The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) engaged in the 42nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, held from September 9-27 in Geneva, Switzerland. CIHRS’ advocacy centered on six countries: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Palestine, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen.
CIHRS’ work, together with its partners from regional and international civil society, contributed to progress towards accountability in Libya and Yemen. At a CIHRS’s sponsored side event Ghassan Salamé, head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) called for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry (COI) into violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in the Libya conflict. The event gave new momentum to international efforts to establish such a COI at the next Council session.
On Yemen, CIHRS advocacy contributed to the renewal of the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen (GEE). This is an important step in maintaining human rights and accountability for violations as a key element of ongoing international efforts to bring the conflict to an end.
Other achievements included a second cross-regional statement this year condemning human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and the absence of accountability for the murder of journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. Assistant Secretary General Andrew Gilmour, who spoke on a panel with CIHRS director Bahey Eldin Hassan, identified Egypt as a country that engages in “appatern of reprisals” against those who engage with the UN.
UN High Commissioner must uphold Palestinian rights despite political pressure
During the 42nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council (the Council), held from September 9-27, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and its partners continued to advocate for concrete measures to ensure accountability and bring an end to Israeli impunity, including a focus on corporate complicity in Israel’s settlement enterprise.
CIHRS and its partners engaged with the OHCHR and member states to follow up on the implementation of the UN Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations on the 2018 protests in Gaza to ensure the operationalization of the monitoring and accountability recommendations.
The oral update on the Commission of Inquiry delivered by High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, on 10 September 2019, failed to address the root causes of the Great Return March demonstrations, including the 12-year blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip. CIHRS and its partners delivered two joint statements during the debate with the High Commissioner on 11 September 2019, highlighting the Gaza closure as an underlying cause of the ongoing demonstrations.
Speaking before the council, the organizations reaffirmed: “The Commission of Inquiry called on Israel to lift the Gaza blockade with immediate effect. We urge the Office of the High Commissioner to set a clear time frame for the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations. Ultimately, we urge Member States to pursue international justice and accountability and to call for the opening of an ICC investigation into the situation in Palestine.” The organizations called on Member states to implement the Commission’s recommendations, including by withholding financial and arms assistance to Israel that supports its unlawful conduct, and by activating universal jurisdiction mechanisms to hold the perpetrators of crimes accountable.
To maintain the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry on the agenda of Member States, CIHRS and its partners organized an event “Gaza 2020: Uninhabitable.” The event highlighted the situation in the occupied Gaza Strip resulting from Israel’s prolonged closure, which amounts to unlawful collective punishment. Since 2012, the UN has warned that Gaza will become uninhabitable by 2020 if Israel fails to reverse its de-development policy. In March 2019, the UN Commission of Inquiry on the 2018 protests in the occupied Palestinian territory called on Israel, the Occupying Power, to bring its 12-year unlawful closure of the Gaza Strip to an end with immediate effect. In particular, the prolonged closure remains a fundamental motivating force behind the ongoing Great Return March demonstrations in the Gaza Strip. The panel of speakers stressed the urgent need for accountability, including the implementation of the Commission of inquiry’s recommendations to end the closure, and a revision of Israel’s rules of engagement for the use of live fire against protestors. The panelists highlighted that impunity will prevail without effective remedies for victims and guarantees of non-repetition.
In the context of the ongoing campaign for the release of the UN database of businesses operating in Israeli settlements, on 27 August 2019, 103 local, regional and international organizations delivered a joint letter to the High Commissioner, Madam Bachelet, and called on her to release the UN database of businesses during the 42nd Human Rights Council session.
In a statement to the Human Rights Council, CIHRS and its partners expressed deep concern that the High Commissioner did not publish the Database in the Council’s 42nd session and called on her to fulfill her mandate, in its entirety, without any further delay and to commit to regular updates.
Several Member States also raised concerns regarding the High Commissioner’s decision not to release the database during the 42nd Human Rights Council session. In a statement on 23 September 2019, South Africa clearly reaffirmed its position in support of the Database, saying “My delegation would be grateful for an explanation from the High Commissioner for the failure of her Office to publish the database of companies benefiting from economic activity in Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territory pursuant to Resolution 31/16. It cannot be that the powerful and monied continue to abuse the human rights of Palestinians in the name of profit.”
In the end of session statement, CIHRS and its partners denounced the double standards related to the publication of a list of companies contributing to human rights abuses in Myanmar while the database of businesses facilitating Israel’s illegal settlements was not released, two and a half years after its mandated release. In the statement, civil society organizations, called on the President of the Human Rights Council to confer with the High Commissioner and advise as soon as possible when this important Council mandate will be fulfilled.
Following the session, CIHRS and eight other organizations issued a joint statement reiterating their serious concern and disappointment regarding the decision by the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights not to publish and transmit the database of all businesses engaged in Israel’s unlawful settlement enterprise in the occupied Palestinian territory to the Council at its 42nd session. The organizations noted:
The OHCHR’s failure so far to fulfil the mandate, explicitly stipulating the transmission of the data gathered, is of deep concern, particularly in light of consistent reports of political interference by some states in the implementation of this resolution… In order to protect and uphold the human rights of Palestinians and the integrity of OHCHR, it is imperative that the High Commissioner immediately publish and transmit the Database to the Council, including the names of all companies listed, and commit to the annual update of its contents.
Strengthening the only international investigation into war crimes in Yemen
CIHRS in close collaboration with Mwatana for Human Rights, and their partners, continued efforts to ensure accountability for those responsible for war crimes and human rights violations in Yemen, with the aim to counter pervasive impunity and deter further violations. Following extensive advocacy in capitals, CIHRS and its partners, including Mwatana for Human Rights, continued to engage with a wide range of actors to advocate for the renewal and the strengthening of the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) on Yemen. The GEE is the only international and independent mechanism which investigates human rights violations committed by all parties to the conflict in Yemen.
In this context, on 13 September 2019, CIHRS and Mwatana met with the High Commissioner, Madam Bachelet, to update her on the situation in Yemen, the latest developments from the ground and to stress the importance of accountability in fighting ongoing impunity in the country.
The GEE presented its report on 10 September 2019 and highlighted the ongoing human rights violations that are likely to amount to war crimes committed by all parties to the conflict. Saudi Arabia and the Arab group boycotted the session. The Arab group attempted to delegitimize the work of the GEE and called on member states to put an end to the mandate of the GEE arguing that the Yemeni national commission of inquiry can address all human rights violations in the country. Civil society made clear that the international community should send a clear message that “obstructionism is not rewarded, as Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other coalition members continue to deny the GEE’s findings, to refuse to cooperate with the Group, and refuse to act on key recommendations formulated by the GEE”.
Mr. Kamel Jendoubi, chairperson of the GEE, said before the Council, “This endemic impunity… cannot be tolerated anymore. Impartial and independent inquiries must be empowered to hold accountable those who disrespect the rights of the Yemeni people.” The experts documented airstrikes, the use of shelling and snippers, landmines, starvation as a method of warfare, arbitrary arrest, torture, sexual violence, recruitment of children in the conflict, among other violations. The members emphasized that there is no safe place for Yemenis and that 24 million Yemenis, 80% of the population, is estimated to be dependent on humanitarian assistance. They reiterated that in order to reach a political solution in Yemen, accountability is essential.
Following the presentation of the Group of Eminent Expert’s report, CIHRS and its partners engaged in the interactive dialogue with the GEE. Osamah Al-Fakih, advocacy director at Mwatana for Human Rights, said in the Human Rights Council “Parties to the conflict continue to carry out human rights abuses, serious violations of international humanitarian law and acts that may amount to war crimes. The warring parties continue to show complete disregard of international law, and to enjoy impunity for their abuses.” On behalf of a group of local, regional and international organizations, he advocated for the strengthening of the mandate and called on member states to “make clear that the GEE’s mandate includes conducting investigations in order to ensure accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims. State parties should support the report’s recommendation that a “comprehensive accountability process” be established in order to achieve long-term peace and stability in Yemen.”
CIHRS also joined Save the Children in a statement before the Human Rights Council, which called for the renewal and strengthening of the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, including through “a focus on accountability, evidence preservation, public reporting”.
To highlight the deterioration of the human rights situation in Yemen and to call for a stronger international position, CIHRS coordinated a high-level side event entitled “Yemen: The need to strengthen international accountability.” with local, regional and international organizations on 12 September 2019. Kamel Jendoubi, addressed the important findings detailed in the report of his team and stressed that sustainable peace requires accountability. He reiterated the recommendation of the GEE report for states to “take all reasonable measures to ensure respect for international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict, taking into account their level of influence; in particular, refrain from providing arms that could be used in the conflict.”
Radhya Almutawakel, the Chairperson and Co-Founder of Mwatana for Human Rights, stressed the importance of the GEE in fighting impunity. She stressed that Yemen would not be the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world if parties to the conflict respected international law. She emphasized that “the GEE report is crucial and important. Warring parties should not enjoy impunity for their human rights violations and abuses, and victims deserve justice. States should prioritize steps towards accountability in Yemen.”
CIHRS and its partners sent a joint letter to UN members states to support the renewal and strengthening of the GEE mandate, including to support an important recommendation to clarify the mandate of the GEE to collect and preserve evidence of alleged gross violations and abuses of human rights. CIHRS and Mwatana also engaged closely with African members of the Council and called on them to support the renewal of the GEE mandate. Radhya Almutawakel, co-director of Mwatana, in an article issued by the Mail and Guardian (South Africa) called on African states to help strengthen the GEE: “Later this month, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) will vote on whether to renew a UN investigation into abuses in Yemen. This body offers the best chance towards accountability for the millions of victims of this war and could help lead to better protection of civilians in Yemen by increasing scrutiny on the warring parties and their conduct.” South Africa which had abstained in the vote on the 2018 resolution on Yemen, voted in favor of the strengthened mandate.
Despite strong opposition by the Arab group, the mandate of the GEE was strengthened in resolution A/HRC/42/L.16 adopted on 26 September 2019. The resolution ensured a stronger mandate for the GEE to “investigate” international crimes in Yemen and to work to ensure access to justice and accountability. Moreover, the resolution ensures the GEE will now directly present its report to the Human Rights Council, and for this report to be transmitted to the UN General Assembly and subsequently “to all relevant bodies of the United Nations.”
In the concluding statement at the Human Rights Council, CIHRS and its partners welcomed the strengthening of the mandate of the GEE on Yemen, “sending a clear message to parties to the conflict - and to victims - that accountability is at the center of the mandate, and providing a crucial and much-needed deterrent to further violations and abuses.” The organizations reiterated their calls on states to “support the recommendations made by the GEE in their recent report, including prohibiting the authorization of transfers of, and refraining from providing, arms that could be used in the conflict to such parties; and clarifying the GEE’s role to collect and preserve evidence of abuses.”
 In the September 2019 resolution, the mandate of the GEE is detailed in operative clause 12 as follows: (a) “to monitor and report on the situation of human rights, to carry out comprehensive investigations into all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law and all alleged violations of international humanitarian law committed by all parties to the conflict […], to establish the facts and circumstances surrounding the alleged violations and abuses and, where possible, to identify those responsible;” (b) To make recommendations on improving respect for and protection and fulfilment of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, and to provide guidance on access to justice, accountability, reconciliation and healing, as appropriate [….]”.
France, Italy and Spain fail to support women’s rights defenders and condemn the murder of Jamal Khashoggi
CIHRS continued to work with civil society to ensure accountability for the violations against women human rights defenders, journalists and other human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. CIHRS supported a statement before the Council by Lina al-Hathloul, sister of human rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul, imprisoned by Saudi Arabia since May 2018 for her work advocating for women’s rights. In her intervention, Lina made a call for accountability in Saudi Arabia: “I’m here today, despite the high risk of reprisals to Loujain, our family and myself, to call on all States and this Council to demand that the Saudi government immediately and unconditionally release my sister. I also ask your help in holding those who tortured her accountable, including Saud Alqahtani, the former senior advisor to the Royal Court.”
For the second time in the last year, UN member states delivered a joint condemnation of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. This statement comes following a joint statement delivered by Iceland in March 2019 during the 40th session of the Human Rights Council. The statement was delivered by Australia on 23 September on behalf of a cross regional group of 25 countries and expressed deep concern that: “Civil society actors in Saudi Arabia still face persecution and intimidation. Human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, journalists and dissidents remain in detention, or under threat…[and also highlighted] reports of torture, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, unfair trials, and harassment of individuals engaged in promoting and defending human rights, their families and colleagues.” The signatories called on Saudi Arabia to redouble its human rights reform efforts, ratify relevant treaties, and put an end to impunity for torture and extrajudicial killings, including the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Civil society organizations called on states which did not join the statement, including France, Italy and Spain, “to live up to their commitment to defend civil society.” According to Nada Awad, International Advocacy Officer for CIHRS, in a news article on the failure of France to support the statement, "It's certainly linked to economic interests," France "does not want to put pressure because it sells weapons" to Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is the third largest client of French arms exports .” On the 18th of September sixteen civil society organizations, including CIHRS, wrote to the French government to demand the government, “ immediately suspend its arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in view of the risk that they contribute to serious violations, in accordance with the recommendations of UN experts [the GEE].”
Thirteen UN experts issued a joint statement calling for the release of Lujain al-Hathloul on 27 September 2019. “It is shockingly hypocritical that Ms Al-Hathloul remains in prison for campaigning to change laws which have since been amended. Indeed, she should never have been imprisoned in the first place for exercising her fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.” The experts concluded “We call upon the Government to immediately release M.s Al-Hathloul and all other human rights defenders in Saudi prisons, and urge the Government to launch a prompt, effective and independent investigation into whether she has been tortured”.
An Unprecedented Call for Accountability
High-ranking United Nations (UN) officials and dozens of states have called for an international investigation into war crimes and human rights violations in Libya at the 42nd session of the Council. These calls represent the strongest push for accountability for crimes committee in Libya since the fall of the Gaddafi government.
The urgency of establishing an international investigation was emphasized during a high-level event entitled “Libya: Advancing Accountability for Human Rights Violations & Abuses,” held on the 20 September during the Council session. The event was organized by the Netherlands, Switzerland, Finland, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and prominent international and Libyan civil society organizations, including CIHRS.
In an exceptional joining of international forces, distinguished figures from the UN, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and international and Libyan human rights organizations were brought together to discuss appropriate means of strengthening the rule of law in Libya and breaking the cycle of impunity prevailing in the country, notably through the establishment of an independent international investigation at the Council. Accountability is imperative to any progress towards peace, stability, and justice in Libya, and a Commission of Inquiry at the Human Rights Council is “simplest and strongest way to achieve” greater accountability for crimes committed in Libya, emphasized Mr. Ghassan Salamé, Special Representative to the UN Secretary-General (SRSG) and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). Justice for crimes in Libya is “neither optional nor negotiable” declared Geoffrey van Leeuwen, Director for Middle East of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, adding that the Netherlands would consult on how to move forward on this matter with partners.
During an interactive dialogue on Libya at the Council, many UN member states backed calls for such an investigation. According to a statement delivered on behalf of all members of the European Union, “Those responsible for serious violations of International Humanitarian Law and violations and abuses of international human rights law must be brought to justice and held to account. In order to facilitate this, comprehensive, independent and credible investigations have to be undertaken, including by the Human Rights Council.” UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kate Gilmore, made clear that the OHCHR supports the call for an investigation and is “ready to support any such investigation.” In its intervention during the same debate, CIHRS highlighted the growing international consensus on the need for an investigation at the Council:
“International attempts to achieve a national ‘peace’ accord in Libya have appeared to down-play and marginalize national and international criminal accountability in order to appease armed groups within the country…A new approach is required that puts accountability for ongoing violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law at the at the top of the list of priorities… A good first step would be to re-establish an International Commission of Inquiry on Libya at this Council.”
According to the Director of the Geneva Office of CIHRS, Jeremie Smith, “It is now incumbent on UN member states to ensure these calls are translated into action by establishing such an investigation as soon as possible. Failure to do so will only embolden armed groups in their use of violence, including against civilians, infrastructure, detainees, migrants, human rights defenders and members of the judiciary.”
The Price of Silence
A lack of political will persisted among UN member states to hold the Egyptian government to account for its unprecedented and brutal campaign of repression. Silence by the international community on this critical situation has only emboldened the current government in its most recent and ongoing wide-scale crackdown. CIHRS in a speech before the Council on the 17 September called attention to the severity of the situation:
The Egyptian government, under President Sisi, is currently overseeing the most widespread and brutal crackdown on civil liberties and human rights in the country’s modern history. This includes the use of mass death sentences for citizens denied a minimum of fair trial guarantees, epidemic levels of torture, enforced disappearances and deaths in detention. A slew of repressive laws and practices are being used to completely close off basic freedoms and civil rights…. In an effort to silence criticism of this human rights crises the government has engaged in sustained efforts to eradicate the national human rights movement and independent media. Human rights defenders, media workers and peaceful dissidents have and continue to be victims of enforced disappearances, torture and arbitrary detentions. Rights defenders and lawyers have also been subjected to repressive measures such as travel bans, asset freezes and politically motivated criminal charges.
On the 18 September, The Director of CIHRS, Bahey Eldin Hassan, alongside the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, participated in a panel at the addressing the urgent need to end attacks and reprisals by states against individuals who cooperate or attempt to cooperate with the United Nations. The event, entitled “Ending Reprisals,” was organized by the international Service for Human Rights (ISHR), CIHRS and Forum-Asia. Human rights defenders from Burma and Guatemala also participated on the panel which was chaired by the Director of ISHR, Phil Lynch.
In the report on reprisals submitted to the Council by the Assistant Secretary-General, Egypt was identified as a country that commits a “pattern” of attacks against those who engage with the UN, the first time such a designation has been made by the office of the Secretary General.
Mr. Hassan highlighted the systematic reprisals that have been and continue to be carried out by the Egyptian government against those who cooperate with the United Nations. Such reprisals have included: criminal charges levelled against rights defenders for their engagement in the last Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Egypt; a campaign of attacks and intimidation against those who cooperated with the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing during and after her visit to Egypt at the end of last year; the forced disappearance and arbitrary detention of Egyptian lawyer Ebrahim Metwally as he was on his way to meet with the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances; death threats against rights defenders in state controlled media and by Egyptian government officials, including against Mr. Hassan and other staff of CIHRS; as well as a host of other attacks and acts of intimidation against those who have cooperated or have sought to cooperate with UN human rights mechanisms.
Mr. Hassan called for urgent action by member states of the United Nations to address these attacks by Egypt and warned that independent civil society in Egypt who will attempt to engage in the upcoming UPR of Egypt that will occur in November of 2019 are at severe risk of further attacks by the Egyptian government if the international community fails to act.
Reiterating Mr. Hassan’s message, CIHRS, in a separate speech before the Human Rights Council, called on the international community to take action to address these attacks:
This pattern of behaviour, which threatens to make a mockery of the UN human rights system, has not been met with an adequate response by this Council or member states of the United Nations. We call on member states and officials of the United Nations to prioritize protection of independent Egyptian civil society in the context of Egypt’s Universal Periodic Review...We ask that you work to ensure that Egypt lifts the arbitrary travel bans against at least 31 rights defenders under case 173 that, if maintained, will deny independent Egyptian human rights defenders the ability to engage in the UPR of Egypt. If these individuals are not allowed to travel in order to engage in the UPR the legitimacy and relevance of this process will be severely undermined.
On the 27 September, as the Council came to a close and protests across Egypt against government corruption began to proliferate the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called on the Egyptian government to respect the right of Egyptians to peacefully protest and to end the mass arrest of protestors. According to the High Commissioner, Egyptian citizens “should never be detained, let alone charged with serious offences, simply for exercising those rights…I urge the authorities to radically change their approach to any future protests, including those that may take place today.”
International Community Must Support National Reform and Accountability
In light of the recent change in government in Sudan caused by mass protests, a joint letter published ahead of the 42nd Session of the Council by Sudanese, regional and international civil society, including CIHRS, outlined and called for steps by the Council to address violations and abuses of human rights, ensure accountability and contribute to human rights reforms in the country. On 12 September, CIHRS cosponsored an event entitled, Sudan: Ensuring a Credible HRC Response.” The event brought together Sudanese human rights defenders and experts to discuss how the Council can provide a credible response to the current situation in Sudan and support human rights reforms within the country.
The discussion took place as the OHCHR was in discussions with the Sudan government on opening a fully-mandated country office there with the capacity to monitor and report on the situation as well as ensure technical and capacity building functions. The “milestone agreement” to set up this presence was signed by the High Commissioner and government of Sudan on the 25 September, and provides for wide-ranging cooperation on critical human rights issues including legal and institutional reform, transitional justice, and the strengthening of civil space.
On the 23 September the resolution on Sudan establishing “technical assistance and capacity building to further improve the human rights situation in Sudan” was renewed by the Council.
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