The 24th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (the Council) came to an end last Friday, September 27, 2013. Although many Arab and international civil society groups – including the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) – engaged throughout the session and strongly pushed the Council to take effective steps to respond to human rights challenges in Arab countries, much remains to be done to protect and promote human rights in this region as the session concludes, including in Syria, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Sudan, Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen.
CIHRS is disappointed to see how a timid the Council becomes when dealing with human rights in the Arab region. Indeed, the people of Syria, Sudan, Bahrain, Egypt, Palestine, and Yemen need all the support they can get to move their countries towards political stability and the rule of law. The Council should be a driving force in confronting cases of human rights violations and making recommendations to address them, as it is the main international body responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights.
CIHRS further notes that despite the gross human rights violations which continue to be committed in Syria, as well as despite consistent urging by civil society groups including CIHRS and Syrian human rights organizations, the Council has thus far refrained from explicitly calling upon the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Particularly in the wake of the unprecedented chemical assault in Damascus suburbs last month, CIHRS repeats its assertion that such a referral would represent a first step to guaranteeing an end to impunity for such serious crimes and could serve to deter the various parties to the conflict from committing further crimes under international human rights and humanitarian law.
While the Council did renew the mandate of the special procedure on Sudan, CIHRS remains concerned that this resolution does not adequately reflect the grave nature of the violations to international humanitarian and human rights law which continue to be committed in this country as well. CIHRS remains deeply concerned over the large-scale civilian casualties and mass displacement which have resulted from ongoing fighting in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile states. CIHRS further warns that government policies of restricting civil society, targeting activists and government critics with arbitrary arrest and torture, and using excessive and lethal force to confront demonstrations bode extremely poorly for the country as it prepares a new constitution. The response of the Council should have reflected the gravity of this situation in by renewing the mandate of the Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Sudan (IE) under agenda item 4. While the resolution that the Council adopted calls for the government of Sudan to grant full access to the IE to Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile, the resolution does not give the IE a specific mandate to monitor the human rights situation in the country, but rather to ‘assess and verify’ this situation – a worrying diminishment of the IE’s role, particularly in light of the fact that violations in the country are on the rise.
Despite concerted efforts by national, regional, and international rights groups working on Bahrain, the Council failed to respond adequately to the situation in the country, where new legal amendments further infringe on the rights to free expression and assembly and activists and other citizens face unfair trials, arbitrary detention, and rampant torture. Although a joint statement signed by 47 states was issued expressing particular concern over the ongoing violations to the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the repression of demonstrations, and the continued harassment and imprisonment of persons exercising their rights to freedom of opinion and expression, including of human rights defenders, CIHRS insists that more effective action is necessary to ensure an end to such violations. As CIHRS and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights asserted before the Council, civil society organizations hope that this statement, together with a similar joint statement previously issued in March of this year, will serve as the beginning of a longer process that will soon lead the Council to adopt a stronger response to the situation in Bahrain.
During this session, nearly forty states referred to the worrying state of human rights in Egypt in individual statements before the Council. CIHRS also expressed its concern at this session over the lack of accountability mechanisms for past and ongoing violations and its fear that the Egyptian authorities may take further exceptional measures in the name of “combating terrorism,” rather than adopting a serious plan to contain the violence carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters through peaceful and political means. Such exceptional measures have recently included the use of excessive and lethal force to disperse sit-ins held by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and increased restrictions on freedom of expression and media freedoms.
CIHRS further expressed its concerned over the incitement to violence by Muslim Brotherhood leaders, referring to the existence of credible reasons to believe that this incitement led to the attacks on numerous public institutions as well as against Christians, their churches and property; these attacks have led to the deaths of dozens of citizens.
The Council issued a positive resolution on Yemen, adopted by Yemen itself, emphasizing the need to appoint members to the country’s commission of inquiry, charged with conducting independent investigations into rights violations committed in 2011. CIHRS urges that these members be appointed with all due speed as a preliminary step to ensuring justice and accountability. CIHRS also repeats the Council’s call for the Yemeni government to adopt legislation on transitional justice and national reconciliation and for all parties to cease all practices of arbitrary arrests and violence against journalists.
Also at this session, the Council passed a landmark resolution on reprisals against human rights defenders, who continue to face harassment and physical attacks, smear campaigns, the closure of their organizations, arbitrary arrest, torture, and other forms of reprisals for their work in the defense of human rights and for their cooperation with UN bodies. This resolution calls on the UN Secretary-General himself to appoint a high-level official to intervene in cases of alleged attacks on human rights defenders, to coordinate international responses to such occurrences, and strengthen protections for such individuals. It also urges states to enact laws to protect human rights defenders.
In another important resolution entitled “Civil Society Space”, the Council condemned the crackdowns on civil society seen throughout the world in which governments have passed legislation to hinder NGOs by restricting their funding, thwarting their attempts to officially register, and even restricting their work based on unacceptably vague interests such as ‘national security and counter-terrorism’. The resolution calls on governments to “create and maintain, in law and in practice, a safe and enabling environment in which civil society can operate free from hindrance and insecurity.” It further urges the United Nations to treat the creation and protection of civil society space as a global priority.
However, a statement presented jointly to the Council by several NGOs, including CIHRS, warns against the resistance exhibited against such positive initiatives, stating: “The series of amendments presented on both of the above resolutions are a clear indication that some states, including regrettably some members of the Council, are unwilling to accept and support the crucial role of civil society and human rights defenders in promoting and protecting human rights.”
CIHRS affirms that while the Human Rights Council is taking positive steps to protect and promote the rights of human rights defenders and civil society organizations, it is paramount that it show the same dedication to address specific human rights situations appropriately and not shy away from enacting strong resolutions and statements when needed.
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