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Reflections on the 38th session of the UN Human Rights Council

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The start of the 38th session was marked by an unprecedented event, as the United States withdrew its membership from the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC). It is the only state to have done so in the Council’s twelve-year history. In a letter, sent on 22 June, Ambassador Nikki Haley accused DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project) and 17 other NGOs of having contributed to that decision, after we co-signed a letter expressing legitimate concerns about US efforts to reform the UN HRC at the UN General Assembly, which bypassed established processes.

Although we welcome attempts to strengthen the Council, we had serious concerns that this approach would have weakened it. DefendDefenders is committed to the UN HRC as a forum where voices of human rights defenders (HRDs) can be heard, and we supported HRDs from Eritrea and Tanzania to attend the 38th session.

Burundi featured prominently on the agenda, with examinations under Item 4, Item 6 (Universal Periodic Review), and Item 2. During the session, the delegation continued the non-cooperation that has come to define Burundi’s tenure as a member state, going so far as to threaten legal action against members of the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Burundi. In a Kafkaesque move, the government issued and then revoked the visas of three human rights experts mandated by a resolution it had supported during the Council’s 36th session. Nevertheless, the CoI has been able to collect over 880 testimonials, documenting violations including extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, and torture and other forms of ill-treatment.

Eritrea similarly refuses to cooperate with mechanisms of the UN HRC and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). DefendDefenders co-hosted a side-event that discussed options as the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea came to an end. We welcomed the Council’s decision to extend the mandate, and laid out several options for the new mandate-holder ahead of the session, focusing on ways to advance accountability for the crimes under international law and violations of human rights.

Ethiopia has seen remarkable positive change since Abiy Ahmed took office as Prime Minister in April 2018. Now that the state of emergency has been lifted, thousands of political prisoners have been released, and authorities have signaled a willingness to review repressive laws, the country finds itself at a critical junction. Although the Prime Minister conceded security forces have committed violations during the mass protests that have rocked Ethiopia since November 2015, the perpetrators are yet to be brought to justice. During a side-event, DefendDefenders joined other panelists to look at the possible role of regional and international mechanisms to ensure accountability and that systemic human rights issues are addressed.

On the other hand, in Tanzania, authorities have grown increasingly intolerant of critical voices ever since President John Magufuli took office in October 2015. DefendDefenders organised a side-event during which the panellists launched Spreading Fear, Asserting Control: Tanzania’s assault on civic space, our latest report based on a research mission conducted three weeks before the session, to highlight the increasing judicial and extra-judicial restrictions placed on HRDs, bloggers, and journalists. Focusing on the Council’s prevention mandate, participants explored avenues for the UN HRC to avert entrenchment of the current crisis.

We welcomed the presence of the Tanzanian delegation at the event, particularly the invitation for a country visit the Tanzanian Ambassador extended to the Special Rapporteur on freedom of association and peaceful assembly. During the General Debate under Item 4, we called upon the government to formalize this invitation without delay.

On thematic areas, DefendDefenders highlighted the crackdown on journalists in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, where journalist, artists, and media professionals have been repeatedly charged and convicted on spurious charges. With landmark resolution A/HRC/32/2, which created the mandate for the Independent Expert on minorities, the UN HRC recognized a community that remains particularly vulnerable in the East and Horn of Africa, and DefendDefenders expressed its concern about the undue restrictions HRDs working on minority issues in Tanzania and Uganda continue to face.

Oral Statements to the Council

Mr. President,

On behalf of DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project), I would like to extend my warmest congratulations to Mr. Clément Voulé for his appointment as UN Special Rapporteur. We welcome his first report, including his analysis that patterns of attacks against the civic space around the globe have resulted in serious limitations to the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. This holds true for minority persons, defenders and organisations, who are particularly vulnerable to physical attacks and at risk of arrest, detention and harassment, both from the authorities and non-state actors.

As highlighted by Independent Expert Victor Madrigal-Borloz, deeply entrenched stigma and prejudice on the basis of minority, reinforced by discriminatory laws and regulations foster a climate where hate speech, violence and discrimination are condoned and perpetrated with impunity. The media often amplify and disseminate messages that foster this climate.

Across the East and Horn of Africa, violent illegal acts by police and other actors targeting the minority community are all too frequent. In Tanzania, as President Magufuli’s rule has taken on a moralistic tone, the situation of minority persons and HRDs working on minority issues has become increasingly precarious. On 17 October 2017, a legal consultation organised by local NGO CHESA and South Africa-based ISLA was raided by police in Dar es Salaam. CHESA was immediately suspended. The status of the investigation, the legal status of the case, and CHESA’s registration status remain unclear. The case against CHESA has no legal basis, as “promotion of homosexuality,” of which members have been accused, is not an offence under Tanzanian law. As one HRD DefendDefenders interviewed last month said: “Our existence bothers some people.”

In Uganda, in the last few years, Pride Uganda celebrations have been shut down, affecting Ugandans’ rights to peaceful association and assembly. In a recent instance, celebrations to mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia were shut down by Uganda’s Minister of Ethics and Integrity.

We call on the Tanzanian and Ugandan authorities to reverse course and fully respect freedom of peaceful assembly and association, including of minority persons, defenders and organisations and to publicly commit to bringing impunity for acts of violence and discrimination against them to an end.

Mr. President,

DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project) welcomes the reports of the Special Rapporteurs on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, on armed non-State actors, and on the right to free­dom of opinion and expression.

Mr. Kaye,

We agree with you on the principle that any framework for the moderation of content, inclu­ding online, must be human rights-based. We are concerned that legitimate discourse is in­crea­singly targeted, including through requests for pre-publication monitoring and fil­tering on online platforms such as forums and blogs. We will deliver further remarks on the situ­a­tion in Tanzania under another agenda item.

Governments across the East and Horn of Africa have sought to restrict legitimate expres­sion. For instance, in Kenya, on 26 March 2018, jour­nalists from several media houses were threat­ened and beaten at Jomo Kenyatta Interna­tional Airport while attempting to cover the return of opposition figure Miguna Miguna. This incident follows the suspension, on 30 Jan­uary 2018, of three TV stations and several local ra­dio stations after they reported on the unofficial swearing-in of then-opposition leader Raila Odinga. By 9 February, all stations were again available on free-to-air platforms, but the incident had a chilling effect.

In the self-declared Republic of Somaliland journalists, artists, and media professionals have been harassed. On 6 March 2018, poet and peace activist Naema Qorane was charged with spreading “unpatriotic propaganda” via Facebook, where she allegedly promoted the idea of a united Somalia. On 15 April, she was sentenced to three years in jail on charges of “anti-national activity of a citizen and bringing the nation or state in contempt,” and later pardo­ned.

In South Sudan, the Media Authority suspended UNMISS-operated Radio Miraya for a alle­ged­ly failing to comply with national media laws. On 19 April, authorities shut down the BBC’s FM relay stations in the cities of Juba and Wau, alleging that the broadcaster had failed to pay certain bills.

Lastly, we close this statement by expressing hope that the steps the new Ethiopian govern­ment has taken and will take, including reviewing the Anti-Terrorism and Civil Society Procla­m­ations, will lead to an enlargement of the civic space, as a free space where citizens can peacefully express their views and share grievances is a precondition for sus­tain­able deve­lop­ment.

Thank you for your attention.

Mr. President, Madam Special Rapporteur,

We thank you for your final report to the Human Rights Coun­cil, which outlines that the situ­ation in Eritrea remains grim, with no meaningful progress to report. We salute you for the tremendous work you have carried out over the last six years. It is of utmost importance for the Council to remain seized of the situation under its agenda item 4 and to keep on shining a light on the plight of the Eritrean people. We call on the Council to extend the dedicated country mechanism.

I now turn to the Eritrean government. While we note that appalling verbal attacks against UN experts, some of which verged on incitement to physical violence, we witnessed in the last few years seem to have stopped, we reiterate that the human rights violations for which the gov­ern­ment is responsible, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity, call for ac­count­ability. We urge all states that are will­ing to exer­cise jurisdiction over Eritrean ca­ses to do so, including through the use of uni­ver­sal juris­dic­tion for crimes under inter­na­tio­nal law.

Regarding engagement with the UN, the ball is in the government’s court. Supporting your claim that there has been “opening” and “positive chan­ge” would not take much. A number of steps can be taken immediately. They include:

– Inviting the Special Rapporteur for a visit to the country, with unfettered access to train­ing camps and detention places;
– Accepting pending visits requests by special procedure mandate holders, including on civil and political rights;
– Immediately and unconditionally releasing all political prisoners, including journalists and human rights defenders, as well as those who have attempted to evade national ser­vice or flee the country; and
– Putting an end to indefinite national service, which constitutes enslavement.

A wind of change may well be blowing in the region. DefendDefenders urges you to change course, seize the hand that seems to have been extended by Ethiopia regarding the border issue, and prioritise respect for the human rights of your citizens, including their right to ac­count­ability and redress.

Thank you for your attention.

Mr. President, members of the Commission of Inquiry,

We thank you for your update. Since the beginning of the crisis, civil liberties have been seve­rely restricted in Burundi. A large number of human rights defenders (HRDs) remain in exile. Independent journalists, lawyers and members of human rights organisations maintain their work while in exile, but in a precarious environment.

In the country, assault on civic space is the new normality. In May, the government sus­pen­ded radio broadcasts from the BBC and Voice of America. HRDs who are still present are under constant pressure, or facing arrest. Germain Rukuki, Emmanuel Nshimirimana, Aimé Constant Gatore, and Marius Nizigama have been sentenced to prison terms between 10 and 32 years as reprisals for their human rights work, while Nestor Nibitanga may face 20 years. We are particularly concerned about the physical condition of Germain Rukuki, who needs medical care. Just like hundreds of Burundians, HRDs are also victims of enforced dis­appearances, like Marie-Claudette Kwizera, Treasurer of the Ligue Iteka, who disappeared on 10 December 2015 and whose fate or whereabouts remain unknown.

On 17 May 2018, Burundi held a controversial constitutional referendum. The electoral pro­cess was marred with violence and repression, with arrests, beatings and intimidation of citizens campaigning for a “No” vote.

Mr. President,

From the start, Burundi was unfit to serve as a Council member. In the last two-and-a-half years, its behaviour on this Council has been appalling. Burundi has attempted to weaken the Council and its mechanisms, including the Commission of Inquiry. The multiple state­ments the gov­ern­ment made to boast of its un­willingness to cooperate should have trig­ger­ed action with regard to its membership rights. As a matter of principle, we reiterate that it is not too late for the Council to recommend that the UN General Assembly suspend Burundi.

Thank you for your attention.

Monsieur le Président, chers membres de la Commission d’enquête,

Nous vous remercions pour votre mise à jour. Depuis le début de la crise, les libertés civiles ont été sévèrement restreintes au Burundi. Un grand nombre de défenseurs des droits hu­mains (DDH) se trouvent en exil. Journalistes indépendants, avocats et membres d’orga­ni­sations de défense des droits humains poursuivent leur travail depuis l’étranger, mais dans des conditions précaires.

À travers le pays, les attaques contre l’espace civique sont la nouvelle normalité. En mai, le gouvernement a suspendu les transmissions radio de la BBC et de Voice of America. Les DDH qui sont toujours présents dans le pays sont sous pression permanente ou sous la menace d’arrestations. Germain Rukuki, Emmanuel Nshimirimana, Aimé Constant Gatore et Marius Nizigama ont été condamnés à des peines allant de 10 à 32 ans en représailles à leur travail en faveur des droits humains. Nestor Nibitanga risque, lui, une peine de vingt années. Nous sommes particulièrement inquiets quant à la condition physique de Germain Rukuki, qui a besoin de soins médicaux. Comme des centaines de Burundais, les DDH sont aussi victimes de disparitions forcées. Ainsi de Marie-Claudette Kwizera, trésorière de la Ligue Iteka, qui a disparu le 10 décembre 2015 et dont le sort demeure inconnu.

Le 17 mai 2018, le Burundi a tenu un référendum constitutionnel controversé. Le processus électoral a été marqué par la violence et la répression, avec des arrestations, des tabassages et l’intimidation des citoyens faisant campagne pour le « non ».

Monsieur le Président,

Dès l’origine, le Burundi n’était pas apte à servir comme membre du Conseil. Au cours des deux années et demi passées, son comportement dans cette enceinte a été consternant. Le Burundi a tenté d’affaiblir le Conseil et ses mécanismes, dont la Commission d’enquête. Les multiples interventions que le gouvernement a livrées, se vantant de son refus de coopérer,auraient dû déclencher l’action des États quant à ses droits de membre élu. Par principe, nous réitérons qu’il n’est pas trop tard pour le Conseil de recommander à l’Assemblée générale de l’ONU de suspendre le Burundi.

Je vous remercie de votre attention.

Mr. Vice president,

We would like to draw the Coun­cil’s attention to the situation in Tanzania, which increasingly resem­bles a case of needed pre­ventative action.

Since 2015, Tanzania has taken a series of steps to restrict civic space and its citizens’ funda­mental rights. Media outlets have been shut down or suspended. Human rights defenders (HRDs) have been harassed, threatened, and stigmatised. NGOs, including those working on LGBTI issues, have been arbitrarily suspended or de-registered. Members of the oppo­sition, including MPs, have been assaul­ted and killed. The fate or whereabouts of journalist Azory Gwanda, who disappeared in Nov­ember 2017, remain unknown.

The Media Services Act, the Cybercrimes Act, the Statistics Act and other laws, which have been used to silence independent voices, should be reviewed and amen­d­ed in line with Tan­zania’s dom­estic and inter­na­tional obligations.

We call on member and observer states to send the Tanzanian government a message, inc­luding through joint statements, that this trend should be put to an end. We welcome Tanza­nia’s invitation to the Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, made yesterday at a side event, and call on the government to swiftly set a date for a visit.

Mr. Vice president,

Sudan continues to put a strain on this Council’s time and resources by abusing agenda item 10, which is dedicated to technical assistance and capacity-building. What Sudan needs is po­litical will to improve the situation and bring impunity to an end, not more technical sup­port.

In the last few months, HRDs, opposition members, and students have been arbitrarily arres­ted, ill-treated, banned from traveling, or detain­ed incommunicado by the National Intelli­gen­ce and Security Ser­vi­ces (NISS) in connection with anti-austerity pro­tests and other public gather­ings. Sexual violence remains widespread, in conflict and non-conflict zones, and con­tinues to be used as a wea­pon of war.

We urge the immediate and unconditional release of Noura Hussein, a victim of child mar­riage and marital rape, who was senten­ced to five years’ imprisonment and a fine for killing her husband in self-defence.

Thank you for your attention.

Mr. President,

DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project) takes note of Burundi’s replies to the recommendations received during its UPR. We regret the government’s unwillingness to ratify key international instruments such as Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Conven­tion for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, from which the government withdrew in an attempt to evade accountability for crimes under international law.

The government continues to defy the UN human rights system. In its responses ahead of today’s meeting, it dedi­cated a mere two paragraphs to the 34 recommendations on coope­ration with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Com­mission of Inquiry (CoI) set up by this Council to investigate the human rights violations and abuses committed since April 2015. We consider that this is yet another insult to the victims.

The government’s rejection of recommendations pertaining to the fight against impunity, in particular of the ruling CNDD-FDD youths, or Imbonerakure, and to freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, is particularly telling.

Lastly, we condemn the pattern of reprisals meted out by the government of Burundi against hu­man rights defenders who cooperate with the United Nations, its representatives and me­chanisms. I close by quoting from a recommendation, offered by Ghana, which the Burun­dian government rejected: “Investigate all alleged reports of violence against, and intimidation, harassment and surveillance of, human rights defenders, and conduct prompt and impartial investigations with a view to holding the perpetrators accountable” (137.169). This behaviour, Mr. President, is nothing other than an attack against the UN human rights system as a whole.

Thank you for your attention.

Monsieur le Président,

DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project) prend note des réponses du Burundi aux recommandations reçues lors de son EPU. Nous regrettons le manque de volonté du gouvernement de ratifier des instruments internationaux clefs tels que le Protocole facultatif au Pacte international relatif aux droits économiques, sociaux et culturels, la Convention internationale pour la protection de toutes les personnes contre les disparitions forcées et le Statut de Rome de la Cour pénale internationale, dont le gouverne­ment s’est retiré dans une tentative d’échapper à ses responsabilités pour les crimes interna­tio­naux commis.

Le gouvernement continue de défier le système onusien des droits humains. Dans les ré­ponses qu’il a fournies en amont de la réunion d’aujourd’hui, il a dédié seulement deux para­graphes aux 34 recommandations concernant la coopération avec le Bureau du Haut-Com­missaire aux droits de l’homme (HCDH) et la Commission d’enquête mise en place par ce Conseil pour faire la lumière sur les violations et atteintes commises depuis avril 2015. Nous considérons qu’il s’agit là d’une insulte supplémentaire aux victimes.

Le rejet par le gouvernement de recommandations ayant trait à la lutte contre l’impunité, en particulier des jeunes du parti CNDD FDD au pouvoir, ou Imbonerakure, et aux libertés d’ex-pression, de réunion pacifique et d’association, est particulièrement édifiant.

Enfin, nous condamnons les représailles infligées par le gouvernement burundais aux défen­seurs des droits humains coopérant avec les Nations Unies, ses représentants et ses méca­nis­mes. Je conclus en citant une recommandation, offerte par le Ghana, que le gou­verne­ment du Burundi a rejetée : « Enquêter sur toutes les allégations faisant état de violences, d’inti­mi­dation, de harcèlement et de surveillance à l’encontre des défenseurs des droits de l’homme et mener sans délai des enquêtes impartiales afin que les auteurs de tels actes soient traduits en justice » (137.169). Ce comportement, Monsieur le Président, n’est rien moins qu’une attaque contre le système onusien des droits humains dans son ensemble.

Je vous remercie de votre attention.

Mr. President, Mr. High Commissioner,

This statement is delivered on behalf of DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Hu­man Rights Defenders Project).

Burundi denying access to—or even worse: withdrawing visas from—the experts mandated by a resolution the government has itself sup­ported can only be referred to as what it is: a case of extreme policy incoherence, hypocrisy, and bad faith. This Kafkaesque situation only adds evidence to one very simple fact: Burundi, which refuses any form of cooperation and continues to launch personal attacks against independent experts and UN officials, is unfit to serve as a Council member.

Last September, we were worried that the Burundian government’s move to push members of its regional group to present a resolution, under item 2, which competed with the resolu­tion extending the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry, was an attempt at abusing the Coun­­cil’s time and resources and at diverting attention from the egregious vio­lations do­cu­mented over the years. These fears have been confirmed. However, the result has been that more attention, not less, has been brought to Burundi—with no fewer than seven debates in this room this year.

We stand by our findings, those of the Commission of Inquiry, and OHCHR assessment of the situation in Burundi, expressed in statements delivered under other agenda items.

Thank you for your attention.

Briefing papers and press releases

To Permanent Representatives of Member and Observer States of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Geneva, Switzerland

Eritrea: Extend UN Special Rapporteur mandate, help end generalized impunity


Ahead of the 38th session of the UN Human Rights Council (“HRC” or “the Coun­cil”), we write to you as a cross-re­gional group of non-governmental organizations to share our serious concerns over the sys­te­ma­tic, wide­spread and gross human rights violations that continue to be committed with impu­nity in Eritrea.

We urge your Govern­ment to support and co-sponsor at the upcoming session a streamlined reso­lution that accurately reflects the gravity of the situation on the ground, renews the man­date of the Special Rapporteur under the Council’s agenda item 4, and sets out a framework for need­ed reforms to improve the human rights situation in the country and advance ac­count­ability.

At the Council’s last regular session, during an enhanced interactive dialogue on Eri­trea held in March 2018, Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore noted:

“In 2016, the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea found reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity, namely, enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, other inhumane acts, per­secution, rape and murder, had been committed since 1991. The Commission noted that despite the State’s increased engagement with the international community, there was no evidence of progress in the field of hu­man rights. I regret to report that this state of affairs remains unchanged.”[1]

In her most recent statement to the Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, Sheila B. Keet­ha­ruth, similarly detailed violations per­tain­ing to the right to life, including deaths in custody for which responsibility “falls squarely on Gov­ernment authorities,” the right to liberty and security of the person, freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, freedoms of expression, assembly and as­so­ciation, and freedom of religion or belief, inc­lu­­ding the harass­ment, mis­treatment, torture and detention of members of unrecognized religions.[2] These continuing violations present a systematic character, meaning, in the words of the Special Rap­porteur, that “they cannot be the result of ran­dom or isolated acts by the autho­rities” and that they occur in a country ruled “not by law, but by fear.”[3]

Since Eritrea was first considered by the Council, the Government has refused to cooperate with the mechanisms the Council set up, including the Special Rapporteur and the Commis­sion of In­quiry (CoI). At the March 2018 enhanced interactive dialogue, Eritrea was not present to take the floor as the con­cer­ned country.

Eritrea’s cooperation with other international bodies, mechanisms or agencies has been extremely selec­tive. While the Government recently invited the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Hu­man Rights (OHCHR) for a short-term technical assistance mission, the Deputy High Commissio­ner under­lined that “the test of the merits of our engagement with Eritrea – like Eritrea’s commitments at the international level – lies in whether or not they produce concrete human rights improvements for the people of Eritrea.” She concluded that there had been no measurable progress to date.

Eritrea has consistently denied UN Special Procedures, including the country-specific Special Rap­por­teur, access to the country. At the time of writing, pen­ding visit requests by Special Procedures included requests from the Spe­cial Rapporteurs on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (request in 2005; reminders in 2007 and 2010); freedom of religion or belief (request in 2004; reminders in 2005 and 2006); extrajudicial, sum­mary or arbitrary exe­cu­tions (request in 2010); the right to food (request in 2003); and freedom of opi­nion and expression (request in 2003; reminders in 2005 and 2015).

Eritrea has also attacked, intimidated and threatened human rights defenders and independent UN ex­perts, including the Special Rapporteur and members of the CoI. When the latter presented their report in 2015, they noted that “[they] were followed in the streets and in [their] hotels and vilified in blogs on line where the words of [their] report have been twisted and misquoted.” The Com­mission’s Chair added: “Of course this is trivial compared to the day to day experience of people in Eritrea itself, but it is indicative of a determination on the part of the authorities to control anyone they perceive as a critic.”[4]

The gravity, scale and nature of the continuing violations call for justice. Victims, including those who live inside the country and those who have fled it, deserve redress. As domestic avenues for such red­ress are non-existent, the international community must continue to act with a view to en­ding the gene­ra­lized impu­nity that prevails in the coun­try. The Deputy High Commissioner remin­ded the Coun­cil that, as advi­sed by the Special Rapporteur, there could be “no sustain­able solution to the refugee out­flows until the Government complied with its human rights obligations.”[5]

In view of the ongoing crimes under international law and violations of human rights and fun­da­mental freedoms committed in Eritrea, the Special Rapporteur’s mandate remains an indispensable mechanism to advance the protection and promotion of human rights in the country. The mandate holder continues to fulfil an invaluable role by monitoring the dire situation in the country, shining a light on violations, providing a crucial platform to help amplify the voices of victims, and offering Eritreans an opportunity to find long-lasting solutions for the respect of their human rights.

Consistent with its mandate to address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, the Human Rights Council should continue to address the situ­ation in Eritrea. We urge your dele­gation to actively support and co-sponsor a resolution that:

– Recalls the reports of the Commission of Inquiry and the Special Rapporteur and continues to ex­press its deep concern over the findings contained therein;
– Condemns the reported systematic, widespread and gross human rights viola­tions and abuses that have been and are being committed by the Government of Eritrea in a climate of genera­li­zed im­punity;
– Reiterates that all perpetrators of such violations and abuses should be held ac­countable;
– Extends the mandate of the Special Rap­porteur and invites the mandate holder to continue to fol­low up on the findings of HRC mechanisms, including on accountability;
– Invites the Special Rapporteur to assess and report on the Eritrean Government’s degree of enga­ge­ment and cooperation with the Council and its mechanisms, as well as with OHCHR, and whe­re feasible to develop benchmarks for progress on human rights and a time-bound action plan for the imple­mentation of these benchmarks;

– Calls on all states to urge the Government of Eritrea to co-operate with the Special Rappor­teur and other UN bodies and mechanisms, including Special Procedures, implement the recommen­da­­tions these bodies and mechanisms made over the years, and allow unfettered ac­cess to the coun­try, including detention centers and training facilities.

We thank you for your attention to these pressing issues and are available to provide your delegation with further information as required.


– Africa Monitors
– Amnesty International
– Asian Legal Resource Centre
– Central Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (REDHAC)
– Christian Solidarity Worldwide
– Citizens for Democratic Rights in Eritrea (CDRiE)
– DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
– Eritrean Diaspora in East Africa
– Eritrean Lowland League
– Eritrean Law Society
– Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights
– FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights)
– FORUM-Asia
– Human Rights Concern – Eritrea
– Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA)
– Human Rights Watch
– International Fellowship of Reconciliation
– International Service for Human Rights
– PEN Eritrea
– Release Eritrea
– Reporters Without Borders
– Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)
– West Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (WAHRDN/ROADDH)

[1] The meeting summary can be found at:



[4] The Special Rapporteur herself has faced personal attacks during an interactive dialogue that was held in June 2017, when she was referred to as a “naked Empress with no clothes” and was accused of carrying out a witch-hunt against Eritrea. See

[5] See footnote 1 above.

Ahead of the 38th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council, DefendDefenders and a large group of national, regional and international civil society orga­ni­sations urged member and observer states of the Council to support and co-sponsor a reso­lution that accu­rately reflects the gravity of the human rights situation in Eritrea, extends the mandate of the UN Spe­cial Rapporteur, and sets out a framework for need­ed reforms to improve the human rights situation in the country and ad­vance accountability.

Our briefing paper elaborates on this letter and outlines some of the options for the current and the next Spe­cial Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, focusing on ways to advance accounta­bility for the crimes under international law and violations of human rights, some of which may amount to cri­mes against huma­nity, that have been and continue to be committed in the country.

Read the full briefing paper here.

As momentum is growing around the UN Human Rights Council’s (“the Council” or “the HRC”) ability to respond effectively to human rights situations that require attention, how to ensure that the Council fulfils its responsibility to “contribute, through dia­logue and co­ope­ra­tion, towards the prevention of human rights violations and [to] res­pond promptly to human rights emergencies” has become one of the hot topics of discussion. Operationalising the pre­vention part of the Council’s mandate was the cen­tral theme of the 2017 Glion Human Rights Dialogue (Glion IV).

DefendDefenders believes that the time is ripe for like-minded states to make a decisive contribution to the operationalisation of the Council’s prevention mandate. States should adopt a resolution paving way for en­hanced preventative action and the identification of criteria for effective, early and ob­jec­tive action on coun­try situ­ations of concern.

Read the full briefing paper here.

Dear Ambassador Haley,

We write in response to your letter of 20 June 2018, in which you suggest that NGOs are somehow responsible for your decision to withdraw from the Human Rights Council. The decision to resign from the Council was that of the US administration alone. We had legitimate concerns that the US’s proposal to reopen the Council’s institutional framework at the General Assembly would do more harm than good. We see it as our responsibility to express those concerns and would do so again.

Although the Human Rights Council is not perfect, it does play an essential role. It makes a significant contribution to strengthening human rights standards, providing protection and justice to victims, and promoting accountability for perpetrators. The Council and its mechanisms have played a key role in securing the freedom of detained human rights defenders, and investigating rights violations in Syria, Yemen, Burundi, Myanmar, South Sudan, Sri Lanka and North Korea, to name but a few. It continues to address thematic issues of global concern including non-discrimination, freedom of expression online and offline, freedom of assembly, housing, migration, counterterrorism, and the protection of the rights of women, rights of LGBTI people, and rights of people with disabilities.

As you know, we are independent organizations that do not work on behalf of any government. We focus on building support for policies we believe will better the lives of those most affected by abuse –  which does mean we are sometimes opposed to proposals laid out by certain governments, or the proposed means of pursuing them, especially when we believe such an initiative could be more harmful than not.  With regard to the Council, our goal continues to be strengthening and supporting reform efforts that are ongoing in Geneva to ensure that they are informed by the experience and expertise of national and regional level actors, including rights-holders, human rights defenders and other civil society actors, victims, survivors (and their representatives).

We are committed to the international system, including the Human Rights Council, and to ensuring the system is fit for the purpose of promoting and protecting human rights. We will continue to work towards those goals.


– Amnesty International
– Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia)
– Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC)
– Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
– Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS)
– Child Rights Connect
– Conectas Direitos Humanos
– DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
– Human Rights Watch
– International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)
– International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
– International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)
– International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA)
– International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
– International Women’s Health Coalition
– OutRight Action International
– Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights

The UN Human Rights Council (“the Council”) showed its resolve to address the crimes committed in Eritrea by extending the mandate of its top expert on the country today. A new Special Rapporteur on Eritrea will soon succeed Ms. Sheila Kee­tharuth, who has served for six years on the position and played a key role in shi­ning a light on the country’s human rights record, which remains one of the most abysmal in the world.

“It was essential for the UN to make sure that crimes for which the Eritrean gov­er­nment is responsible continue to be documented and exposed,” said Hassan Shire, Executive Director of DefendDefenders. “Some of the violations may amount to crimes against humanity, for which there must be accountability.”

Today’s resolution, which was adopted by consensus (i.e., without any opposition), sends a strong message to the Eritrean government. It will ensure continued UN reporting on Eritrea’s human rights record, ongoing support to the victims and their families, and assistance to national jus­tice systems that may prosecute government and other officials responsible for crimes such as torture or ensla­ve­ment.

“We call on all states to prosecute these horrendous crimes, including through the use of universal jurisdiction,” said Helen Kidan, Head of Advocacy at the Eritrean Mo­ve­ment for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR). “The Special Rapporteur and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should stand ready to assist in this process, including by sharing legal expertise and inves­tigative findings.”

The human rights situation in Eritrea will be under the UN spotlight throughout the next 12 months. It will be discussed in an interactive dialogue at the UN General Assem­bly in October 2018 and in interactive dialogues (including one “enhanced” dialogue) at the Human Rights Council at its March and June 2019 sessions.

In 2012, the Council established a Special Rapporteur mandate in order to monitor and report on the human rights situation in the country. This mandate has since been renewed annually. Additionally, in 2016, an independent Commission of Inquiryconcluded that it had “reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity, namely, ensla­ve­ment, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, other inhumane acts, persecu­tion, rape and murder, ha[d] been committed in Eritrea since 1991.”

Ahead of the Council’s 38th regular session (18 June-6 July 2018), DefendDefenders coordinated a civil society call on the Council to continue addressing the situation in Eritrea, and outlined options for the Special Rapporteur, including to advance accounta­bility.

Outcomes and resolutions

A/HRC/38/L.6 condemns sexual and gender-based violence and calls on states to take immediate action to prevent all forms of violence against women and girls, including in digital contexts.

A/HRC/38/L.10/Rev.1 affirms that human rights must be protected both offline and online, and recognizes that a global and open internet is a driving force accelerating progress towards development.

A/HRC/38/L.16 calls on States to promote a safe and enabling environment for individuals and groups to exercise their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, and to make appropriate use of the Resource book on the use of force and firearms in law enforcement published by OHCHR.

A/HRC/38/L.17/Rev.1 emphasizes the essential contribution that civil society makes to regional and international organisations and calls on States to review and update their frameworks for engagement with civil society.

A/HRC/38/L.15/Rev.1 extend the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea for a period of one year.


Human Rights Defender of the month: Apollo Mukasa

Apollo Mukasa’s journey into activism is deeply rooted in his commitment to advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs). As the Executive Director of Uganda National Action on Physical Disability (UNAPD), Apollo is a driving force behind initiatives aimed at combating discrimination among PWDs. UNAPD was established in 1998 as a platform for voicing concerns of persons with physical disabilities to realise a barrier free environment where they can enjoy their rights to the fullest.