Reprisals – Reflections on the report and resolution at the UN Human Rights Council

“States seldom take responsibility for such [reprisals], but rather there is almost invariably a blind, blanket and almost bovine denial.” 

Andrew Gilmore, Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights 2019

The issue of reprisals has always been important to me, and since taking on the role of Special Rapporteur it has assumed new meaning for me. The idea that a human rights defender would be harmed for talking to me, or sending me information, is abhorrent and something which deeply unsettles me. While the full extent of reprisals is far from clear due to reporting difficulties (and fear inhibiting cooperation), a truer picture has emerged over the past five years. And while the work put in by the Secretary General and other UN actors is commendable, unfortunately there is little evidence to suggest that the reprisals response is having a disincentivising effect in its current form.

There was little new in this year’s report which was presented by the Assistant Secretary General to the Human Rights Council late last month. We have sadly seen the form reprisals take on an annual basis since the report was first published in 2010, and we have heard governments named in those reports gaslight the Human Rights Council every year since in their responses to the report. This year was no different.

In the interactive dialogue following the report, Egypt stated its commitment to cooperating with the UN but urged the Secretary General to ‘ensure the accuracy of information provided and not be driven to goals by certain parties which aim at misusing this information’. Egypt has been named in six reprisals reports since 2010 and has permitted a single visit by a Special Procedures mandate holder in the last decade, a visit that triggered a number of intimidation and reprisal incidents. Of the last ten cases of human rights defenders at risk in Egypt that my mandate has led or joined, the government has responded to one. This is not a recognisable form of cooperation.

China, which along with Saudi Arabia, shares the distinction of being the country named in most reprisals reports (10), rejected this year’s iteration as containing ‘unsubstantiated and fake information’. This is a transparently bad faith argument given China’s refusal to permit human rights experts to visit and verify the information being submitted. China has admitted four Special Procedure mandate holders in the last ten years, and some of those visits also triggered reprisals incidents. A request from my mandate to visit has been pending since 2005. The High Commissioner has been seeking permission to visit Xinjiang for three years without success. The Chinese government’s crusade to prevent human rights defenders interacting with the UN is encapsulated by information in this year’s report which states that some NGOs in Hong Kong have stopped engaging with OHCHR, including Special Procedures, “due to a fear that they would be in contravention” of the National Security Law. The law criminalises  “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security”, and given those who have previously engaged with OHCHR have been charged with subversion, the fear is not unfounded. While in its response to the Secretary General the Chinese government stated that “cooperation with international organizations (including the United Nations)” is not affected by the law, human rights defenders clearly remain unconvinced by the argument. I challenge China to explicitly and publicly state at the Human Rights Council that communication with the UN does not contravene the National Security Law.

Saudi Arabia valiantly condemned all acts of reprisals in the interactive dialogue, notwithstanding being cited by the Assistant Secretary General, with great understatement, as one of the countries in which there are “signs of a possible pattern”. Saudi Arabia pledged to “fully cooperate with the Assistant Secretary General on these issues”, but will it permit a visit by my mandate or by OHCHR to investigate and offer assistance on how to address this problem? I can take an educated guess at the answer by considering that the government has allowed just four Special Procedure mandate holder visits since 2002. The HRD mandate had a visit request accepted in 2015, but progress has stalled since then.

Venezuela, which has featured in the report nine times and as of last year, was second in the table for total number of reprisal cases reported (Bahrain was first), stated in the interactive dialogue that it “regretted the unsubstantiated claims” in the report and requested that states be “consulted better” in the drafting of the report in future. Given the disingenuous nature of government responses in reprisals cases, I cannot think of a worse idea. Allegations of reprisals by the Venezuelan authorities were made by “multiple UN actors”, as was the case for a number of other states in the report. This is one of the reasons why claims of ‘bias’ or ‘unsubstantiated facts’ ring hollow, because the allegations are coming from a range of actors within the UN system over a period of years.

I don’t believe it’s coincidence that 8 out of the 10 countries which feature most often in the reprisals reports have not issued standing invitations to Special Procedures. Most do their best to avoid international scrutiny, which is why it is necessary that this issue of reprisals is amplified further. I am glad to see the UN Human Rights Council Resolution on Reprisals calling for the report to be presented annually at the General Assembly, in addition to the Human Rights Council. I would also like to see the President of the Human Rights Council make more use of publicity to address the serial offenders, both as a means to improve the situation for the individual concerned and as a way to disincentivise further reprisals. Finally, for the credibility of the Council, I firmly believe that a state’s record on reprisals should be one of the key criteria for consideration when running for election to the Human Rights Council. The idea that a state which routinely punishes people for engaging with the Council or other UN mechanisms should be eligible to sit on the Council is a betrayal of the human rights defenders who take great risks on a daily basis to expose the violations of those same states.