‘Counter-Revolution’ at the United Nations Human Rights Council? Arab states respond to unprecedented scrutiny with attacks on rights defenders and standards

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From 10-28 September, during the 21st Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (the Council), an unprecedented number of governments from the Arab region came under international scrutiny and criticism for committing serious human rights violations. Arab governments responded with a surge of attacks against human rights defenders who engaged with the United Nations and increased attempts to undermine international human rights standards, according to the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS).

Resolutions on the human rights situations in Sudan, Syria and Yemen were all adopted, as well as on South Sudan. The human rights situations within Algeria, Bahrain, Morocco and Tunisia were examined within the framework of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Moreover, the ongoing crackdowns on rights defenders and democracy activists being carried out by Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were raised before the Council by CIHRS, other international civil society groups, as well as several rights defenders from the Gulf region.

“Reflecting the ‘counter-revolutionary’ repression we have witnessed being carried out by many Arab governments against democracy and rights activists over the last year and a half, this session of the Council witnessed multiple human rights defenders from Sudan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain subjected to attacks by their governments or government-affiliated actors for engaging with the United Nations,” said Mr. Ziad Abdel Tawab, Deputy Director of CIHRS. “We urgently call on the UN and its member states to increase efforts to provide protection for these brave defenders and others like them. Such reprisals against those who cooperate with the UN not only constitute rights violations, but also represent an attack on the UN itself and its ability to function properly.”

This session of the Council began with a special debate on ‘reprisals’ or attacks against those who engage with the UN. Despite this positive initiative by Hungary, we continue to see hesitancy by governments to confront concrete cases of reprisals.

“If UN member states are serious about this issue they must move beyond theoretical discussions and strongly denounce specific attacks,” said Mr. Jeremie Smith, Director of the Geneva Office of CIHRS.

Concerning the adoption of UPR outcomes, this session of the Council saw the Human Rights situation in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Bahrain all examined. While Morocco accepted 128 rights recommendations out of the 140 that were made, it is worrying, that many references to human rights violations against Sahrawi people in Western Sahara made by States during the oral review were not reflected in the report. While some of these references were retained, others were completely removed or stripped of their significance. It is therefore paramount that states not only condemn ongoing violations in Western Sahara but also demand that the HRC be fully informed on the state of rights in the region.

While Tunisia accepted 110 recommendations and rejected three, the situation of journalists and freedom of expression remains of concern and should be monitored, all the more as Tunisia estimates that guaranteeing freedom of expression in its new Constitution is in the process of implementation. Whereas Bahrain and Algeria accepted the majority of the recommendations that were made, the apparent lack of political will to implement past recommendations is striking, evidenced by the continuing grave rights violations carried out in both countries.

The government of Bahrain in particular continues to deny the existence of grave rights violations. During the adoption of the Bahrain’s UPR, despite the well documented imprisonment of Bahraini rights defenders and political opposition figures, the Foreign Minister of Bahrain once again repeated that “political prisoners do not exist in Bahrain.”

This continuing denial of ongoing violations and disregard for the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry bodes ill for those pushing for implementation of the countries UPR recommendations.

A highlight of the Council was the presentation of the first report of the Special Rapporteur on Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-recurrence, a theme that is and will remain of core importance to several Arab countries such as Libya and Egypt as they attempt to transition from past authoritarian regimes to democracies. During the discussions held around his report, the mandate holder Pablo de Greiff emphasized the interdependence and interrelatedness of the four elements within the title of his mandate, and reiterated his fear that in some countries the term transitional justice has and is being misused to justify  impunity.

Ongoing grave and systematic human rights violations, such as beatings, harassment and expropriation of property and land, perpetrated by Israeli settlers in the OPT in addition to the deteriorating human rights and humanitarian situation in the Gaza strip were discussed during the last week of the session. Several organizations, including the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, underlined the dangerous precedent set by Israel in suspending collaboration with the Human Rights Council earlier this year, and urged the Council to request the UN Secretary General to appoint a special envoy to investigate Israel’s systematic refusal to cooperate with UN mechanisms, as well as ways of overcoming this lack of engagement and cooperation.

According to Mr. Smith, “This session we have also witnessed an alarming increase in the strength and frequency of attempts by some Arab governments, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to undermine the universality of human rights and the principle of equality that anchors these rights”

Kuwait, Libya, Oman and Saudi Arabia, currently member states of the Council, all supported and voted in favour of a dangerous text put forward by the Russian delegation on “traditional values.” According to a joint NGO statement before the Council: ‘Traditional values’… is regularly invoked to advance stereotyped notions of the role of women, to criminalise those who are deemed ‘immoral’ by the State, and to restrict the activities of NGOs working on ‘non-traditional’ issues…Stopping the trend of undermining the universality of human rights will require more political courage. Neither respect for tradition nor for the Council will be enhanced by yesterday’s adoption of a bad resolution that is politically motivated and that will transparently be invoked to impose State morality at the expense of human rights.

Saudi Arabia, representing other like-minded states, objected to a resolution to combat “Maternal Mortality and Morbidity.” In a blunt challenge to the universality of human rights, Saudi Arabia stated before the Council that national laws, traditions and values take precedence over international law and, therefore, declared that they will not accept the full blanket of guidelines of technical guidance pertaining to maternal mortality and morbidity recommended by the resolution.

Also during this session, Egypt, with the support of other Arab governments, pushed for language that could be used to unduly restrict freedom of expression within an anti-racism resolution put forward by South Africa. The amendment was eventually rejected by South Africa.

According to Mr. Abdel Tawab, “It is clear that the struggle for real respect for human rights in the Arab region has only just begun. Going forward, the international community must recognize that now is not the time to look away or abandon those in the Arab region who continue to struggle for reform and lasting democracy. In this sense, we are glad to see the renewal of resolutions at this Council session on Sudan, Syria and Yemen.”

A resolution on Syria, put forward by Morocco, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and which only Russia, China and Cuba voted against, renewed the Commission of Inquiry on Syria until March 2013 and requested it to continue to document and collect evidence of human rights violations, including potential crimes against humanity, to present to the Council at its next session. Unfortunately, the resolution once again failed to contain direct language calling for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court.

A resolution on Yemen, adopted by consensus, welcomed the recent agreement of Yemen to allow for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to open an office in the country, and asked the OHCHR to report back to the Council on “the situation of human rights in Yemen” after one year. While it provides for further reporting on the human rights situation in Yemen to the UN, the resolution failed to suggest effective steps to address ongoing impunity for grave rights violations being committed in Yemen for the past 19 months.

A resolution on Sudan, also adopted by consensus, renewed the mandate of the Independent Expert on Sudan for one year. It also “urges” Sudan to give the Independent Expert access to the “entire country, in particular in Darfur, Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan,” and asks the Expert to report back to the Council at its twenty-fourth session.

“We are disappointed that the resolutions on Yemen and Sudan have largely ignored the continuing failure of these two governments to put a halt to ongoing grave human rights violations. Instead the Council largely reproduced and rubber-stamped pre-existing resolutions and responses with little reference to the actual situation on the ground. When these countries come up for consideration at this body in the future the response of the Council should be informed by the human rights situation on the ground, rather than political expediency,” said Paola Daher, UN Advocacy Representative of CIHRS.

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