HRC40: Saudi Arabia faces historic censure, Egypt’s attempt to undermine UN counterterrorism & human rights mechanism thwarted

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

CIHRS at the United Nations Human Rights Council – 40th session

Saudi Arabia faces historic censure, Egypt’s attempt to undermine UN counterterrorism & human rights mechanism thwarted

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) engaged in the 40th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, held from February 25th to March 22nd 2019 in Geneva, Switzerland. CIHRS’ advocacy centered on six countries:   Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Palestine, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. At the HRC, CIHRS focused on countering attempts of repressive governments to exploit international mechanisms to cover up their violations of human rights; on ensuring accountability for violators of human rights; and on advocating for the release of unjustly detained persons.

Significant victories were achieved on Saudi Arabia and Egypt; with Saudi Arabia publicly criticized by UN member states before the HRC for the first time in the council’s history, a significant step towards addressing the “appalling disparity between Saudi Arabia’s obligation, as a member of the Council, to uphold the highest human rights standards; and the actual practices of Saudi Arabia, a state that systematically and brutally prosecutes any of its citizens who advocate for human rights.”

 Egypt’s attempt to undermine a UN special procedure mechanism was also thwarted after a concerted effort by CIHRS and its partner organizations to enroll other states in preventing Egypt from assuming a leadership role in drafting the resolution to renew the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism (SR on CT), which could have resulted in shifting the focus of the procedure away from monitoring and deterring human rights violations in the name of countering terrorism.  

CIHRS and its partners continued to advocate for the publication of the UN database of businesses profiting from the Israel’s prolonged occupation and illegal settlement activities. CIHRS also joined organizations from around the world urging member States to adopt a resolution on environmental human rights defenders, a particularly urgent initiative given the unprecedented levels of killings and violent assaults  against land and environmental defenders.

Saudi Arabia

The 40th session was historic; the first time member states have ever jointly addressed Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses at the UN Human Rights Council. From October 2018 to March 2019, CIHRS worked closely with partners to ensure that states would address the imprisonment and torture of women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia.   In response Iceland demonstrated principled leadership by delivering a joint declaration by 36 governments condemning the “continuing arrests and arbitrary detentions of human rights defenders in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, including women’s rights activists”  and calling for their release.

The joint statement’s demands echoed many of those in a letter sent by over 50 human rights groups, including CIHRS, to Ministers of Foreign Affairs from more than 30 states. 

The joint statement received substantial media coverage, creating strong visibility on the case of the imprisoned women’s human rights defenders. Saudi Arabia announced the  conditional release of some of the WHRDs shortly following the joint statement, yet the charges have not been dropped and their status remains uncertain: necessitating follow up.


CIHRS and its partners achieved an important victory in nullifying Egypt’s attempt to weaken the mandate of the special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, a victory that not only safeguarded international human rights standards in relation to counterterrorism but also ensured that Egypt could not insert language into the resolution renewing the mandate that it could have exploited to justify its own repressive policies.

In a joint letter، , CIHRS and other organizations warned that allowing Egypt a role in the mandate’s renewal would “only serve to encourage a continuation of its pattern of violations and abuses against civil society” while “significantly [narrowing] the already highly  restricted space for independent oversight of counterterrorism methods from a human rights perspective within the overall UN system.” This was followed by a  joint oral statement delivered on March 1st during an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur.

The mounting pressure compelled the resolution’s main sponsors, Mexico in particular, to refuse the amendments offered by Egypt, causing Egypt to withdraw from the process. The resolution was  adopted by consensus without further changes.

In a speech before the Human Rights Council  on March 8th, CIHRS brought attention to the case of 33-year-old Egyptian musician Rami Sidky, imprisoned since May 2018 without charges or direct access to a lawyer. CIHRS called on all Member States to “use all diplomatic channels to urge Egypt to release Rami and all others who are arbitrarily detained in the country.”


CIHRS led a campaign exposing reprisals against persons who engaged with the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing during her recent visit to Egypt. The Special Rapporteur forcefully addressed these attacks when delivering the report on her visit to Egypt at the HRC, and when speaking from the floor at an event organized by CIHRS at the session.  In the run up to Egypt’s UPR review later this year the government had invited six UN special rapporteurs to carry out visits to Egypt in an apparent attempt to blunt criticism of its widespread human rights violations and failure to cooperate with the UN human rights system. After these reprisals came to light United Nations other human rights experts  have indefinitely postponed their visits to Egypt. 


 On March 18th, during  the general debate on the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied territories, CIHRS and partner organizations continued to call for the full publication of  the UN Database on companies involved in Israel's illegal settlements. CIHRS have  worked closely with organizations from around the world to ensure the release of the database.  A database of companies complicit in illegal settlement activity in the OPT was mandated three years ago, yet there is still no publicly available database.

Moreover, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Israel’s killing of protesters during the “Great March of Return” delivered the results of its investigation and concluded that Israel’s killing of protestors constituted a grave breach of international law and those responsible should be held to account.   Palestinian organization Al Mezan and CIHRS worked together closely over the last year to provide evidence and information to the Commission.. CIHRS, also in partnership with Al Mezan,  co-sponsored an event entitled “Ending Impunity: The Case for the Right to Health in Gaza.”



During the session, CIHRS held an event and conducted advocacy on Libya’s human rights situation. CIHRS and the Libya Platform advocated for the Council to immediately adopt a resolution creating an independent investigatory mechanism, such as a Special Rapporteur, to collect information on ongoing widespread human rights violations.  

While no new investigatory mechanism materialized, CIHRS helped  strengthen a resolution put forward by Libya at the HRC through the preservation of reporting by the OHCHR on the human rights situation, strong language on individual criminal responsibility, and the reestablishment of an interactive dialogue  with the OHCHR on the situation in Libya at the HRC.


CIHRS and the Libya Platform held a side event entitled , Violence and Radicalization in Libya:  The Need to Strengthen International Accountability highlighting the human rights violations perpetrated by armed groups including extrajudicial executions, indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, and the targeting of civilians, infrastructure and hospitals during continuing armed conflict within the country. The event further underscored the systematic use of torture, sexual abuse, human trafficking, and arbitrary arrests in formal and informal detention facilities, and the need for international accountability mechanisms to address these violations.


The Human Rights Council also renewed the mandate of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, ensuring continued investigations into war crimes by the UN in Syria – an issue that CIHRS has been closely engaged on since the creation of the COI.


Finally, CIHRS "co-sponsored an event entitled “Yemen: Strong measures needed to advance accountability” on 14 March. The event focused on the need for the Human Rights Council to renew and strengthen the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen (GEE)- a body established by the Council two years ago which is mandated to investigate and report on violations of international law, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, committed in Yemen. The resolution establishing the GEE will once again be up for consideration by the Council and its member states in September of 2019.

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