UN Human Rights Council takes important steps to ensure accountability in the MENA region
From 14 September to 7 October 2020, the United Nations Human Rights Council held its 45th session. During the session, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), in partnership with national, regional and international organizations, carried out campaigns highlighting the human rights situation in eight countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), with a focus on ensuring accountability for human rights violations and abuses committed in these countries.
In addition to the MENA countries, CIHRS joined with more than 300 civil society organizations from around the world in an open letter addressed to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, and UN Human Rights Council member states to call on the UN to create an independent international mechanism to address the Chinese government’s human rights violations. Organizations reiterated their call for the OHCHR “to publicly report on China’s mass violations, and the Council to act urgently to create a monitoring mechanism. No State should be above the law.”
Moreover, on the occasion of the International Day of Safe Abortion, CIHRS joined fifteen organizations urging states to respect, protect and fulfill women and girls’ human rights, including to “ensure uncompromised access to available, accessible, acceptable and quality sexual and reproductive health commodities and services, including modern contraception and comprehensive abortion and post-abortion care on request, as part of universal health coverage and as essential health care, at all times, including during COVID-19.”
CIHRS drew attention to Egypt’s use of systematic reprisals for UN engagement, including the recent 15 year prison sentence handed down to the Director of CIHRS, Bahey eldin Hassan. CIHRS called on states to act for those vulnerable to kidnapping, torture and imprisonment and for the families who have had their homes demolished.
While the High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned this ruling prior to the session, the Assistant Secretary-General mentioned Egypt in her address to the Council as the country that pursued the most dangerous acts of reprisal, according to the report of the ASG to the Council.
The grave nature and regularity of such attacks by Egypt prompted several states to confront Egypt on this practice during the dialogue with the ASG, including Germany, the United Kingdom and, in a joint statement, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.
Moreover, human rights ambassadors from seven countries, including the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Netherlands, Finland and Luxembourg, issued a statement condemning the sentencing of Mr. Hassan and use of terrorism related charges against Egyptian human rights defenders.
Palestine received great attention from CIHRS and its partners during this session, especially in light of Israel's continuous questioning of the violations monitored by human rights organizations and obstruction of international efforts to protect the rights of the Palestinian people.
On 1 October 2020, the Israeli delegate at the Council attempted to silence a statement delivered by CIHRS on behalf of a group of Palestinians, regional and international organizations, objecting to describing Israeli practices as "segregation," were accused by Israel of using inappropriate language that contradicts UN standards.
In response, South Africa reiterated its position that "the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories is one akin to apartheid imposed by the Occupying Power… The characterization is therefore correct.” In addition, Namibia reminded the international community and the Council in particular of its “responsibility to address the apartheid practices being perpetuated against the Palestinian people by Israel…practices which are in flagrant violation of international law.”
During the same debate, CIHRS and partners called on UN member states to recognize and overcome Israeli apartheid over the Palestinian people. In a joint written statement to the Council, civil society organizations called on third States to urgently act to uphold the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, including self-determination and return, by adopting effective measures to overcome the system of apartheid imposed by Israel over the Palestinian people, end the occupation, and ensure accountability for all grave violations and international crimes within this context.
In this session, interventions also addressed Israel’s policy of silencing human rights defenders advocating for justice and accountability for violations committed against the Palestinian people as a tool to maintain its apartheid regime. The Israeli Interior Minister pursued proceedings to punitively revoke the residency status of attorney and human rights defender Salah Hammouri. In a joint statement by Al-Haq, organizations called on the international community to take immediate action to protect Palestinian human rights defenders and hold Israel accountable. South Africa expressed alarm at the “intimidation, harassment and threats against human rights and civil society actors in the OPT”.
The report by the UN Secretary-General addressed intimidation against civil society engaging with CERD in December 2019, among them Al-Haq, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, and CIHRS, which had submitted a joint submission to CERD. The organizations contributing to the joint submission reportedly faced allegations of links to terrorist groups.
The report of the Secretary-General also sheds light on acts of reprisal against human rights organizations that support the report of the Human Rights Council on business activities related to settlement-building, by branding them with links to terrorism.
During this session, human rights organizations also focused on the dire effects of the blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip, on which the High Commissioner has said that it has "led to devastating impacts on economic and social rights of Palestinians, and should urgently be lifted.” In a joint statement, the organizations called the council to address the root causes of the escalation of the Gaza Strip crisis, and demand that Israel end the illegal blockade completely, immediately and unconditionally. In a closing statement, the International Service for Human Rights called on the Council to protect the indivisible rights of the Palestinian people by adopting measures to end Israeli apartheid.
CIHRS and partners welcomed the increased international attention to the crackdown on civil society in Algeria at the 45th Human Rights Council (the Council) session. In a joint statement issued on 16 September, United Nations Special Procedures called on the Algerian government to immediately release journalist Khaled Drareni, and “all the others currently in prison, or awaiting trial simply for doing their job or for defending human rights.” Belgium condemned the judicial harassment campaign against journalists in Algeria and called on the authorities to guarantee freedom of expression and immediately put an end to the arbitrary detention of journalists.
In the end of session statement, fourteen human rights organizations including CIHRS, called on the Council to further address the crackdown on civil society in Algeria, including by requesting the government to "halt the arrest and detention of political activists, lawyers, journalists, and human rights defenders, as well as any person who expresses dissent or criticism of the government."
Ahead of the Council session, in a joint letter by 31 local, regional and international human rights organizations, civil society called on UN member states, the OHCHR, and Special Procedures to urgently respond to the intensified crackdown on Algerian civil society. The mounting repression follows the suspension of the Hirak pro-democracy demonstrations with the outbreak of COVID-19.
On 9 September, CIHRS organized in cooperation with a number of international organizations an online event entitled “Algeria: Forsaking Democracy - International silence on a peaceful pro-democracy movement, including journalists”. Speakers shed light on the escalating attacks on Algerian journalists, activists and demonstrators during COVID-19, leading to a closure of civic space amidst international silence.
During this Session, CIHRS and its partners called on UN member states to strengthen the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen (GEE) mandate to ensure stronger accountability for human rights violations in Yemen. Civil society also asked for the GEE to be given a stronger mandate to study accountability options for Yemen. CIHRS and its partners organized an online public webinar that brought together the GEE and representatives of civil society, to discuss this matter.
The GEE issued its third report on September 9, 2020. The report calls for a set of accountability measures, which includes creating a mechanism to collect evidence and ensure judicial action to address serious violations of international law in Yemen. These are the same demands adopted by human rights organizations and highlighted during the interactive dialogue with members of the GEE. These demands call for UN and member state support of the GEE’s mandate to collect, consolidate, analyze and preserve evidence of alleged gross violations and abuses of human rights, and serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in Yemen since 2014. The work of the GEE should not be affected by funding gaps in the context of ongoing violations on the ground, and the GEE’s findings should be shared with other relevant UN bodies, including the UN Security Council and the General Assembly.
On 22 September 24 human rights organizations issued a press release warning that:
With COVID-19 threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions across Yemen, peace talks floundering, and airstrikes, shelling and attacks impacting civilians. The organizations considered that, the Human Rights Council has the opportunity to pave the way towards credible accountability and redress for victims and survivors in Yemen.
This was reflected in the revised resolution adopted by the council on 6 October on “The Situation of Human Rights in Yemen” which took account of the acute need for stronger accountability, including by explicitly mandating the GEE to “ to carry out comprehensive investigations into all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law and all alleged violations of international humanitarian law ...including possible gender dimensions of such violations, to establish the facts and circumstances surrounding the alleged violations and abuses, to collect, preserve, and analyze information, and, where possible, to identify those responsible,” and to “to explore and report on recommended approaches and practical mechanisms of accountability to secure truth, justice, and redress for victims, in coordination with relevant mandates of the UN Special Procedures.”
In continuation of the ongoing human rights campaign in cooperation with Syrian partners to ensure accountability for human rights crimes and an end to the practice of arbitrary detention in Syria, and after the Human Rights Council approved Resolution A / HRC / 44 / L.10 to grant a special mandate to prepare a report on arbitrary detention at the 44th session of the Council, CIHRS continued, during the 45th session, to communicate with the Council and member states to ensure that civil society priorities are upheld.
During the interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, human rights organizations - including CIHRS - demanded truth and justice for victims of human rights violations in Syria and their families, and called on experts to prepare reports on ways to ensure accountability and make recommendations to the Council in this regard. In a joint statement by the organizations, the CoI called for addressing sexual and gender-based violence against women and men in detention centers in Syria, and making recommendations to the Council and Member States in order to achieve justice for the victims. Another joint human rights statement focused on the need to take measures to help families discover the whereabouts and fate of their disappeared relatives, including those kidnapped by the Islamic State (ISIS).
In their joint statement issued on 13 August 2020, Special Procedures said that the "scale and impact of the lethal explosion are unprecedented. We are deeply concerned about the level of irresponsibility and impunity surrounding human and environmental devastation on this scale. ” The experts called for a “prompt and independent investigation that underscores international human rights obligations, clarifies responsibilities related to the explosion, and leads to justice and accountability.”
In the report presented to the Council, the Special Rapporteur on Toxic Wastes, called on states to “recognize their obligation to prevent exposure to hazardous substances [...] as part of their obligation to protect human rights,” and to adopt a rights based approach, focusing on mitigating the impact on human rights, “including rights to life, health, bodily integrity, among others.”
The High Commissioner confirmed that “Accountability for this tragedy will be vital, with an impartial, independent, thorough and transparent investigation into the explosion. Political actors must agree on, and implement, reforms aimed at preventing further erosion of rights, to meaningfully address the grievances of the people and the country's underlying human rights gaps.”
Prior to the 45th session of the Council, in early September, 32 human rights organizations, including the CIHRS , called on member states of the United Nations Human Rights Council to continue to pressure the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to comply with its obligations under international human rights law. This is in reference to the recent success of human rights and international efforts in pushing Saudi Arabia to release seven women human rights defenders and to take initial steps towards dismantling the male guardianship system. However, Saudi Arabia continues to pursue policies of arbitrary arrest of people for expressing critical views. It does not address allegations of torture and ill-treatment, and there have been no credible investigations into the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which was condemned by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.
During this session, the High Commissioner called for the release of women human rights defenders detained in Saudi Arabia, raising concern “about the continued arbitrary detention of women human rights defenders who have demanded that Saudi Arabian women be empowered to make their own choices, as equals to men.”
Denmark delivered a cross regional statement on behalf of 33 UN member states at the Council raising deep concern over reports in Saudi Arabia of “torture, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and detainees being denied access to essential medical treatment and contact with their families.” The statement strongly condemned the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, especially the execution of minors; called for accountability for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and called on Saudi Arabia to address “persisting discrimination of women."
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