede its legitimate work on the promotion and protection of human rights and will hamper the meeting and coordination of other human rights defenders working in the country. Further concern is expressed that such a measure may encroach upon the rights of many human rights defenders to freedom of expression, assembly and association, and as such may have a negative impact on the community as a whole.”
Communications with States:
The Special Rapporteur sent numerous communications to many states (see her report on all communications in 2011):
- Following a statement of the Human Rights House Network, special rapporteurs wrote to the government of the Republic of Azerbaijan on 24 August 2011 on the destruction of the housing of NGOs and human rights defenders.
- On Belarus, special procedures wrote an extensive communication on 22 December 2010 to the Republic of Belarus in relation with the massive detentions in the aftermath of the December 2010 presidential elections. The Special Rapporteur sent 6 other communication to Belarus and expressed her deep concern about the situation in the country, including the case of Ales Bialiatski.
- The Special Rapporteur also expressed her deep concern about the context of increasing harassment, threats and acts of violence against human rights defenders in the Russian Federation, in particular against journalists and lawyers.