Reflections on the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council

Despite the COVID-19-associated travel restrictions that remain in place, the voice of African human rights defenders (HRDs) resonated in Geneva during the 45th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC45). DefendDefenders and partners used remote participation possibilities to deliver two video statements to the Council. We hope to be able to resume in-person advocacy fully in the near future. The next session will take place in February-March 2021. It will be important for South Sudanese HRDs, in particular, to be able to engage states and UN experts as a resolution on South Sudan will be discussed.

Video statement from South Sudan
Video statement from Kenya
In the meantime, we continue to rely on our Geneva office to engage the UN human rights system, including the Council, its special procedures, diplomatic missions, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). It has proven invaluable ahead of, and during, the 45th session, as DefendDefenders advocated for an unprecedented number of resolutions: four. These included three resolutions on country situations (Burundi, Sudan, and Somalia) and one thematic resolution (on the Council’s contribution to the prevention of human rights violations).
 
Ahead of HRC45, taking into account the lack of concrete human rights progress in Burundi and the government’s ongoing refusal to cooperate with the UN human rights system, we and partners called for a further extension of the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on the country. We also outlined a number of “indicators,” which could serve as objective tools to measure progress, including on civic space in the country.

During the session, the Burundian government refused to seize the opportunity of political developments (including the election of a new President, Évariste Ndayishimiye) to open a new chapter for its people and its relationship with the UN human rights system. It continued to deny that grave violations are committed and to attack the CoI. As a result, the main sponsor of Burundi-focused resolutions, the European Union, decided to propose an extension of the CoI’s mandate. The Council adopted the resolution by a large majority. We welcomed this step as the most sensible way forward, while urging Burundi to change course and resume its engagement with the international community. 

Earlier, we held our first in-person side event since March 2020 (a documentary screening and discussion with our partners, Light For All) and delivered a statement during the plenary debate on Burundi.

The HRC45 resolution on Sudan is far from perfect but it addresses civil society’s main demand: maintaining international scrutiny of the country’s situation, in addition to extending technical assistance. The resolution defines new modalities for UN engagement on and with Sudan: it terminates the mandate of the Independent Expert (IE) on the country and requests OHCHR to report at the Council’s 48th session (September 2021).

Throughout 2020, DefendDefenders and partners emphasised that this is not the time to relax scrutiny of Sudan’s situation and that human rights monitoring and reporting go hand in hand with technical support. Sudan should be supported, but the international community should keep a focus on human rights in the country, including systemic issues such as lack of accountability for past and ongoing violations. We stressed key points in a press release and an oral statement.

HRC45 witnessed the adoption of another resolution on a country of the East and Horn of Africa, Somalia. The HRC’s Somalia-focused resolutions are usually relatively strong, despite being adopted in the framework of the HRC’s agenda item 10. This year’s resolution is no exception. It does not shy away from addressing grave human rights issues, including attacks on civic space.

In our advocacy, and in a statement, we highlighted the precarious situation of HRDs and journalists in the country. Read our analysis of the resolution adopted on 6 October 2020.

UN Assembly Hall

One of the HRC’s main strengths is its ability to establish investigative mechanisms and to push for accountability, in particular when the UN Security Council is unable to act due to the use of one of the five permanent members’ veto rights. There is ample space for the HRC to improve its preventative capability, including identification of early warning signs of human rights crises and early action.

The resolution on prevention adopted at HRC45 goes a long way toward strengthening the Council’s “prevention mandate.” It high­lights the importance of identifying risk factors and root causes of crises and outlines the role HRDs and civil society play in bringing early warning information to the attention of the international community.

In our advocacy for the resolution, presented by a committed group of states (Norway, Sierra Leone, Switzerland, and Uruguay), we built upon our paper on civic space and pushed states to use civic space indicators to assess human rights situations, including civic space restrictions as early warning tools to respond to human rights emergencies. In this regard, attacks against HRDs and civil society can in themselves constitute early warning signs.

Finally, we took the floor during HRC45 debates on:

  • The UN High Commissioner’s update to the Council (item 2 General Debate). We discussed human rights and elections, protection of civic space in COVID-19 times, and raised Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Uganda;
  • The most serious human rights situations (item 4 General Debate), together with AfricanDefenders. In a Pan-African spirit of solidarity, we focused on violations in Cameroon, Egypt, and Zimbabwe;
  • South Sudan – our statement was delivered by the South Sudan Human Rights Defenders Network via video message;
  • The UN Secretary-General’s report on reprisals. We drew the Council’s attention to ongoing reprisals against Kadar Abdi Ibrahim in Djibouti; and
  • Kenya – our statement on the adoption of the report on the country’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) was delivered by the Defenders Coalition via video message.
NGO speaker desk

In spite of restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and although civil society’s participation has been negatively impacted, since the HRC resumed its work, in June 2020, the Council proved that it was able to pursue its work and adopt meaningful resolutions. At HRC45, it adopted timely, strong resolutions on human rights crises such as Belarus, Yemen, and Venezuela, and on important thematic issues, including enforced disappearances, the safety of journalists, and protection of women’s and girls’ rights in humanitarian situations.

Similarly, DefendDefenders’ work goes on with commitment and creativity, as the use of online tools will continue to be vital in the near future. 

Hassan Shire

Oral Statements to the Council

Madam President, Madam High Commissioner, 

We thank you for your update. We will raise a number of country situations during dedicated in­ter­­ac­tive dialogues and ge­ne­ral debates. 

We thank your Office for continuing to provide vital analysis and recommendations on pro­mo­ting and protecting human rights and civic space while combatting the Covid-19 pandemic. “We are all in this together” and we need a human rights-based approach to the crisis and its impact, including on the most vulnerable. 

Unfortunately, in the East and Horn of Africa, a number of governments are targeting those debating issues related to the pandemic, its impact, or broader state-citizen relationships. The need to combat disinformation and misinformation does not allow authorities to stifle indepen­dent and critical voices and unduly restrict freedom of opinion and expression. 

As elections approach in several countries, governments must know that they are being wat­ched. Internet shutdowns and other human rights-incompatible measures must be put to an end. 

We urge Ethiopian authorities to live up to the promises of the reform process launched in 2018 and allow journalists and civil society actors to conduct their activities free from hindrance. The fact that the election held in Tigray on 9 September 2020 was deemed un­cons­titutional should not have led to the blocking of journalists seeking to report on it. 

In Tanzania, the deliberate stifling of civil society voices continues ahead of the 28 October presidential election. We urge authorities to unfreeze the bank accounts of the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC), release arbitrarily detained human rights defenders, and cea­se interfering with independent actors’ legitimate activities. We urge member and ob­se­rver states of this Council to pay close attention to deve­lop­ments in the country and stand ready to respond in a gradual manner. 

Lastly, concerns are also mounting in Uganda, as violence has been observed in relation to party primaries to choose candidates for district and parliamentary seats. We urge all political actors in the country to re-commit to a peaceful and inclusive political process at all levels. 

Thank you for your attention.

 

Madam President, 

Once again, DefendDefenders and AfricanDefenders (the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network) draw the Council’s atten­tion to the ongoing widespread and systemic human rights violations in Cameroon. Since 2016, the Anglopho­ne region’s long-standing grievances over political and economic dis­crimination have been met with a bloody state repression that has resulted in over 3,000 deaths, mass displacement, and numerous violations, including arbitrary de­ten­tions. Armed separatists have also committed despicable abuses. 

President Biya unilaterally announced the first regional elections to take place in December, in a move towards decentralisation. However, many opposition parties belie­ve that a deep reform of the current electoral law is a prerequisite for free, fair and transparent elections. The Council should make accountability for grave human rights violations and abuses a priority of its stra­te­gy, signalling its commitment to justice in Cameroon. It should set benchmarks and stand ready to establish an independent investigation into Cameroon’s human rights situation. 

In Egypt, the 15-year sentence against CIHRS Director Bahey eldin Hassan sets a dangerous pre­cedent, as counter-terrorism provisions might be used against more human rights de­fen­ders (HRDs) and other non-violent government critics, to smear and discredit them. The Council should end its shameful collective silence on Egypt’s egregious rights re­cord, which includes tor­ture, enforced disappearances, and mass arbitrary detention. It should demand the release of arbitrarily detained citizens, including HRDs, activists, jour­nalists and other non-violent dis­sen­ters, including women users of Tiktok detained on spu­rious “morality” charges. 

In Zimbabwe, we are concerned about reports of increasing arbitrary arrests, including of op­po­sition party members, journalists, HRDs, and student leaders, and about the arrest, abduc­tion, torture and sexual assault of women. Regional bodies and mechanisms, as well as this Council, must de­mand an immediate end to these gross human rights violations. 

Thank you for your attention. 

English / French

Madam President, dear Commissioners, 

Four years after the creation of the Commission of Inquiry (CoI), investigations, monito­ring, re­porting, and public debates on Burundi are still direly needed. Ahead of this session, more than 40 NGOs called on the Council to extend the Commission’s mandate, as it pro­­vides the best opportunity to prompt meaningful human rights progress in the country. 

The letter outlines the grave violations and abuses committed in Burundi since 2015 in a context of near-complete impunity. Despite calls on the new President, Évariste Ndayishimiye, to de­mon­strate his openness to reconciliation by releasing all detained human rights defenders (HRDs), Germain Rukuki, Nestor Nibitanga, and Iwacu reporters Egide Harerimana, Christine Kamikazi, Terence Mpozenzi and Agnès Ndirubusa, remain in detention. 

In Burundi, violations continue. Outside the country, Burundian refugees, including women re­fu­gees, exiled HRDs and women HRDs, particularly those who have been subjected to sexual vio­­lence before fleeing, face ongoing challenges, including pressure to return home in con­di­tions that are not safe, dignified, and in some cases, voluntary. They first need to rebuild their lives in order to prepare their future whether they return home or chose to integrate in their host country. 

The civil society letter also outlines a path forward for Burundi and its people. As the country is in a period of potential transition, there are signs of promise as well as of significant concern. Tangible progress is yet to be registered regarding priority areas for action, including the fight against poverty, the fight against impunity, reform of the judicial system, the re-opening of the democratic and civic space, and cooperation with UN and African human rights mechanisms. 

We urge the Burundian authorities to re­initiate dialogue with the international community and to make measurable progress on key human rights indicators. 

Thank you for your attention. 

Madam President, dear Commissioners, 

DefendDefenders and its local partner, the South Sudan Human Rights Defenders Network (“the Network”), are deeply concerned over the increased pressure faced by independent hu­man rights and peacebuilding actors in the country. 

DefendDefenders’ recent report, “Targeted but Not Deterred,” identified clear patterns of re­pres­sion of South Sudanese human rights defenders (HRDs) and civil society actors, including journalists. The re­port documents how civic space in the country has shrunk, despite con­ti­nu­ous efforts from the Network and the South Sudan Human Rights Commission to facilitate dia­logue between civil society organisations and government officials and provide understanding on the nature of HRD work. Violations, many of which are committed by the National Security Service (NSS), are facilitated by general insecurity and a pervasive cul­ture of intimidation, abuse of power, and impunity. 

In particular:

  • On 16 June 2020, a civil society activist was arrested and detained by NSS without access to a lawyer and without charge during nine days, due to his participation in a coalition cam­paign demanding financial accountability and transparency;
  • On 14 September, a journalist was found guilty of defamation and sentenced to one year of imprisonment for an article in which he raised corruption accusations against the Minis­ter of Finance;
  • After the filing of a complaint before the East African Court accusing South Sudan and two oil companies of environmental pollution, the involved lawyer and several witnesses were arrested, threatened, and had to flee the country. 

 

We therefore call on the government of South Sudan to: (i) immediately cease the harassment of HRDs, journalists, and other civil society actors; (ii) release activists being detained for enga­ging in legitimate, peaceful activities relating to human rights; (iii) ensure independent and ef­fec­tive investigations into attacks against HRDs. 

Thank you. 

Madam President, Madam Assistant Secretary-General, 

We thank you for your presentation and the light the Secretary-General’s report sheds on both individual cases and patterns of intimidation and reprisals. In a number of countries, punishing those who cooperate or seek to cooperate with the UN human rights system is a deliberate policy designed to silence human rights defenders. As the report indicates, “repeated incidents can signal pat­terns” of reprisals. Two African countries are found in that list of shame: Burundi and Egypt

We also deplore the fact that South Sudan is mentioned in the report for illegal acts committed by the Na­tional Security Service (NSS) and military intelligence. 

Madam President, 

We wish to draw the Council’s attention to an unresolved case. In Djibouti, Kadar Abdi Ibrahim has been subjected to ongoing reprisals for his participation in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) pre-sessions on his country, in April 2018 in Geneva. Two days after returning home, Mr. Abdi Ibrahim was briefly detained and had his passport confiscated by agents of Dji­bouti’s Infor­mation and Security Service (SDS), who raided his home. 

Two and a half years on, despite having taken action with the Prosecutor, the Ombudsman, and the National Human Rights Commission, his passport re­mains in the hands of the SDS – accor­ding to state interlocutors, it is even held by the Presidency. Mr. Abdi Ibrahim has been un­able to leave the country since. Djibouti’s continued presence in the report highlights one of the Horn of Africa’s human rights and civic space crises. 

We urge authorities of Djibouti and the abovementioned countries to cease all acts of inti­mi­dation and reprisals against human rights defenders and civil society actors who seek to coope­rate with the UN human rights system. 

Thank you. 

Madam President, 

The Defenders Coalition and DefendDefenders welcome the acceptance by the Government of Kenya of a large number of UPR recommendations. Kenya’s January 2020 review was a mile­stone for human rights advancement. It was also a consultative process with various stake­hol­ders. We salute the fact that the Kenyan Government displayed political will to engage on human rights challenges, including past and ongoing violations. There have been notable ins­tances where the human rights environment has improved since the second review. We warm­ly welcome Kenya’s engagement with civil society, at the national, regional, and inter­na­tio­nal levels. 

We welcome Kenya’s acceptance of recommendations on:

  • Ensuring proper, transparent, and effective investigations in cases where human rights defe­n­ders (HRDs) have been harmed, and specifically to adopt a law protecting HRDs in accor­dan­ce with international standards. We recommend that Kenya implements this recom­men­­da­tion by domesticating the model HRD protection policy and making public pro­noun­ce­ments supporting the work of HRDs;
  • Upholding the rights to freedom of expression and association, including of media orga­ni­sa­tions and HRDs, in accordance with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Kenya is party to. We recommend that Kenya also considers the role of whistleblowers in promoting respect for human rights. We ask that the Gov­ern­ment enacts the Whistleblowers Protection Bill 2018, reviews the Associations Bill 2018, and en­sures that laws governing the operations of NGOs are in line with the right to free expression. We welcome the acceptance of recommendation 142.157;
  • Creating a safe and enabling environment in which HRDs and civil society can operate free from hindrance and insecurity, including through the full operationalisation of the Public Benefit Organisation Act 2013. We welcome the acceptance of recommendations 142.45, 142.56, 142.162, and 142.164; and
  • Revising and enacting the draft Data Protection Bill, particularly to create a data protection framework in line with international standards on the right to privacy. Whereas we wel­co­me acceptance of this recommendation and note that the Act was enacted, the imple­men­tation of the guidelines is lengthy and there have been cases of privacy rights vio­la­tions since January 2020, which need a recourse.  

 

We regret that Kenya did not go a step further in its replies to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punish­ment (OP-CAT). It is not too late, as the UPR is an ongoing process. We encourage the Govern­ment to reconsider its position on all “noted” recommendations. 

Thank you. 

Madam President, 

DefendDefenders thanks the Independent Expert for his work over the last six years. We wel­come draft resolution L.40, which highlights the positive steps undertaken by the Tran­sitional Government to improve human rights in Sudan. As the draft resolution acknow­ledges, it is the “exemplary, non-violent and inspiring popular uprising” of the Sudanese people that led to a fundamental change in the political and human rights situation. 

Ahead of this session, a group of 25 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including many from Sudan, called on the Council to extend both its support to, and scrutiny of, the country. In a letter, they highlighted progress and ongoing challenges and stressed that Sudan’s politi­cal transition remains fragile, with the country facing a multi-faceted crisis with economic, so­cial, hu­man rights, humanitarian, and health dimensions. We extend our condolences to the Suda­nese people for the lives lost to floods and disease. 

Increasing violence against civilians, especially in Darfur, must be addressed urgently. Signi­fi­cant steps must be taken to address this and other systemic human rights is­sues, including lack of justice and accountability for the egre­gious violations com­mitted under the 30-year Al-Bashir dictatorship and by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), whose commander, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti,” sits on the Sovereign Council. 

The opening of an OHCHR country office is a milestone. However, after the Independent Ex­pert’s mandate is discontinued, and as Sudan attempts to strengthen gains of its revolution and prevent setbacks, the Council has a role to play. It is its responsibility to support systemic re­forms, extend technical assistance and capacity-building, and ensure monitoring, reporting, and public debates on Sudan. 

To allow Sudan to benefit from both expert and political support, to continue sending positive si­­gnals to the international community, and to continue building confidence, the government should continue to engage constructively and work toward ambitious resolutions. The country should remain on the Council’s agenda until at least the end of the transition period, in 2022-2023, with regular OHCHR reporting and public debates in an enhanced format. 

Thank you. 

Thank you, Madam President. 

Madam Dyfan: we welcome you and wish you all the best in your new role. Somalia needs the on­going support of the Independent Expert. We stress the importance of your proposed tran­sition plan and encourage a detailed benchmarking effort on the seven priority areas iden­tified, as well as enhanced public advocacy on women’s and girls’ rights, civic space, and jus­tice and ac­coun­tability. 

We agree with the analysis of positive developments and ongoing challenges, as well as emer­ging ones, such as COVID-19 and natural disaster, outlined in your report. We wel­come the high level of cooperation of the Somali authorities with the UN system and their cons­tructive enga­ge­ment regarding Council resolutions. This is the right signal to the international community. 

We would like to highlight a number of issues that require the Council’s attention. First, human rights defenders (HRDs), journalists, and other independent actors face risks and threats, some of them deadly, deri­ving both from the security situation and from deliberate attacks on civic space. We urge authorities to stop using vague and overly broad provisions of the Criminal Code to stifle independent repor­ting. Instead, we stress that the public commit­ment of Presi­dent Moha­med Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmaajo” to reform outdated criminal law provisions and to end the administration’s use of cri­mi­nal law against journalists should be fulfilled. We urge a review of the Media Law Amend­ment Bill. 

Second, regarding the cross-cutting issue of access to justice, we highlight the findings of our De­cem­ber 2019 report, “Navigating Justice.” Lawyers play a vital role in ensuring that citi­zens can claim their rights and access redress, especially as they navigate formal and infor­mal/tra­di­tio­nal legal systems. Here too, an open civic space that guarantees respect for the rights to free opi­nion, expression, peaceful assembly and association is key. Somali authorities must con­duct thorough investigations into all allegations of human rights violations. 

Lastly, we follow up on the open letter our Executive Director sent at the end of 2019: we en­cou­rage Somalia to reflect on its voting re­cord and reconsider choices, including on country-spe­cific resolutions and on thematic issues, starting with amendments to Council resolutions on wo­men’s and girls’ rights. 

Thank you.

Advocacy documents and press releases

In a civil society call made public ahead of the UN Human Rights Council’s 45th session (14 September-6 October 2020), DefendDefenders and more than 40 partners urge States to support the renewal of the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Burundi. 

The signatories highlight that the CoI remains the only independent mechanism mandated to document human rights vio­la­tions and abuses, monitor, and publicly report on the situation in the country, and that chan­ging political realities do not amount to meaningful human rights progress. 

The civil society letter outlines the grave human rights violations committed in Burundi since 2015 in a context of near-com­plete im­pu­nity. Despite calls on the new Burundian President, Éva­riste Nda­yishimiye, to de­mon­strate his openness to reconciliation by releasing all detained human rights defenders (HRDs), Ger­main Ru­kuki, Nestor Nibitan­ga, and Iwacu reporters Egide Hare­rima­na, Christine Ka­mi­kazi, Te­rence Mpo­zenzi and Agnès Ndi­ru­busa, re­main in detention. 

As Burundi is in a period of potential transition, following the 20 May 2020 presidential, legislative and local elections and after the pass­ing of former President Nkurunziza, there are signs of promise as well as of significant concern, the signatories write. Tangible progress is yet to be registered regarding priority areas for action, including the fight against poverty, the fight against impunity, reform of the judicial system, the re-opening of the democratic space (including a safe and enabling environment for civil society), and cooperation with international and African human rights mechanisms. 

At this time, as uncertainty remains, the best chance to achieve meaningful change is through the renewal of the mandate of the CoI, as well as the Burundian authorities re­initiating dialogue with the international community, the letter concludes – and the best way to do this is by making measurable progress on key indicators. 

Read the full letter in English or French (version française).

Ahead of the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC45, which is set to take place from 14 September to 6 October 2020), and at a critical juncture for Sudan, DefendDefenders and civil society partners highlight progress and ongoing challenges in the country, and call on the Coun­cil to contribute to human rights reforms. 

In the letter released today, the signatories outline that the last 20 months have brought about significant changes for the Sudanese people and Su­dan’s rela­tionship with independent human rights actors. They list political developments (adop­tion of a Constitutional Document, for­ma­tion of a Sovereign Council, appointment of a Civilian-Led Transitional Government), the ongoing peace process, res­pect for women’s and girls’ rights, prosecutions (including that of former President Omar Al-Bashir), cooperation with international bodies and mechanisms, legal reform, and the opening of the civic and democratic space. 

However, as the letter makes clear, numerous challenges remain and Sudan’s political transition remains fragile. The country faces a multi-faceted crisis with economic, social, human rights, and health di­men­sions. Sanctions, the United States admi­nistration’s continued listing of Sudan as a “Sta­te sponsor of ter­ro­rism,” and endemic cor­rup­tion and mismanagement have added to these challenges. The humanitarian situation remains serious, and violence against civilians has been increasing. 

Significant steps are yet to be taken to address systemic human rights issues and achieve meaningful, sustainable progress, including justice and accountability for the egregious violations and abuses committed under the 30-year Al-Bashir dictatorship. 

“As Sudan attempts to strengthen gains of its Revolution and prevent setbacks, the Human Rights Council has a role to play,” the signatories write. At its 45th session, the Council should adopt a resolution extending technical assistance and ca­pa­city-building to the Sudanese Government and human rights actors in the country, while en­su­ring regular monitoring of, and reporting to the Council on, the human rights situation and the work of the OHCHR country office. 

Read the full letter

In a joint paper released today, a group of 12 NGOs encourage States to more systematically use civic space indicators as objective criteria for action at the UN Human Rights Council. “Mainstreaming civic space in State interventions at the UN Human Rights Council” makes the case for greater protection of human rights defenders (HRDs) and other civil society actors through State interventions at the Council, which is the UN’s principal human rights body. 

In February 2020, the UN Secretary-General launched a global “Call to Action” in which he made clear that threats against HRDs (especially women HRDs) and journalists are increasing, and that governments restricting civic space “is frequently a pre­lu­de to a more general deterioration in human rights.” This paper, which was developed by DefendDefenders in collaboration with partners (11 other members of the HRCnet network), highlights the value of the “objective criteria” approach, including at an early stage, whenever human rights concerns are mounting in a specific situation. 

States should use civic space indicators to objectively assess human rights situations. Among the objective criteria they can use, civic space restrictions (such as attacks against HRDs, civil socie­ty actors and independent voices, and an overall shrinking spa­ce for civil society) are often early warning signs of human rights crises. Civic space indicators can also be used to assess progress at the national level. 

As shown in a recent Council report, the Council’s “prevention mandate” re­mains under-utilised. By taking into account key civic space developments, States could engage in more mea­ningful action and, where the situation warrants it, in preventative engagement with the countries concerned. 

The paper suggests areas where action is possible, using civic space indicators in a systematic manner. These areas include individual and joint State statements at the Council, thematic debates, resolutions, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, and special sessions and urgent debates. 

Ultimately, nothing meaningful can happen without States’ political will to address country situations more objectively and decisively. Civic space indicators need to be part and parcel of States’ assessments and interventions at the Council. 

Read the full paper

Signatories:
1. DefendDefenders
2. African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS)
3. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-Asia)
4. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
5. Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS)
6. CIVICUS
7. Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)
8. Conectas Direitos Humanos
9. Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR)
10. Human Rights Law Centre
11. International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
12. Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)

In the absence of concrete progress on Burundi’s human rights situation, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) has extended the mandate of its Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on the country, a step DefendDefenders welcomes as the most sensible way for­ward for the protection of human rights. The Burundian government should realise that non-cooperation is a dead end, and resume its co­ope­ration with the CoI and the entire UN human rights system. 

“The new Burundian President, Évariste Ndayishimiye, and the government, are now facing a very clear choice,” said Has­san Shire, Exe­cu­tive Director, Def­end­­Defen­ders. “They could con­ti­nue on the same track of non-cooperation or demonstrate political will to improve the country’s hu­man rights situation and re-engage with the international com­mu­nity.” 

In addition to extending the CoI’s mandate, the resolution adopted by the HRC today highlights ongoing grave human rights violations and abuses committed by Burundi’s police, security for­ces, intel­li­gen­ce service, and members of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, including its youth league, the Imbo­ne­rakure. These violations include, among others, extrajudicial killings, enforced disap­pea­rances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, acts of torture, sexual and gender-based violence, and attacks against human rights defenders (HRDs), journalists, and members of civil so­ciety. According to the CoI, some of the violations it has documented may amount to crimes ag­ainst humanity. The resolution also denounces the widespread impunity enjoyed by the per­pe­tra­tors and deplores the shrinking space for civil society in Burundi. 

Reflecting on political developments in the country, including the general elections held on 20 May 2020, the resolution also mentions hope for progress, including statements made by Pre­si­dent Ndayishimiye regarding reforms and reconciliation, while expressing grave concern over serious irregularities during the electoral pro­cess and ongoing socio-economic and humani­ta­rian challenges. These early signs are yet to translate into con­crete human rights progress. Au­thorities could take immediate steps, such as releasing detained HRDs and journalists. 

“We urge Burundi to open a new chapter for both its people and its relationship with the inter­­na­tio­nal community,” said Estella Kabachwezi, Advocacy, Research and Communications Ma­na­ger, Def­end­­Defen­ders. “Continued human rights scrutiny and enhanced political dia­logue bet­ween Burundi and African and UN actors are not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually reinforcing.” 

The resolution, which ensures continued scrutiny of Burundi at the HRC, as well as conti­nued in­ves­tigations by the CoI, has been adopted as regional and international actors are assessing ways of re-engaging Burundi. From 14 to 19 September 2020, a strategic assessment mis­sion dispatched by the UN Secretary-General visited the country. 

The resolution adopted today is the eighth HRC resolution regarding Burundi’s human rights si­tu­ation since 2015. The HRC established the CoI – the only independent mechanism mandated to publicly report on Burundi’s situation – in 2016 to investigate violations and abu­ses, identify per­pe­trators, formulate recommendations to ensure accountability, and en­ga­ge with the Burundian authorities and other stakeholders. On 23 September 2020, the CoI pre­sented its fourth report to the HRC. 

Ahead of the Council’s 45th regular session (14 September-7 October 2020), DefendDefenders co­or­dinated the de­ve­lopment of a joint civil society letter2 endorsed by Burundian, African, and in­ter­national civil society organisations. The letter called on states to support the re­newal of the CoI’s man­date. It outlined ongoing violations and impunity, opportunities offered by a potential political transition, and a way forward for the Burundian authorities: making measu­ra­ble pro­gress on key human rights indicators.

DefendDefenders welcomes the adoption of a UN Human Rights Council (HRC) reso­lu­tion on Sudan, which is a further step in the right direction. As Sudan’s Transitional Government attempts to consolidate the progress achieved and prevent set­backs, it is critical for the UN to keep a focus on the country’s human rights situ­a­tion and ensure that it will continue to be publicly discussed. 

“Today’s resolution is evidence of both positive signals sent by the Sudanese government and the HRC’s willingness to exercise its responsibilities,” said Has­san Shire, Exe­cu­tive Direc­tor, Def­end­­Defen­ders. “At this critical juncture for Sudan, the entire UN system should beef up its engagement and sup­port human rights reforms in the country.” 

The resolution adopted today maintains Sudan on the HRC’s agenda while defining new modali­ties for scrutinizing the country’s human rights situation. It terminates the mandate of the Inde­pendent Expert on Sudan and requests the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to report on progress made and ongoing challenges in Sudan. 

The resolution salutes the “exemplary, non-violent and inspiring popular uprising of the Sudane­se people” that led to a fundamental change in the political and human rights situ­a­tion and wel­comes positive developments since 2019. These include legal reform, advancement of wo­men’s rights, the signature of a peace agreement, cooperation with the OHCHR and ope­ning of a coun­try office, and the government’s efforts to create a more open civic spa­ce, in­c­luding for human rights defenders, civil society organisations, and the media. 

It also stresses the need for the international community to support the country to further im­pro­ve respect for human rights, as worrying signs multiply. Sudan is facing a multi-faceted crisis, with economic, social, hu­man rights, humanitarian, and health dimensions. Amid deadly floods and the COVID-19 pandemic, violence against civilians is increasing, especially in Darfur. The inf­lu­ence of the military side of the executive branch is also a major reason for concern. Justice and ac­coun­tability for the egre­gious violations com­mitted under the 30-year Al-Bashir dictatorship and by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), whose com­man­der, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “He­medti,” sits on the new Sovereign Council, remain elusive. 

“Sudan must bridge the accountability gap, including for the 3 June 2019 massacre and in­ter­national crimes committed in relation to decades of civil conflict,” said Estella Kabach­wezi, Advocacy, Research and Communications Ma­na­­ger, Def­end­­Defen­ders. “The HRC should stand ready to set up an inde­pendent inquiry should domestic processes and institutions fail to deliver justice.” 

Today’s resolution addresses expectations of Sudanese, African, and international human rights or­ga­­nisations, which highlighted the need for the HRC to keep a focus on Sudan’s human rights situ­a­tion. Ahead of the Council’s 45th session (14 September-7 October 2020), they jointly called1 on the Council to extend its support to, and scrutiny of, the country. 

“This is not the time to relax international scrutiny of Sudan’s situation,” said Nicolas Agos­tini, Representative to the UN for Def­end­­Defen­ders. “Monitoring and reporting on the situa­tion go hand in hand with technical support. They are complementary tools to ensure that Sudan further improves its human rights record.” 

Human rights developments in Sudan will be examined at the HRC’s 48th session, in September 2021. Sudan has been on the agenda of the Council and its predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights, for nearly three decades. The resolution adopted today follows the opening of an OHCHR country office in Sudan, as per an Agreement signed in September 2019.

Through a resolution adopted at the close of the 45th ses­sion of the UN Hu­man Rights Council (HRC), the international community signalled its willingness to sup­port Somalia and maintain scrutiny of the country’s human rights situ­a­tion ahead of the his­toric 2021 elections. DefendDefenders wel­comes the step taken, including the renewal of the mandate of the UN Independent Expert on the country. 

“We wel­come the high level of cooperation of the Somali government with the UN human rights system,” said Has­san Shire, Exe­cu­tive Director, Def­end­­Defen­ders. “Somali authorities and civil society, including human rights defenders and journalists, need the ongoing sup­port and advice of the Inde­pendent Expert.” 

The resolution, which was jointly prepared by the Federal Government of Somalia and the United Kingdom with the support of partners, highlights key human rights issues in the country. It reco­gni­ses the government’s efforts to improve the security and human rights situation, the key role played by the African Union Mission in the country (AMISOM), and outlines po­sitive develop­ments. These include, among others, the adoption of the Electoral Law, the appoint­ment of a Special Prosecutor to investigate the killings of journalists, and the work undertaken by the Minis­try for Women and Human Rights Development. 

The resolution draws the attention of the HRC to ongoing grave human rights violations and chal­lenges com­mit­ted in the country, including extrajudicial killings and excessive use of force against civilians, sexual and gender-based violence, abuses committed against children, in par­ti­cular girls and children rec­ruited in armed conflict, attacks against and harassment of human rights de­fen­ders (HRDs) and jour­na­lists, and undue restrictions to freedom of opinion and expres­sion, amid insecurity due to terrorist activities by Al-Shabaab. The resolution raises specific con­cern over the amended Media Law, which provides for imprisonment as a punishment for media-related of­fen­ces, and over the culture of impunity prevailing in the country. 

Ahead of the session, Defend­De­fenders advocated for the HRC to extend the Independent Ex­pert’s mandate and pushed sta­tes to ensure an increased focus on the situation of HRDs, jour­nalists, and civic space in Somalia. During the session, DefendDefenders outlined key human rights issues and encouraged1 the In­dependent Expert to develop detailed benchmarks on the priority areas she iden­tified as part of her “transition plan” for Somalia. 

Earlier in 2020, we called2 on Somali authorities to fully uphold freedom of expression, as the working environ­ment for journa­lists and HRDs has deteriorated despite a public commitment by President Mo­ha­med Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmaajo” to reform outdated provisions in the Crimi­nal Code and to end the administration’s use of criminal law against journalists.

The UN Hu­man Rights Council (HRC) took a decisive step to enhance its capacity to respond to human rights emergencies and to pre­vent crises by adop­ting a milestone resolution today. The resolution strengthens the HRC’s prevention mandate, high­lights the importance of identifying risk factors and root causes of crises, and outlines the role human rights defenders (HRDs) and civil society play in bringing early warning information to the attention of the international community. 

“The Council’s recognition of the role of human rights defenders and organisations in rai­sing the alarm on human rights emergencies is of critical importance” said Has­san Shire, Exe­­cu­tive Director, Def­end­­Defen­ders. “Early action and preventive engagement should be the approach of the entire UN system, as the cost of inaction can be tremendous.” 

The resolution, which was developed by a committed group of states (Norway, Sierra Leone, Swit­zer­land, and Uruguay), goes a long way toward operationalising the HRC’s prevention mandate. It high­lights the contributions the HRC makes to the prevention of human rights crises, em­pha­si­ses the interlinkages between the three pillars of the UN (peace and security, sustainable deve­lop­ment, and human rights), and mainstreams prevention throughout the work of the HRC. It also requests the UN Secretary-General to bring reports of the HRC that have a prevention di­men­sion to the attention of other bodies, including the Security Council. 

The resolution requests the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to strengthen its early warning capability and to bring information on patterns of human rights vio­la­tions and heightened risks of human rights emergencies to the attention of states. In this re­gard, data and early warning signs emanating from HRDs and civil society play a key role. The re­so­lution stresses the need to protect them from intimidation and reprisals. 

“Attacks against HRDs and civil society can in themselves constitute early warning signs,” said Nicolas Agostini, Representative to the UN for Def­end­­Defen­ders. “States should now apply objective criteria, such as these attacks and other civic space restrictions, to country-spe­ci­fic situations to respond to emer­gen­cies and prevent full-fledged crises.” 

Lastly, the resolution makes an important contribution to preventive engagement and diplo­ma­cy, as it highlights the need for the UN system to support states in building national resilience, as well as the possibility for the HRC to resort to dialogue and cooperation to prevent violations and respond promptly to human rights emergencies. 

Ahead of the Council’s 45th regular session (14 September-7 October 2020), DefendDefenders ad­vocated for a strong resolution on the contribution of the HRC to the prevention of human rights violations. Together with partners, we called1 on states to use civic space indicators (including res­trictions to freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and attacks against HRDs and civil society) as objective criteria to assess human rights situations. In this regard, civic space restric­tions are often early warning signs of human rights crises. 

Outcomes and resolutions

Situation of human rights in Burundi (resolution L.36/Rev.1)

Technical assistance and capacity-building to further improve human rights in the Sudan (resolution L.40)

Assistance to Somalia in the field of human rights (resolution L.52)

The contribution of the Human Rights Council to the prevention of human rights violations (resolution L.32 with oral revisions)

The safety of journalists (L.42/Rev.1)

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Human Rights Defender of the Month: Andrew Gole

Andrew Gole’s journey to become a human rights defender (HRD) was sparked by a small request: in 2015, a human rights organisation reached out to the trained software engineer about a digital security training. “I didn’t know much about the HRD eco-system or about digital security as an environment on its own,” Andrew says. “So, I did some research, and realised digital security support is just the basic support I used to provide in an internet café.”

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