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High Commissioner: the Human Rights Council Has Given a Disturbing Diagnosis of Human Rights Violations Occurring in the Context of Peaceful Protests

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Secretary-General’s Report on Reprisals: the United Nations Cannot Tolerate that Those Who Bring Critical Perspectives to the United Nations Are Silenced and More Needs to Be Done

The Human Rights Council this afternoon held a panel discussion on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests and started an interactive dialogue on the Secretary-General’s report on cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights.

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that being able to come together, to freely express one’s views and to participate in the decisions that affected people and the planet, was a human right that stood at the very core of democracy and democratic societies, one that was instrumental for the achievement of other human rights. The Human Rights Council had given a disturbing diagnosis of the current situation, calling attention to many human rights violations occurring in the context of peaceful protests. They included extrajudicial or summary executions, arbitrary arrests and detention, enforced disappearances, and torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The High Commissioner said that the protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests continued to be a priority for her Office.

Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, said that peaceful protests should not be viewed as a threat. As crises around the world were rising, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, States had imposed further restrictions on peaceful assemblies.

Yuval Shany, Hersch Lauterpacht Chair in Public International Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former Chair of the Human Rights Committee, said that the Human Rights Committee’s general comment 37 stated that the right to assembly did not cover violent assemblies, yet isolated instances of violence did not suffice to designate an entire assembly as violent in nature.

Lysa John, Secretary-General of CIVICUS, said that since the start of the pandemic, excessive use of force against protesters had been recorded in at least 79 countries, which included the use of lethal force leading to the killing of protesters in at least 28 countries. In over 100 countries, law enforcement officers had detained protesters.

Luís Carrilho, United Nations Police Adviser, said that together with Member States and other partners, the United Nations Police had developed the Strategic Guidance Framework for International Policing. When deployed, the United Nations Police’s primary focus in public order management was to facilitate the population’s exercise of fundamental rights without disturbance or unjustified hindrance, and to reconcile the right to peaceful assembly with public safety.

In the discussion, speakers emphasised that social protest, when exercised peacefully, was protected by a constellation of rights and freedoms. It was an indispensable pillar of democratic governance and open societies. Concerns were expressed that force continued to be used in an excessive manner by States to repress peaceful protests. On the COVID19 pandemic, speakers said that it must not be used as a pretext to put undue restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly and that all exceptional restrictions must be strictly necessary, proportionate, non-discriminatory, subject to regular scrutiny and time bound. Some speakers said that the right to freedom of assembly was not absolute and that its implementation should not be aimed at undermining State security, violently changing the foundations of the constitutional order, or inciting social, racial, national and religious discord.

Speaking in the discussion were: European Union, Lithuania, Switzerland, Armenia, Costa Rica, United Nations Children's Fund, United States, Poland, United Kingdom, Malawi, Colombia, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Israel, Iraq, Vanuatu, Indonesia, Luxembourg, Montenegro, South Africa, United Nations Development Programme, Mauritania, Togo, Cuba and India.

The following national human rights institution took the floor: National Human Rights Council Morocco. The following non-governmental organizations also took the floor: Advocates for Human Rights, Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Child Rights Connect, and Global Institute for Water, Environment and Health.

The Council also held an interactive dialogue on the Secretary-General’s report on cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights.

Ilze Brands Kehris, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, said that victims of acts of reprisal and intimidation for cooperation with the United Nations continued to be subjected to serious human rights violations – in particular, arbitrary arrests and detention, but also torture and ill-treatment and, even death in custody, killing and enforced disappearances. In the digital sphere, activists and journalists had been attacked on social media after speaking at United Nations meetings and victims had been targeted for submitting information to or communicating electronically with the United Nations. The United Nations could not tolerate that those who brought critical perspectives to the United Nations were silenced. More and better needed to be done to provide safe and open spaces for interaction, where those who spoke up could be heard, and could do so without fear of any sort of retribution.

In the discussion, speakers regretted that the number of reprisals remained high and that the cases mentioned reflected solely the tip of the iceberg. Some speakers praised the important and vital role played by civil society in promoting and advancing the global human rights agenda, including through meaningful engagement with the United Nations human rights machinery. Some speakers said that reprisals and intimidation against those who cooperated with the United Nations were an attack against the very essence and proper functioning of the United Nations system itself. Other speakers stressed the importance of having a constructive and meaningful dialogue on any alleged cases of reprisal and called upon all to pay special attention to fulfil their responsibilities in providing credible and reliable information that should be thoroughly checked and corroborated in order to avoid reaching any false conclusions.

Speaking in the discussion were: European Union, Belgium, Austria, Latvia, Cameroon, Ireland, Egypt, Liechtenstein, Germany, Australia, France, Armenia, Switzerland, Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, Venezuela, Cuba, Viet Nam, Belarus, Morocco, United States, Sri Lanka, India, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, China, Pakistan, Georgia, Afghanistan, Philippines, United Kingdom, Cambodia, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ethiopia, Yemen and Andorra.

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-eighth regular session can be found here.

The Council will reconvene at 9 a.m. on Thursday, 30 September to conclude its interactive dialogue on the Secretary-General’s report on cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights, followed by an interactive dialogue with the Advisory Committee and a general debate under agenda item 5 on subsidiary bodies and mechanisms of the Human Rights Council.

Panel Discussion on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Context of Peaceful Protests

Opening Statement by the** United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights **

MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that in the past few years, mass protests across the world had united impressive numbers of people to collectively express their grievances, their demands for change, and their hopes for the future. Being able to come together, to freely express one’s views and to participate in the decisions that affected people and the planet, was a human right that stood at the very core of democracy and democratic societies, one that was instrumental for the achievement of other human rights. The Human Rights Council, in a resolution last year, had given a disturbing diagnosis of the current situation, calling attention to many human rights violations occurring in the context of peaceful protests. They included extrajudicial or summary executions, arbitrary arrests and detention, enforced disappearances, and torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Ms. Bachelet said that the Council had also pointed to new and emerging challenges, such as the unlawful or arbitrary surveillance of protestors, both in physical spaces and online, including through the use of digital tracking tools. In addition, it noted how the misuse of new technologies had prevented peoples’ access to information at key political moments, with an impact on the ability to organise and carry out assemblies. The High Commissioner said that the protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests continued to be a priority for her Office. She concluded by specifically commending the work of journalists and other members of civil society who played an essential role in the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests.

Statements by the Panellists

CLÉMENT NYALETSOSSI VOULE, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, said that the mandate had collaborated closely with the Council for the adoption of a number of resolutions., such as resolution 19/35 of 23 March 2012, the first Council resolution on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests. The mandate’s thematic reports provided a blueprint for legal and institutional reform, and provided guidance to States on responding to emerging challenges and better protecting the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. The Special Rapporteur said he was alarmed at the increasing trend of unnecessary or disproportionate use of force by security forces, leading to killings, ill-treatment and arbitrary arrest of demonstrators, as well as sexual abuse against women protesters. As crises around the world were rising, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, States had imposed further restrictions on peaceful assemblies. In response to these new restrictive measures, the Special Rapporteur said that he had published 10 principles by which States should abide in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other measures, he stressed that States should not use the health crisis as a justification for resorting to unnecessary or disproportionate force when dispersing assemblies, nor for imposing disproportionate penalties on protesters.

YUVAL SHANY, Hersch Lauterpacht Chair in Public International Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former Chair of the Human Rights Committee, said that in the past decade, the Human Rights Committee had issued three general comments directly relevant to peaceful protests, including general comment 37, which explained that the right to assembly did not cover violent assemblies, yet isolated instances of violence did not suffice to designate an entire assembly as violent in nature. A reasonable level of disruption was inherent to peaceful assemblies and such a disruption could not be used as a pretext to stifle the exercise of the right. The general comment also provided very specific guidance on policing of assemblies with a view to striking a balance between the rights of participants and the complex challenges of policing assemblies. One important dimension of the general comment was the use of technology. Measures interfering with related digital rights, such as internet shutdowns designed to block peaceful protests, would therefore be unlawful, unless they could be strictly justified under the limitation provisions of articles 4, 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

LYSA JOHN, Secretary-General of CIVICUS, said that since the start of the pandemic, excessive use of force against protesters had been recorded in at least 79 countries, which included the use of lethal force leading to the killing of protesters in at least 28 countries. In over 100 countries, law enforcement officers had detained protesters, often on the grounds of failure to adhere to COVID-19 regulations. She explained that there were four key challenges that the international community must address: the use of emergency laws to stifle protest, the use of internet shutdowns and other measures to restrict access, the use of artificial intelligence and surveillance to threaten protestors, and the use of financial restrictions. Governments needed to ensure that all laws and regulations limiting public gatherings based on public health concerns were necessary and proportionate. They needed to drop charges and release all protesters and human rights defenders prosecuted for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

LUÍS CARRILHO, United Nations Police Adviser, said that together with Member States and other partners, the United Nations Police had developed the Strategic Guidance Framework for International Policing. The very nature of the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association could lead to a public order situation in which the State was expected to enhance the enjoyment of this right and prevent any attempts to disrupt it. When deployed, the United Nations Police’s primary focus in public order management was to facilitate the population’s exercise of fundamental rights without disturbance or unjustified hindrance, and to reconcile the right to peaceful assembly with public safety. As outlined in the Strategic Guidance, if the situation arose, dialogue, mediation, communication-based crowd control, and proactive de-escalation strategies should underpin any police management of public events. He concluded by stressing the importance of advancing policing practices that were human rights-based, people-centred, gender-responsive and respectful of diversity.

Discussion

Speakers emphasised that social protest, when exercised peacefully, was protected by a constellation of rights and freedoms and that it was an indispensable pillar of democratic governance and open societies. It was unacceptable that peaceful protests were increasingly met with repression, including excessive use of force, arbitrary detentions, torture and enforced disappearances. Concerns were expressed that force continued to be used in an excessive manner by States to repress peaceful protests, resulting in losses of life, injuries, cases of torture, ill-treatment and enforced disappearances. Calls were made for States to learn from past mistakes and identify the challenges that the search for a balance of rights implied in these circumstances.

On the COVID19 pandemic, speakers said that it must not be used as a pretext to put undue restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly and that all exceptional restrictions must be strictly necessary, proportionate, non-discriminatory, subject to regular scrutiny and time bound. On new technologies, they said that they were major enablers of human rights, however, at the same time, mass surveillance or various forms of cyber-harassment had a chilling effect on the exercise of this right. Calls were also made on Member States to fulfil their obligation to both facilitate the exercise of the right of children to peaceful assembly and to protect children as they exercised it. Some speakers stated that in modern international law there was no such thing as peaceful protest; there was a right to peaceful assembly. They noted that the right to freedom of assembly was not absolute and that its implementation should not be aimed at undermining State security, violently changing the foundations of the constitutional order, or inciting social, racial, national and religious discord.

Concluding Remarks

CLÉMENT NYALETSOSSI VOULE, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, said the issue was the domestic implementation of rights as when faced with a peaceful demonstration, the response of law enforcement and the use of force must be in line with international standards. He explained that States should amend laws that prevented human rights defenders from using modern means of communication. On the other hand, online surveillance prevented civil society from carrying out its work, while facial recognition deterred people from going to demonstrations. Strong political will was needed to reverse these negative trends, Mr. Voule said. He stressed the importance of not using COVID-19 to limit the right to protest, and recommended imposing a moratorium on the sale of surveillance technologies.

YUVAL SHANY, Hersch Lauterpacht Chair in Public International Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former Chair of the Human Rights Committee, said that there were good practices by which some States had managed to guarantee the right to protest even during the COVID-19 pandemic. The right to protest was not a luxury during the pandemic, in the same way as the functioning of the courts was not a luxury. General comment 37 showed that the right to protest extended to the right to express oneself on websites.

LYSA JOHN, Secretary-General of CIVICUS, said that the priority was the application of international standards to the right to peaceful demonstration. It was imperative that excessive use of violence against people exercising their right to peaceful protest was always investigated and prosecuted if necessary.

LUÍS CARRILHO, United Nations Police Adviser, emphasised the role of the police in promoting human rights in the context of peaceful demonstrations, particularly in terms of maintaining the balance between freedom and security. Police officers must also take responsibility and be formally accountable.

Interactive Dialogue on the Report of the Secretary-General on Cooperation with the United Nations, its Representatives and Mechanisms in the Field of Human Rights

Presentation of Report

ILZE BRANDS KEHRIS, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, presenting the report of the Secretary-General on cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights, drew attention to four key trends that emerged from the report. First, in close to half of the countries mentioned in the report, she said that the United Nations had received allegations of monitoring and surveillance, both online and offline, of individuals and groups who cooperated, or attempted to cooperate, with the United Nations. Numerous cases included hacking of accounts, travel bans and other movement restrictions. Second, the United Nations saw signs of a possible pattern in several countries: China, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Viet Nam, as well as India, Israel, Myanmar, Philippines and Venezuela. In the first five, the United Nations had identified serious issues with the detention of victims of reprisals and intimidation.

Third, some cases concerned the use of restrictive legislation that prevented or punished cooperation with the United Nations, notably on grounds of national security, including counter-terrorism measures, or based on laws governing activities of civil society organizations. Fourth, the increasingly challenging, or even at times repressive, environments for victims, human rights defenders, journalists and other civil society actors were indicated by the fact that many were deterred from providing specific details about a case, or declined to draw the United Nations’ attention altogether.

Victims of acts of reprisal and intimidation for cooperation with the United Nations continued to be subjected to serious human rights violations – in particular, arbitrary arrests and detention, but also torture and ill-treatment and, even death in custody, killing and enforced disappearances. In the digital sphere, activists and journalists had been attacked on social media after speaking at United Nations meetings and victims had been targeted for submitting information to or communicating electronically with the United Nations. While the report noted that more women were increasingly cooperating with the United Nations, including by using on-line opportunities, the price of such interactions for some included arrests and detention, harassment and intimidation, as well as stigmatisation and vilification. The United Nations could not tolerate that those who brought critical perspectives to the United Nations were silenced. More and better needed to be done to provide safe and open spaces for interaction, where those who spoke up could be heard, and could do so without fear of any sort of retribution.

Discussion

Speakers regretted that the number of reprisals remained high and that the cases mentioned reflected solely the tip of the iceberg. They were worried about the continued trend of using justifications of any kind for blocking access to the United Nations as well as measures adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to stifle civil society space. Concerns were expressed about cases of intimidation and reprisals committed by Human Right Council Members, since they should uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human right, especially against women. Some speakers praised the important and vital role played by civil society in promoting and advancing the global human rights agenda, including through meaningful engagement with the United Nations human rights machinery. They deplored any act of reprisal aiming to restrict or hinder the ability of individuals to access and communicate with international bodies, in particular the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights. Some speakers said that reprisals and intimidation against those who cooperated with the United Nations were an attack against the very essence and proper functioning of the United Nations system itself. They condemned any form of intimidation, harassment and reprisals, both offline and online, and called on all States to respect and protect persons cooperating with the United Nations system.

Some speakers stressed the importance of having a constructive and meaningful dialogue on any alleged cases of reprisal and called upon all to pay special attention to fulfil their responsibilities in providing credible and reliable information that should be thoroughly checked and corroborated in order to avoid reaching any false conclusions. They believed it was the mutual responsibility and duty of all stakeholders to collaborate together in order to preserve the efficiency and credibility of the United Nations human rights machinery. One speaker regretted the unfounded mentions contained in the report presented by the Assistant Secretary-General on alleged cases of reprisals. They invited the Assistant Secretary-General to address with objectivity, transparency and impartiality alleged reprisals, which could not be taken a priori as true, as they were not.

Link: https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2021/09/lattention-du-conseil-est-attiree-sur-les-nombreuses-violations