Universal Periodic Review 41 & concerns for human rights defenders

As the 41st session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) takes place between 7 and 18 November, I am highlighting communications that the Human Rights Defender mandate has issued to a selection of countries since their last review.

What is the UPR?

Bahrain (7 Nov): The mandate has issued or joined 13 communications to Bahrain since last review, relating to arbitrary detention, alleged torture and ill-treatment of HRDs, as well as denial of adequate medical care to them in prison. Three HRDs remain in long term imprisonment; Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Abuljalil Al-Singace and Naji Fateel.

In March 2022, the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights expressed concern about the access to medical care of the three and urged Bahrain to ensure effective protection of their rights. In July 2022, the UN Human Rights Committee called on the authorities to release all three.

In its 2017 Review, Bahrain supported six recommendations related to protection of HRDs, including a recommendation from Norway to “release as soon as possible all individuals including human rights defenders, having been imprisoned solely due to the exercise of their fundamental rights of expression and assembly”.

Bahrain was cited in the Secretary General’s 2020 report on reprisals as demonstrating a ‘pattern’ of reprisals against those who interact with the United Nations.

Morocco (8 Nov): The HRD mandate has led or joined 18 communications since May 2017. One third of these concern the targeting of HRDs in Western Sahara. Four HRDs from Western Sahara were included in my 2021 UNGA report on long term imprisonment of HRDs. Morocco was included in the SG’s report on reprisals in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021.

Indonesia (9 Nov): The HRD mandate led or joined 14 communications since 2017, half of which related to alleged violations perpetrated against HRDs working in and on Papua and West Papua, including arrest, intimidation, threats and excessive use of force.

I remain concerned by the continued detention of Victor Yeimo on charges of treason, especially amidst reports of a deterioration in his health. Victor’s case was included in the UNSG’s 2021 report on reprisals.

India (10 Nov): The HRD mandate has led or joined 50 communications to India since May 2017, only a third of which received a response. Many relate to use of UAPA against HRDs, which allows them to be designated as terrorists

The communications reflect the deteriorating environment for HRDs in the country, raising concerns of judicial harassment & arbitrary detention of HRDs working on a range of issues, including defenders of Dalit, Adivasi and Muslims’ rights.

Denial of bail has been a common practice and resulted in the shameful death of 84-year old Fr Stan Swamy in 2021, whose health deteriorated rapidly during his nine months in detention

United Kingdom (10 Nov): The HRD mandate has led or joined 8 communications since 2017, including recently highlighting the threats faced by human rights lawyer and university professor, Colin Harvey. I am also concerned by the risks reported by HRDs involved in the @SaveOurSperrins campaign against a gold mine in Co. Tyrone. The HRDs report physical assault, intimidation and death threats.

Algeria (11 Nov): The mandate has led or joined 20 comms since last review, 70% of which relate to allegations of arbitrary detention, arrest, judicial harassment and imprisonment of HRDs. In its last review, Algeria supported three recommendations specifically related to HRDs.

I’m particularly concerned by the cases of Jamila Loukil, Said Boudour and Kaddour Chouicha who I included in my long term detention report to UNGA in 2021. Although released on bail, if convicted of subversion and terrorism they could be sentenced to death

Brazil (14 Nov): The mandate has led or joined 18 communications to Brazil since last review, a third of which relate to the murder or death threats against HRDs. In 2017, Brazil supported 7 recommendations relating to strengthening of its protection programme but according to HRDs, there has been little progress.

Philippines (14 Nov): The HRD mandate has led or joined 23 communications since 2017, 40% of which involve the murder of HRDs. A further 20% of communications related to the risk HRDs were placed at due to their stigmatization, including being labelled as ‘terrorists’ or ‘communists’, which can often precede their killing.

The passing of the 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act has exacerbated the risks faced by HRDs, which allows for law enforcement in certain circumstance designate people as terrorists, arrest them and hold them for 24 days w/o charge, and w/o need for a warrant. The definition of terrorism is overly vague and falls far short of international standards.

Poland (15 Nov): The HRD mandate has sent 10 communications to since 2017, 40% of which relate to the targeting of defenders of LGBTIQ+ rights. This has involved stigmatisation, criminalisation and defamation cases brought against LGBTIQ+ organisations and individuals.

In my report to UNGA last month, I highlighted the measures which Poland had been taking against defenders of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers’ rights who had been attempting to provide humanitarian relief to people on the Polish/Belarus border.

South Africa (16 Nov): The HRD mandate has led or joined 5 communications since 2017, two of which related to the killing of HRDs. According to the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, a civil society organisation based at the University of the Witwatersrand, since its founding in 2005, the grassroots organisation Abahlali baseMjondolo, which defends the rights of people to housing and land, has seen 24 of its leaders murdered. Three have been reportedly murdered in 2022 alone.

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