Civil society continues to advocate for victims of human rights abuses at the 44th session of the Human Rights Council, despite new challenges presented by COVID-19 pandemic

In International Advocacy Program, United Nations Human Rights Council by CIHRS

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented novel challenges to meaningful civil society participation in the 44th regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (the Council), held from June 30th to July 20th in Geneva. To this end, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and its partners worked to ensure that restrictions imposed on the Council in the context of the pandemic did not unduly restrict civil society participation, including in regards to CIHRS' advocacy on human rights crises throughout Middle East and North Africa; with a focus this session on Algeria, Egypt, Palestine, Sudan, and Syria.

CIHRS welcomed efforts to increase civil society remote participation during the 44th regular session, the obstacles to which were highlighted in a statement[1] during a virtual meeting between NGOs and the Human Rights Council President on 9 July 2020.Enabled by remote participation, victims of human rights abuses, including victims from Syria and Palestine, addressed the Council directly.


[1] The joint statement was delivered by the Sexual Rights Initiative, on behalf of 20 NGOs including CIHRS.


Palestine


During the Interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territory, Ms. Najah Erekat spoke about the recent extrajudicial execution of her son Ahmad Erekat, by Israeli occupation authorities in the context of Israel’s shoot-to-kill policy. She demanded the return of her son's Ahmad body, and the bodies of 63 other Palestinians, and called for the international community "to pressure the Israeli occupation to release all the bodies of Palestinians that continue to be illegally withheld."

The Israeli occupation authorities' intentional killing of Ahmad Erekat and the punitive withholding of his body occurs within the context of rampant Israeli impunity for the crimes it commits against the Palestinian people. During the session, CIHRS focused on Israel’s use of  collective punishment to entrench and maintain its apartheid regime and occupation. CIHRS and partner organizations called[1] on member states to take effective measures to put an end to the illegal and inhumane policy of collective punishment.


[1] The signatories of this statement were Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Al-Haq, Law in the Service of Man, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights


During the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur, several member states heeded the civil society call, and urged Israel to end all forms of collective punishment targeting Palestinians, including in joint statements delivered by the Arab group and the African group[1]. . The voices of Palestinian victims of collective punishment were also centered at the UN Human Rights Council in a statement to the Council.

[1]“The African Group condemns in the strongest term Israeli collective punishment policy and call on Israel to put an end to all forms of collective punishment , including punitive withholding of bodies of deceased Palestinians, home demolitions, residency revocations, punitive fines, impediment on freedom of movement and closure of neighborhoods. We also urge the Council to call on Israel to lift its siege on Gaza, which amounts to collective punishment against 2 million Palestinians.”


CIHRS and Palestinian partners welcomed the important report by Michael Lynk, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, which constitutes a cumulative recognition of the illegal collective punishment policies imposed by. Israel on the Palestinian people. In 2017, CIHRS and Palestinian partners had called on the Special Rapporteur to dedicate a report to Israel’s illegal use of collective punishment.

Alongside its advocacy at the Council session, CIHRS coordinated a webinar on 14 July with Palestinian partners, titled “The Price of Impunity: How Israel Uses Collective Punishment as a Tool of Domination,” whichincluded the participation of Special Rapporteur Lynk. On 15 July, Palestinian, regional, and international civil society organisations organized a webinar titled “Collective Punishment in Gaza: 13 Years of Illegal Closure with Impunity.” The webinars were attended by Member States, representatives of UN bodies, human rights organizations, civil society, and academics.


During the session, CIHRS and partners continued to call for the annual updating of the UN database by the OHCHR in order to ensure corporate accountability in the context of Israel's prolonged occupation and settler colonialism. CIHRS and partner organizations also called on member states to take effective measures to put an end to Israel’s 13 year long closure and blockade of Gaza in a joint statement[1].


[1] This signatories of this statement were Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights, Al-Haq, Law in Service of Man, and Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.




Egypt


CIHRS worked to ensure that the unprecedented human rights crisis in Egypt, including an intensified crackdown on freedom of expression, was highlighted during the Human Rights Council.  Four interventions were delivered on a wide range of grave human rights violations committed by the Egyptian government, with a focus on restrictions and reprisals against civil society organizations and human rights defenders[1]. In addition, the government of Egypt has weaponized the COVID-19 pandemic in its widening assault on civil and political rights, adding ever-increasing numbers of  prisoners of conscience to its already highly at risk prison population.


[1]The joint statement was delivered by CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, International Service for Human Rights, East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, FORUM-ASIA, The African Center for Democracy and Human Rights Studies



In her global update before the Council, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said:

In Egypt, I am concerned by restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly – including with respect to online discussion of the spread of COVID-19 – as well as crackdowns on civil society, with asset freezes, intimidation and arrests targeting human rights defenders, journalists, political activists and their family members.

Restrictions on freedom of expression was the focus of one of CIHRS' interventions, including surveilling and arresting journalists, raids on press headquarters, and blocking websites -especially those of the independent press and NGOS- without legal basis.




In another joint intervention[1], CIHRS underscored the deteriorating conditions of Egyptian prisons, especially for female prisoners,  in light of the spread of COVID-19. Prisoners are held in overcrowded and unsanitary cells, and denied any contact with their families. Prisoners are also denied urgently-needed medical care, putting their lives at risk.


[1] The signatories of this intervention were the International Service for Human Rights, Cairo Institute for Human Rights, Nazra for Feminist Studies and Egyptian Front for Human Rights



Syria


Ahmad Helmi, a Syrian activist and the co-founder of the TA'AFI initiative to support survivors of detention and victims of torture, delivered a statement on July 14on behalf of Syrian families associations and CIHRS[1] during the interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Syria. Ahmad, a survivor of three years in nine Syrian prisons, addressed the situation in detention centers:

“As Syrian victims, we can attest that the reality in detention centers is far more brutal and horrific than can be described in any UN report. Imagine whole cities of people tortured to death, murdered; the whereabouts of thousands forcefully disappeared still unknown; the unmeasurable pain of families who have lost loved ones or who continue to desperately search for answers.”

The organizations- among them CIHRS- called on UN member states to vote in favor of a resolution on arbitrary imprisonment and detention in Syria, to take practical steps to ensure the release of detainees, and to ensure that all parties reveal the fate and whereabouts of the forcibly disappeared. CIHRS and partners welcome the renewal of the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria and the mandated report on arbitrary imprisonment and detention, which will be presented by the CoI to the HRC in its 46th session.


[1] The signatories of this statement were CIHRS, on behalf of Ta’afi, Families for Freedom,  Caesar Families Association, and Syrian victims.



Sudan


CIHRS co-sponsored an online event on Sudan, titled “Sudan at a crossroads: what role for the HRC?” organized by the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies and FIDH on 13 July 2020, in parallel to the HRC session. During the event, speakers highlighted priority issues that the Sudanese authorities should address, assessing the challenges faced by the transitional authorities. They also elaborated on areas where OHCHR and third party support is needed to ensure an effective transitional process. The event emphasized the importance of the transitional government working together with civil society and social movements in order to create a system of governance truly representative of the Sudanese revolution's slogan: freedom, peace and justice.”

In the end of session statement, organizations-among them CIHRS- welcomed the establishment of the OHCHR country office in Sudan and called on the Sudanese authorities to speed up the reform of the judiciary and security sectors in line with calls from protestors, and called on the Council to ensure continued monitoring and reporting on Sudan.



Algeria


CIHRS and its partners called on the UN Human Rights Council and member states to end their silence on the escalating crackdown on Algerian civil society, including the weaponization of the COVID-19 pandemic by the Algerian government, and the ever-increasing arrests and new restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.  These issues were raised respectively in a joint[1]statement during the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of association and peaceful assembly and in CIHRS' statement during the interactive dialogue with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.


[1]The joint statement was delivered by CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, International Service for Human Rights, East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, FORUM-ASIA, The African Center for Democracy and Human Rights Studies



In the span of less than a month - between 30 March and 16 April 2020 - three urgent appeals in relation to arbitrary and violent arrests, and unfair trials and reprisals against human rights defenders and peaceful activists in Algeria were raised by Special Procedures, including the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association and the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders. Yet nevertheless, the Human Rights Council remains silent, with no mention of the crackdown on Algerian civil society, including journalists. The absence of Algeria from the Human Rights Council discussions was denounced by civil society in their joint end of session statement.[1]


[1]The signatory organizations of the joint statement were: the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project), Center for Reproductive Rights, Franciscans International, The Syrian Legal Development Programme, Egyptian Front for Human Rights (EFHR), CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR), International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA World), Centro de EstudiosLegales y Sociales (CELS), Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), ARTICLE 19, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), IFEX, Association for Progressive Communications, International Commission of Jurists (ICJ),  and Amnesty International.TheInternational Service for Human Rights (ISHR) delivered the statement.




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