Panel discussion on the issue of intimidation or reprisal against individuals and groups who cooperate or have cooperated with the UN, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights
Statement of Mr Hassan Shire Sheikh Ahmed, Executive Director of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project – 13th September 2012
Since the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (EHAHRDP) was established in 2005 to respond to the identified needs of human rights defenders (HRDs) in the region, the organisation’s primary concern has been to provide effective protection measures to respond to the threats that they face.
EHAHRDP has assisted hundreds of HRDs at risk, some of whom have faced intimidation or reprisals as a direct result of their cooperation with the United Nations, although it should be said that this forms a small percentage of the cases referred to our organisation. However the form of the threats, harassment and acts of violence that are reported to EHAHRDP are very similar to those used more generally against HRDs as a result of their work. Therefore it is important to learn lessons from the responses already developed for the protection of HRDs, which will often be equally applicable more generally to those affected individuals and groups who would not fall under the category of HRD. While my organisation is primarily concerned with the safety of HRDs, we do not forget of course that intimidation and reprisals can happen to any individual or group cooperating with the UN.
Regional experience of reprisals and intimidation
A number of cases of reprisals against HRDs in the East and Horn of Africa sub-region have been reported by the Secretary-General. The details are available in the Secretary-General’s reports, but in summary these have taken the form of physical attacks, killings, arbitrary and incommunicado detention, torture and ill-treatment, death threats and media smear campaigns against organizations and individuals. Individuals have even been charged with “working with international organizations hostile to [the country]”.
In the sub-region acts of intimidation and reprisals have been committed against individuals and groups who coordinated input among NGOs at the national level to the Universal Periodic Review, participated in the regular sessions of the Human Rights Council, met with special procedures during country visits, attempted to submit information to visiting high-level OHCHR delegations and engaged via UN peacekeeping missions.
Impact of reprisals and intimidation
Reprisals have had longstanding consequences for the individuals affected in many cases, most tragically of course in the cases of individuals who have been murdered as a consequence of their cooperation with the UN. Others have been forced to flee their countries for their own safety as result of threats and while some may only have needed to seek temporary shelter, some HRDs may remain for years in exile. The most notable similarity between the cases EHAHRDP has followed is sadly the lack of response on the part of the States concerned or delivery of effective remedies to respond to these reprisals.
As the secretariat to a network of human rights organisations, EHAHRDP facilitates the attendance and participation of HRDs at the Human Rights Council on a regular basis. Before such engagement, however, we must reflect and assess whether it is safe for HRDs to take part. With HRDs’ input, we weigh the possibility of eventual reprisals against individuals, organisations, their families and colleagues against the potential benefits of their participation. Sadly, in a number of cases we have judged that the risks were too great for HRDs to participate (or participate fully) when weighed against the potential benefits. Evidently, in addition to the deterrent effect that this has on civil society’s ability to access the UN human rights mechanisms, it also indicates that the Human Rights Council is being deprived of many insights, perspectives and first-hand accounts from the ground.
Assessment of existing responses to reprisals and intimidation
Primary responsibility for responding to acts of intimidation and reprisals lies with States, who should carry out investigations, prosecute perpetrators and offer remedies to victims. However, in EHAHRDP’s experience this obligation has rarely been fulfilled.
Therefore, practical responses to assist victims have been developed within civil society, drawing largely upon the work of existing organisations and networks that support HRDs who face threats as a result of their work. These are equally relevant in cases of reprisals specifically related to cooperation with the UN. Such responses include temporary evacuation and relocation, trial observation, legal assistance, and practical security measures. Responses may also include public and private advocacy to raise awareness of violations or to seek solutions through private dialogue.
However, these responses are limited if States are unwilling or unable to intervene positively. As mentioned before, where the threats against individuals and their families do not diminish over time, individuals may find themselves in exile for a number of years or even permanently. On a practical level NGOs have limited funds to support individuals for long periods. Action from States is essential.
Networks also provide an essential element to the response to reprisals and intimidation, as well as their prevention. For example, networks have been able to provide safe haven to individuals at risk and meaningful ways for HRDs in exile to continue their work. Networks may also assist in prevention by providing alternative voices to convey messages to the UN human rights systems, for which the risks of reprisals may be lower.
In terms of prevention again, EHAHRDP seeks to incorporate an element of security management into our training workshops to give HRDs the analytical tools to assess and mitigate their vulnerability to risks. This includes in relation to advocacy, particularly in relation to accessing the UN human rights mechanisms. EHAHRDP also seeks to publicise the existence of the Secretary-General’s report and the email address available on which to report reprisals to the OHCHR, as well as reaching out to HRDs to submit information with their informed consent.
The Secretary-General underlined in October 2011 that it was time to “go beyond reporting” and that States and United Nations human rights mechanisms need to do more. Likewise, the President of the Human Rights Council has called for the Council to assume its responsibilities and ensure that those who wish to participate in its work can do so without fear of reprisals.
EHAHRDP would therefore make recommendations for concrete actions in two main areas – in sustained follow-up to cases that occur and in the promotion of greater coordination and cooperation for both the prevention and response to cases of the intimidation and reprisals.
– The issue should be discussed on a regular and timely basis at the Human Rights Council. The Secretary-General’s report on reprisals should be presented in an annual dedicated discussion at the Council. This would give States concerned the opportunity to give feedback on what steps they have taken to investigate and take appropriate action in response to allegations.
– It is important that cases are not allowed to drop off the agenda simply because there has been no response to communications or other follow-up by States concerned. Reference should therefore continue to be made in the Secretary-General’s report each year to any allegations that remain unresolved. If there are no substantive updates to be made on cases, they could be listed in an annex.
– An accurate and accessible record of the status of cases could be established through a central database or online registry managed by OHCHR that would log communications sent, responses received or other follow-up actions.
– States concerned should be encouraged to provide information at the Council on the status of investigations or prosecutions of allegations contained in the Secretary-General’s report.
2) Promotion of coordination and cooperation between different protection stakeholders
– A number of bodies have made commitments to support human rights defenders and there is a possibility for greater coordination to maximize individual actors protection effects. Through the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders, there are possibilities for further engagement for the protection of individuals and organisations who have faced reprisals for their cooperation with the UN human rights system.
– Notably, EU delegations and member states missions in third countries have a range of practical and political tools at their disposal to intervene in support of affected individuals, including in their dialogues with government. These should be further explored and utilized.
– Greater coordination between those stakeholders who can provide practical and emergency assistance to those who have been the targets of reprisals would enable a more holistic response. This may include inter alia NGOs, OHCHR field presences, and third-country states.