My reflections on this year’s uncontested election to the UN Human Rights Council

Just over two weeks ago, 18 States[1] ran for 18 available seats at the UN Human Rights Council. This meant that States who ran were all but guaranteed a place in the UN intergovernmental body, regardless of their human rights record, or their efforts to protect Human Rights Defenders (HRDs).

The Human Rights Council (HRC) is the main intergovernmental body in the UN responsible for the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Council is made up of 47 member states who are elected for three year terms. Council members commit themselves to upholding human rights globally and can respond to human rights issues brought to their attention. Yet there is no sanction on Council members when they fail to uphold human rights standards in their own countries.

Human Rights Defenders in some of the states elected last month are routinely targeted by authorities and non-state actors; they are subjected to reprisals, long term detentions and killings. I have communicated these concerns to a number of states, but disturbingly, many have made little effort to address these issues.

The global human rights framework only works if it is inclusive of everyone. But I believe that election to the Human Rights Council should be dependent on minimum standards; states who have carried out reprisals against HRDs for interacting with the UN should obviously be prevented from sitting on the HRC as it sets a terrible example.

States can gain a seat at the main intergovernmental body within the UN system responsible for promoting respect for human rights despite their own problematic human rights records. This can put Human Rights Defenders, and the people they protect, at serious risk.

Of the 18 new additions to the Council, several have poor records on protecting their Human Rights Defenders.

I outlined my priority issues when I took up this mandate in May 2020, and they include reprisals, long term detentions and killings. Some of the newly-elected States have terrible records on these issues, which I have outlined below.

(Information about all newly elected states’ efforts to uphold human rights in other fields can be found at ISHR’s scorecards)

Cameroon

Reprisal

Cameroon has featured in five of the UN Secretary General’s annual reports on reprisals since 2010.

The 2021 report highlighted the case of NGO East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (DefendDefenders). They were accused of “financing” and “advocating” terrorism and being responsible for “several assassinations, kidnappings, attacks and destruction of property in Cameroon” at the Human Rights Council after making a statement there.

Long Term Detention:

Samuel Ajiekah Abuwe died in detention before being formally charged. He was accused of terrorism, which could have carried a sentence of up to 13 years.

Eritrea

“There is no space for independent civil society in Eritrea” – UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea report to the UN Human Rights Council in 2020.

Eritrea is considered to have one of the most challenging environments in the world for Human Rights Defenders to carry out their work. The Special Rapporteur on Eritrea has reported over many years that the Government has made minimal efforts to improve the situation of human rights in the country.

Reprisals

Eritrea has featured in three of the UN Secretary General’s reports on reprisals since 2010.

Long Term Detention

Dawit Isaak has been in detention since September 2001. There have been multiple reports that Mr. Isaak has been held in solitary confinement and tortured during his detention. The Government of Eritrea has not permitted anyone to visit him. At the time of writing, it was still unknown what crimes
Mr. Isaak is accused of having committed, and he has been imprisoned without trial for over 20 years.

Honduras

Reprisals

Honduras has featured in five of the UN Secretary General’s reports on reprisals since 2010.

Long Term Detention

In March 2021, Jennifer Sarina Mejía Solórzano was arrested on her way to the Santa Fe municipality and charged with the offences of “usurpation of land” (art. 227 of the Criminal Code), “damage” (art. 254) and “threats” (art. 207) against the Canadian company Sociedad de Responsabilidad y Bienes Raíces. She was also separately charged with “theft” (art. 218)

Marianela Mejía Solórzano was arrested under the same charges when she went to inquire at the police station for information about her sister. Both face 10 years or more in prison.

Killings

Between 2015 and 2019, OHCHR recorded 73 killings of Human Rights Defenders in Honduras, the fourth highest number of killings in any country in the world, and among the highest per capita.

Country Visit

In his visit in 2018, former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders said, “the vast majority of human rights defenders in Honduras are not working in a safe, supportive environment”

India

Reprisals

India has featured in seven of the UN Secretary General’s reports on reprisals since 2010.

Long Term Detention

On 5 July 2021, 84-year-old Jesuit priest and human rights defender Stan Swamy died in custody in India after having been arrested nine months previously and accused of terrorism-related crimes that carried a sentence of up to life in prison. The authorities had denied him adequate medical care while he was in detention.

Killings

Between 2015 and 2019, OHCHR recorded the killing of 53 Human Rights Defenders in India.

United Arab Emirates

Reprisals

The UAE has featured in seven of the UN Secretary General’s reports on reprisals since 2010.

The 2021 report on reprisals highlighted that long prison sentences and the use of counter-terrorism legislation to target human rights defenders, including those facing reprisals for cooperation with the UN.

Ahmed Mansoor of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights is alleged to have suffered intimidation and reprisals for his collaboration with UN human rights mechanisms. He has reportedly been subject to torture and held in solitary confinement.

Long Term Detention

I received information on six human rights defenders who had been sentenced to more than 10 years in jail or were detained on charges in contexts which make it likely that they will receive such sentences.

One of them is Mohamed al-Roken, a human rights defender, lawyer and academic. Mr. Al-Roken has been detained since 2013 when he was sentenced to 10 years for “plotting against the Government”. The conviction relates to his signing an online petition in March 2011 calling for democratic reforms in the country.

Other States

The following countries have also featured in the UN Secretary General’s reports on reprisals once or more since 2010: Kazakhstan (4), Malaysia (2), Benin (1), Gambia (1) and Somalia (1).


[1] The eighteen elected States are Argentina Benin, Cameroon, Finland,  Eritrea,, Gambia, Honduras, India, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Montenegro, Paraguay, Qatar, Somalia, United Arab Emirates and United States of America.

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