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DefendDefenders’ oral statements at HRC43

Oral statements delivered by DefendDefenders at the 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC43, 24 February-20 March 2020; resumed: 15-23 June 2020) 


Item 10: General Debate (19 June 2020) (Joint statement with 10 partner NGOs) 

Madam President,

In this time of global crisis, we urge all States to recommit to enhancing the promotion and protection of human rights and the fulfilment of the UN Human Rights Council’s mandate, in­clu­ding through cooperation, dialogue, and scrutiny of specific human rights situations. 

Scrutiny, along with support, is a major component of Item 10. In a recent report, “No Advice without Knowledge,” DefendDefenders found that Item 10 can be a powerful tool to bring about progress but that effective technical advice relies on the Council having detailed infor­ma­tion on the situation on the ground, including the issues and needs of recipient countries and rights-holders. A large number of Item 10 resolutions contain significant monitoring and public reporting elements. 

Dialogue and cooperation should also lie at the heart of Item 10. Our organisations under­stand credible “dialogue and cooperation” on human rights to mean good-faith engagement on the part of States and a willingness to be self-reflective and self-critical, all in order to bene­fit fully from the expertise and support of the Council and its mechanisms. True “cooperation and dialogue” means a willingness to cooperate with the Council, the UPR, Special Procedu­res, and other human rights mechanisms to address challenges faced and remedy abuses. It also means recognising the important complementary role of other stakeholders engaging with the Council and governments, such as civil society organisations, human rights defen­ders, journalists and national human rights institutions. It is essential that these stakeholders are able to participate, cooperate and engage in dialogues with the Council in a safe environ­ment and without undue hindrance or fear of reprisal. 

Madam President, 

We are deeply concerned by the draft resolution tabled for consideration this session on “pro­moting mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights,” which we consider seeks to undermine the carefully balanced mandate of the Council. While the initiative presents it­self as being about cooperation in the field of human rights, it is a deeply divisive and polari­sing initiative, pushing forward one singular vision of the direction of the human rights pillar at the expense of the consensus carefully forged among States over decades. 

The initiative is in line with a flawed analysis set forth in a report by the Council’s Advisory Com­mittee (A/HRC/43/31), which over-emphasises, in particular, the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention (para. 104) and goes as far as referring to “so-called” universal values (para. 106). This approach, grounded in a narrative of the Council being a de-contextualised service-provider, is not only illogical and futile, but also inconsistent with the Council’s man­da­te and practice. It ignores the reality that the cause of serious violations may often be political in nature, rather than merely a lack of knowledge or resources, and the valuable role the Coun­cil can play if it has information at its disposal as a result of frank and open debate. 

We urge China to reconsider the initiative, on the basis of the significant concerns raised du­ring the informal negotiations. If not, we call on the Council to reject this initiative that takes aim at its core mandate. 

Thank you.


Item 6: Adoption of the report on the UPR of Egypt (12 March 2020) (Joint statement with the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, CIHRS

Madam President,

During its UPR, the Government of Egypt has maintained that it supports the free functioning of independent civil society organizations (CSOs). This is at variance with the truth.

CSOs are subject to highly restrictive legislation. Within case No.173/2011 (the “foreign funding case”) Egyptian CSOs and human rights defenders (HRDs) remain under a multitude of restric­tions stifling their activity: at least 28 travel bans, 10 asset freezes against HRDs and 7 against CSOs. 

Egypt should immediately end reprisals against HRDs and allow them to travel and participate freely in UN proceedings. On 23 April 2020, a court ruling is expected on travel bans; it is crucial for the ruling to bring justice to HRDs.

Civil society at large is under the chilling effect of a sharp escalation of arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances of HRDs, like Zyad el-Elaimy and WHRD Mahienour el Mass­ry, within a vast crackdown on peaceful dissent. Minority rights advocates, from LGBT rights defenders Ma­lak el Kashef and Eman el Helw, to Coptic rights defender Ramy Kamel, have not been spa­red. Egypt received dozens of recommendations to address unlawful detentions, at­tacks ag­ainst free­doms of expression, assembly and association, restrictions on civil society and re­pri­sals against HRDs.

Egypt’s use of torture and ill-treatment in detention was also addressed in the UPR. More than ten countries called on Egypt to investigate allegations of torture and ill-treatment against de­tainees and hold perpetrators accountable. Renowned HRDs including Mohamed el Baqer, Alaa Abdelfattah, Patrick Zaki, Ramy Kamel and WHRDs Ms Esraa Abdelfattah and Solafa Magdy were victims of torture and abuse. The trend is now enforced disappearance before detention; HRD Ibrahim Ezz-el-din, also tortured, did not reappear before 167 days. 

But Egypt’s attacks against human rights norms and protections do not stop at home. They do not stop at this Council (with attempts to redefine concepts, occupy the space, dilute State obli­gations, and justify rights violations). Egypt’s destructive behaviour now extends to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).

In April 2019, at the NGO Forum organised ahead of the ACHPR’s 64th session in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egyptian authorities placed severe restrictions on participants, denying visas, threat­en­ing and intimidating HRDs, forcing the conference centre and hotels to demand exorbitant fees to hold side events, and cutting access to the In­ternet. Egyptian se­cu­rity agents even physically assaulted two South Suda­nese WHRDs.

This behaviour is in clear violation of Article 11 of the African Charter on Human and Peo­ples’ Rights and the Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly of the African Commission. The Commission’s Chair expressed regret and apo­logies to civil society; however, Egypt’s at­tacks against the integrity of the Commission and its mandate continue.

African States should stand up to Egypt’s anti-rights agenda, both on the continent and here in Geneva.

Thank you for your attention. 


Item 4: General Debate (10 March 2020)

Madam President,

In October 2019, DefendDefenders conducted a mission to Sudan. We met with human rights defenders, lawyers, civil society organisations, and government officials; assessed the human rights situation, challenges and needs of human rights organisations; and identified oppor­tu­ni­ties for collaboration and work. Last week, we launched Sudan as our “focus country” for 2020 as well as our Sudan programme, which aims to support defenders.

Since December 2018, Sudan has witnessed significant political developments that have the po­tential to bring about lasting human rights progress. We salute and applaud Sudan’s Revo­lu­tion, in particular the role played by women and youth, and the overwhelming sense of pride that the Sudanese people have reclaimed their space and their rights.

We warmly welcome Sudan’s intention to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention Against Torture (CAT) and to reform laws that are inconsistent with human rights obligations, including national security le­gis­­lation, as well as the policy of “full cooperation” with the UN announced by the transitional government.

There will be no lasting peace, democracy, and development without a central place for human rights, justice, the rule of law, inclusiveness, government accountability at all levels, provision of basic services to the population, and acknowledgment of the identity and equal dignity of all Sudanese. Systemic human rights issues, including impunity for violations and abu­ses commit­ted both in the centre and in the peripheries, need to be addressed.

As a new chapter is opening in Sudan, the Human Rights Council has the opportunity to mea­ningfully contri­bute to domestic progress. While extending technical advice and capacity-buil­ding to the government, including on legal reform and on how to create and maintain a safe and enabling civic space, it should continue to mo­nitor and hold public debates on human rights developments in Sudan.

Thank you for your attention.


Item 4: Interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi (9 March 2020)  (FRENCH version)

Madam President, dear members of the Commission of Inquiry,

In September 2019, the Human Rights Council decided to renew the mandate of the Commis­sion and maintain a high-level of scrutiny of Burundi. Since then, and as the May 2020 pre­si­den­­tial election approaches, the human rights situation in the country has not improved.

The pre-electoral period is characterised by ongoing grave violations of civil, po­li­tical, economic, social, and cultural rights (including arbitrary arrests (particularly of CNL members) and extra­judicial killings) and a full-fledged civic space crisis. The government, the ruling CNDD-FDD par­ty, and members of the Imbo­ne­ra­kure continue to exercise intimidation, ham­per­ing the pros­pects for a free and fair election. We are also worried about violence in refugee camps outside of Burundi. Regar­ding human rights, the “risk fac­tor” ap­proach outlined by the Commission re­mains a key tool to analyse the situation.

DefendDefenders reiterates its call on Burundian authorities to bring the repression to an end, ensure accountability and hold perpetrators of grave violations to account, open the civic and democratic space, and immediately and uncon­ditionally re­lease prisoners of conscience, inclu­ding human rights defenders Germain Rukuki and Nestor Nibitanga, and Iwacu journalists Ag­nès Ndirubusa, Christine Kamikazi, Egide Harerimana, and Térence Mpozenzi, whose condem­na­tion was strongly criticised by two UN experts.

We once again urge Burundi to change course and cooperate with OHCHR, allow the Office to operate in the country again, and engage with the CoI.

Commissioners: At this point, and building on the risk factors and indicators you identified, what more can be done to encourage regional and international actors to continue dedicating their utmost attention to Burundi’s human rights situation? 

Thank you.


Item 4: Interactive dialogue with the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (9 March 2020) 

Madam President, dear Commissioners,

DefendDefenders welcomes your report, its focus on the political economy of the conflict and the impact of economic crimes on economic, social, and cultural rights. It sheds new light on South Sudan’ situation.

Your findings are damning. They include crimes under international law and ongoing gross, wi­de­spread, and systemic human rights violations and abuses, including se­xual and gender-based violence (SGBV), restrictions to citizens’ fundamental rights, and deeply entrenched im­pu­nity. The human rights situation in South Sudan remains one of the most serious in Africa, with the largest refugee and internally displaced people crisis.

DefendDefenders’ recent research in the country (February 2020) confirms that the space for hu­man rights defenders, civil society, and the media is under attack. Those working on issues deemed poli­tically sensitive, including corruption, identification of perpetrators, and moni­to­r­ing of the implementa­tion of the Revitalised Peace Agreement (R-ARCSS), are reporting wide­spread surveillance by, and pressure from, security forces, notably the National Security Service (NSS), as well as pat­terns of threats, harassment, attacks, arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and en­for­ced disap­pearances. Fear and self-censorship are mounting.

Risk factors of further violations exist. In several areas, intercommu­nal tensions and violence, often with an ethnic overtone, are fuelled by conflicts over livelihoods and by impunity. As we speak, violence is increasing in Tonj and Pibor/Jonglei.

While welcoming the political step taken in late February with the swearing in of five Vice-Pre­sidents, we caution that it is yet to transition into any human rights progress. Key provisions of the Peace Agreement, including Chapter II (transitional security arrangements) and Chapter V (transitional justice, including the establishment of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan) remain unimplemented. This, and recent history, should lead all stakeholders to a cautious approach.

Since 2016, the Human Rights Council, with the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, has successfully placed human rights and accountability at the centre of multilateral efforts to address the country’s situation and help its people. By doing so, it has also contributed to incen­tivising the parties to implement the Peace Agreement and helping regional actors to keep the momentum.

At this session, the Council continue sending the right message to all stakeholders by renewing the mandate of the Commission in full to allow it to pursue its vital work.

Thank you for your attention.


Item 2: Interactive dialogue on the oral update by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea (26 February 2020)

Madam President, Madam Special Rapporteur,

DefendDefenders thanks you for your update. In 2019, the Council decided to maintain a high level of scrutiny of the human rights situation in Eritrea and extended your mandate. It made clear that mem­ber­ship in the Council was not a shield from scrutiny. 

The lack of tangible domestic steps to address the gross, wide­spread, systematic, and systemic human rights violations committed in the country calls for continued attention. The fact that HRC resolution 41/1 was adopted under item 2 means that Eritrea is discussed early at this session. More significantly, it means that a hand was extended to the country’s authorities. 

The Govern­ment should seize this hand and fulfil its membership obligations by coopera­ting with special procedure man­date-holders. The “bench­­marks for progress” you identified last year form a basis for such en­gagement. 

In 2018, Eritrea was reviewed by the African Com­mis­sion on Human and Peoples’ Rights after the Government submitted its first-ever report, encompassing eight periodic reports (1999-2016). The Commission formulated 72 recommendations covering a range of serious human rights issues. Meaningful reforms remain elusive, but we welcome the fact that a human rights dialogue took place – and again recently with the CEDAW Committee. 

It is never too late to change course. Eritrea should do so without waiting for the Council’s 44th session.  

Thank you for your attention.