On 23 January 2019, the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a statement listed States which had carried out reprisals or intimidation including killings, torture, and arbitrary arrests against individuals cooperating with the United Nations on human rights issues. He said,
“The world owes it to these brave people standing up for human rights, who have responded to requests to provide information and to engage with the United Nations to ensure their rights to participate is respected. Punishing individuals for cooperating with the United Nations is a shameful practice that everyone must do more to stamp out.” He went on to add “Governments frequently charged human rights activists with terrorism or blamed them for cooperating with foreign entities or damaging the state’s reputation of security.”
The U.N. human rights bodies and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have established a number of mechanisms for gathering information on the status of human rights in certain countries or about certain issues. In practice, most of this information is complaints on the violation of human rights. In some cases, the information comes from the local branch of an international non-governmental organization and also from a national human rights organization. In other cases it comes from a victim or the family of a victim. Information may also come from journalists, religious groups, or visitors to a country who are willing to carry a message out of the country.
Many human rights defenders are people working in isolated, remote areas far from the international networks of protection. These unsung defenders become a vulnerable target in areas where impunity prevails, and assailants operate with virtual no fear of having to account for their crimes. Nevertheless, international appeals with accuracy of information and speed of reaction can be helpful which the Association of World Citizens knows from direct experience.
The information is collected at the U.N. High Commissioner’s Office in Geneva and is evaluated to see if the information fits into a pattern of continuing human rights violations or if it is an individual event. In some cases, the same information is also given to well-known human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The Association of World Citizens receives a certain amount of information which is usually passed on orally to the U.N. Secretariat in Geneva without the names of the contacts. Like journalists, one must protest one’s sources. On the other hand, the Association of World Citizens cannot prove the information. Thus in its public statements, the Association only raises broad country situations such as the national minorities and the Rohingya in Myanmar (Burma). However, in private letters to the U.N. Ambassadors in Geneva and New York, we raise specific cases, often of what is increasingly called “human rights defenders”.
With the often cited “War on Terrorism”, there is a disturbing trend to use national security reasons and counter-terrorism strategies by States as a justification for blocking access by communities and civil society groups to U.N. human rights staff. Women cooperating with the U.N. have reported threats of rape and being subject to on-line smear campaigns.
I present the States listed by broad geographic region rather than all together in alphabetical order as they are in the U.N. statement as other States in each region may also have human rights violation issues, often inter-related to the State named. Thus, the list of States is only those which the U.N. is aware that there have been reprisals against individuals who have given information to the U.N. units. We will close with some observations on what NGOs can do to limit such reprisals.
- Saudi Arabia
- Democratic Republic of Congo
- South Sudan
- Trinidad and Tobago
- Russian Federation
The impact and increasingly higher profile of human rights informants has left them more and more exposed to a high risk of harassment, repression, arbitrary detention and extra-judicial executions. Governments are not the only actors. Depending on the country, there can be gangs, militias, paramilitary and other non-governmental groups who also menace people thought to be giving information to the U.N. or to international human rights organizations
The publication by the U.N. of its list is done with the hope that governments themselves will take positive action to protect. In some countries, internal security services or police-related “death squads” may act without the knowledge of the highest authorities of the State. In other States, there is little repression that does not come on orders of the higher authorities. There is a need for representatives of NGOs and also the media to be alert, especially for violations in States which are not otherwise in the news. Active networking remains crucial.
René Wadlow is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation and problem-solving in economic and social issues, and editor of Transnational Perspectives.