HRC counters human rights violations in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria with resolutions and actions, while cautioning against deteriorating human rights situations in Algeria, Libya, and Yemen
From 22 February to 24 March 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council held its 46th session. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many of this year’s activities had to be shifted to an online format. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) in partnership with regional and international organizations issued a joint statement on the challenges of remote participation, particularly its continuing negative and disproportionate impact upon civil society. The organizations underscored that effective civil society participation in the sessions is vital to the Council’s mandate and a fundamental principle of its work, and must be ensured regardless of the challenges of remote participation.
During the 46th session, CIHRS partnered with over 170 local, regional, and international organizations, addressed 27 written and oral interventions before the Council, and deliberated upon the human rights situation in six Arab countries: Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Algeria, Yemen, and Libya.
In parallel to the session, CIHRS organized two online seminars on the human rights situations in Palestine and Syria. CIHRS also joined two oral interventions denouncing state responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and calling for an equitable distribution of vaccines. Worldwide, state responses to the pandemic have reinforced race, class, and gender based inequalities within and between countries.
Three resolutions on Palestine were adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council during the session. One of the resolutions was on accountability for human rights crimes committed in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, while the other two resolutions addressed illegal Israeli settlements and the Palestinian people's right to self-determination. Many European Union member states responded to civil society calls to support these three resolutions, including Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland.
The Council also adopted a resolution to renew the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, highlighting the commission's recommendations regarding accountability and support for victims, survivors, and their families, including psychosocial support and identification of missing and disappeared persons. The session also featured a joint statement signed by 32 countries condemning the deteriorating human rights situation in Egypt, a collective international response to civil society’s unwavering pressure and calls for the international community to publicly condemn the Egyptian government’s worsening human rights record. The last similar international declaration condemning Egypt’s human rights situation was signed by 26 countries.
Egypt: Drastic deterioration of country’s human rights situation condemned by international community in joint declaration
In a joint statement, CIHRS together with Egyptian, regional, and international human rights organizations, welcomed 32 countries’ condemnation, in a joint international declaration at the United Nations, of the deteriorating human rights situation in Egypt. Finland delivered the declaration, which highlighted “the restrictions on freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly, the constrained space for civil society and political opposition.” It also condemned the use of counter-terrorism laws to punish peaceful critics, and called for an end to attacks against human rights defenders, women's rights defenders, journalists, and LGBTQ+ activists.
The declaration further called on Egypt to end the following violations and illegitimate practices: due process violations; excessive use of pre-trial detention, often prolonged beyond the legal two-year limit; “recycling cases,” a practice in which detainees, often political prisoners, are charged under new cases after completing the term of a previous sentence, as a means keeping them detained indefinitely.
Bahey eldin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said “The March 12 declaration ends years of a lack of collective action at the UN Human Rights Council on Egypt, despite the sharply deteriorating human rights situation in the country.”
Hassan called for countries to “continue to make it clear to the Egyptian government that it will no longer have a carte blanche to arbitrarily imprison, torture or violate the right to life or unlawfully kill people.”
In an intervention, CIHRS commended the UN’s joint international declaration, on behalf of a human rights coalition comprising over 100 non-governmental organizations. The coalition expressed its hope that the declaration will mark the long-awaited beginning of sustained and robust interest on the part of the Council in Egypt’s human rights crisis. The Council and its members urged Egypt to move forward with the demands to begin immediately releasing all arbitrarily detained persons, including human rights defenders, journalists, academics, artists, lawyers, and politicians, in addition to those whose cases have been addressed by Special Procedures and the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
In an oral intervention before the Council, CIHRS welcomed the report of the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, submitted to the Council during this session. The report clearly warned that defenders in Egypt were exposed to serious threats amounting to death threats. At the conclusion of the intervention, CIHRS called on the Council to take urgent action against these grave threats to human rights activists, and to civil society as a whole, in Egypt, rather than becoming complacent and simply issuing a warning of the situation’s gravity without taking any action.
In early 2021, over one hundred prominent human rights groups from around the world wrote a letter to member states of the UN, warning that the Egyptian government is seeking to “annihilate” human rights organizations and “eradicate” the country’s human rights movement through widespread, continuous and systematic attacks. The groups called on member states to adopt a resolution establishing a monitoring and reporting mechanism on the human rights situation in Egypt .
Palestine: International condemnation of Israel’s apartheid practices amid efforts to ensure accountability for its crimes
CIHRS and a number of Palestinian and international human rights organizations sent five joint written submissions on vital human rights issues affecting the Palestinian people to the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), prior to the commencement of its 46th session. The five submissions addressed Israel’s reprisals against human rights defenders and its violations against Palestinian prisoners and detainees, while reviewing ongoing developments regarding Israeli’s crimes and violations in the blockaded Gaza Strip and its crime of apartheid against the Palestinian people. The organizations also renewed, in a written intervention, their repeated appeal to ensure the annual update of the United Nations database on corporate involvement in Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise.
In a joint oral intervention before the Council during the session, CIHRS partnered with over 40 organizations to reaffirm the importance of the UN database’s annual update, as a means of deterring corporate complicity with Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise. The organizations called on the Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) to “increase transparency around the annual update process and to provide a clear timeline for its publication,” while underscoring the importance of the update’s inclusivity in providing a complete listing of all businesses involved in illegal settlement activity.
This intervention came in response to the alarming announcement by the High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet during the session regarding budgetary constraints and resource challenges associated with completing the database update. This raises concerns about continued pressure by some countries, especially Israel, aimed at preventing the High Commissioner and her office from implementing this vital mandate.
 “I also specifically noted the question of resource requirements for any further work. It is not possible for the Office to absorb, on an open-ended recurring basis into the future, the substantial resources that updating the database and reporting to the Council would annually imply. Any further work in this area can only be discharged consistent with the Organization’s budgetary process applicable to funding mandates of the Council.”
 In October 2020, in response to the release of the database, Israel stopped renewing work visas for international staff of the United Nations Human Rights Office in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, forcing them to leave.
In a joint oral intervention during the interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner, human rights organizations expressed their regret that the OHCHR report on accountability, presented during the session, did not address the root or structural causes of repression in Palestine, mainly Israel’s ongoing occupation and apartheid. Instead, the situation was depicted as a dispute between equal parties. This issue was also discussed by Elham Shaheen from the African-Palestinian community, in an oral intervention she gave on behalf of a number of human rights organizations, including CIHRS. The organizations called on the Council to recognize the crime of apartheid imposed upon the Palestinian people and to confront systematic racism, while underscoring the interconnectedness of the anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles all over the world.
The report of the High Commissioner in turn raised concerns of some member states, including South Africa, which declared in a statement that while the OHCHR report “depicts equal sides of a conflict, with equal obligations and duties under international law, the relation between Israel, the occupying power, and the State of Palestine, the occupied state, is asymmetric. Moreover, equating Israel’s wilful lack of accountability with that of the Government of Palestine further legitimizes Israel’s violations and can be misconstrued as an incentive for Israel and its leaders to continue with their violations.”
South Africa elaborated upon Israel’s systematic perpetration of apartheid: “Human rights violations in the occupied territories have unabatedly persisted even during a devastating global pandemic. Israel has escalated its illegal demolition of Palestinian homes and properties, at a four-year high, with the aim to continue altering the demographic reality reminiscent of apartheid spatial development policies.”
Pakistan also acknowledged in a statement that “the Israeli forced evictions and illegal settlements remind us of the policies of apartheid.” Namibia affirmed its solidarity with those “who are calling for the restoration of the UN Special Committee on Apartheid in order to ensure the implementation of the Apartheid Convention to the Palestinian situation.” CIHRS and sixteen other human rights organizations welcomed this call. In its statement, Namibia asserted that accountability for human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory is key to achieving justice and ensuring that impunity does not prevail for those complicit in violations.
In four oral interventions before the Council, Palestinian and regional civil society organizations including CIHRS, continued to focus on the need for criminal accountability for Israel’s crimes. The organizations renewed the call for member states to support an investigation by the International Criminal Court on the situation in Palestine, to end Israel’s impunity, and to support the rights of the Palestinian people. The organizations also called on member states to join the increasing global recognition and acknowledgement of Israel's apartheid, while reminding member states of the principles of the Durban Declaration, which marks its 20th anniversary this year. The Durban Declaration recognizes the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.
In the context of the global Covid-19 pandemic, human rights organizations, in a joint intervention, also reviewed the swelling danger of Israel’s racist crimes and violations, especially in regards its inequitable and discriminatory distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, which is illegal as it implemented in a racist manner that denies Palestinians their right to health. The public health threat posed by the pandemic is further exacerbated by escalating food insecurity crisis in the Gaza Strip, caused by Israel’s illegal blockade, which has – as noted by the organizations in another joint intervention – deprived two million Palestinians of their right to food.
In a side event to HRC 46, CIHRS and 14 Palestinian, regional, and international partners held a public webinar titled “Israeli Health Apartheid during COVID-19.” During the webinar, Palestinian civil society addressed the repercussions of the global pandemic on Palestinians, reviewing Israel's denial of right to health to the Palestinian people, as part of Israel's perpetration of the crime of apartheid.
“As someone who lived and grew up in apartheid South Africa,” said Dr.Tlaleng Mofokeng the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, “I don’t have to imagine or read textbook research to understand what’s happening and the urgency of the issues in Palestine.”
Syria: New victim-centered approach and independent UN mechanism to locate missing persons or their remains
CIHRS and its partners welcomed the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Arbitrary Arrest and Detention in Syria, presented during HRC 46, which recommended the formation of an independent mechanism “to locate the missing or their remains.” The report presents an important recommendation to address detention and enforced disappearance after ten years of conflict in Syria, and during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Council unprecedentedly took into account the crucial role of victims, recognizing the importance of centering victims' perspectives and demands for truth and justice in the efforts of the international community in regards to Syria, during the renewal of the commission of inquiry’s mandate. In turn, the High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet joined the commission’s recommendation regarding the mechanism for locating the missing or their remains, saying, “Enforced disappearance is a continuous crime that has an appalling impact on the individual whose fate is unknown and on their family, causing continuing trauma for them and severely curtailing the enjoyment of their human rights.”
During the interactive dialogue with the investigation committee, CIHRS and a group of organizations participated in a joint oral intervention during which Heba al-Hamed, a member of the Coalition of Families of People Kidnapped by ISIS, presented a personal case study of the crime of enforced disappearance in Syria: that of her own father in 2013. Al-Hamed appealed to the international community to take measures ensuring that the authorities reveal the fate of the disappeared, conduct investigations with ISIS members currently in detention, and establish an independent mechanism to uncover the fate of detainees and the disappeared. Al-Hamed also called on the investigation committee to issue a policy paper on ISIS's perpetration of enforced disappearance that defines the legal responsibilities of the de facto forces in northeastern Syria and their state allies, and provides concrete recommendations.
In addition, a comprehensive report was prepared by five Syrian associations for victims, survivors, and family members of victims of enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention, titled the Truth and Justice Charter, in which the families and survivors called for the utmost prioritization of efforts to uncover the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared. CIHRS and charter organizations sent a written intervention to the Human Rights Council demanding a victim-centered approach in the pursuit of truth and justice for detained and disappeared Syrians, ensuring the prioritization of the perspectives of victims and their families, the fulfillment of their demands, and the upholding of their rights. The organizations also called for the establishment of an international, independent mechanism “to investigate information about detainees and the disappeared, with a view to disclosing the fate and whereabouts of those who have been forcefully disappeared or arbitrarily detained and ensuring accountability and redress for victims and their families.”
CIHRS collaborated with a group of organizations in organizing a public webinar  on 8 March 2021 in a side event to HRC 46, titled “Truth and Justice First for Syria’s Arbitrary Detention, Enforced Disappearance, and Torture Victims and their Families.” In her opening remarks, Deputy Permanent Representative of the permanent mission of Canada, Ms. Tamara Mawhinney, said “much more still needs to be done to bring peace and justice to the Syrian people, and we must emphasize the importance of pursuing accountability and justice with a victim-centered approach.”
Civil society organizations participating in the webinar also called on the UN Member States to adopt a victim-centered approach that ensures meaningful participation when addressing the issue of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance, and to implement the UN Commission of Inquiry’s recommendation report on arbitrary imprisonment and detention regarding the formation of an independent mechanism to coordinate and consolidate claims regarding missing persons or identifying their remains.
 The event was co-hosted by the Permanent Missions of the States; Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands and Sweden, in addition to some civil society organizations interested in monitoring the crimes of arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearance in Syria are: Taafi initiative, the coalition of the families of those kidnapped by ISIS (Masar), the Caesar Families Association, the Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison, Families for Freedom, and the International Service for Human Rights.
Algeria: Concerns raised about increasing criminalization of public freedoms and retaliation against demonstrators and the media
In conjunction with the second anniversary of the pro-democracy protest movement “Hirak” in Algeria, regional and international human rights organizations, among them CIHRS, have repeatedly called on UN Member States to increase scrutiny of the situation in Algeria and closely monitor the human rights situation in order to protect citizens striving to defend their basic freedoms. In an oral intervention delivered by CIHRS before the HRC 46, the concerns and warnings in regards to the intensified crackdown on Algerian civil society were reiterated. Among these concerns were the increasing arrests of peaceful activists and journalists by the Algerian authorities, a concern previously expressed by 31 organizations prior to HRC 45th session. During the closing statement of the current 46th session, CIHRS and fifteen other organizations denounced the failure of UN member states to take action on Algeria, and called on the Council to address the increasing criminalization of public freedoms, in order to protect peaceful protesters, activists, and media personnel.
In her oral update before the Council on 26 February 2021, the High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet reviewed ongoing demonstrations in Algeria coinciding with the two-year anniversary of the Hirak movement. She called on the Algerian government to immediately release all detainees held for their peaceful participation in these demonstrations, and to stop the use of violence against peaceful demonstrators. The High Commissioner also called for the opening of prompt, impartial, and effective investigations into all allegations of torture and ill-treatment while in detention, with those responsible held accountable. She further called for the repeal of legislation and policies used to prosecute people in retaliation for their exercise of the rights to free speech and peaceful assembly.
On 5 March 2021 during press briefing notes on Algeria, the Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Rupert Colville said, “We are very concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation in Algeria and the continued and increasing crackdown on members of the pro-democracy Hirak movement.” During the public debate in the Council, Iceland also expressed concern about “reports of forced closures of Protestant churches and some other places of worship, in addition to the arbitrary application of COVID-19 restrictions.”
With the Algerian government coming under increasing scrutiny, the president of Algeria Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced on 18 February 2021 the release of individuals arbitrarily detained. Thirty-eight prisoners of conscience were released following the announcement, with at least nineteen of them released with conditions. Despite this, the crackdown on civil society continues, with the arrest of at least 1,750 peaceful protesters since the pro-democracy Hirak movement resumed on 13 February 2021, according to local statements.
Yemen: Support the Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) and refer situation to International Criminal Court to ensure accountability
CIHRS and partner organization Mwatana for Human Rights, in a written statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council, called on UN Member States to urgently to adopt the recommendations of the United Nations Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen (GEE). In addition, the two rights organizations called for the creation of an international mechanism that ensures criminal accountability for international crimes committed in Yemen, inclusive of a comprehensive and credible agenda to guarantee accountability and redress. The statement also stressed on the importance of continuing to support the GEE by providing adequate resources to continue its work in documenting and reporting human rights violations and international humanitarian law violations in Yemen, and submitting reports on them to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
In an oral update before the HRC 46, the GEE stated “Tragically, as the conflict continues, violations of international human rights and humanitarian law continue to be perpetrated at an alarming rate and scale.” The GEE’s third annual report submitted to the Security Council, also “supports the establishment of a criminally focused investigation body […], to conduct further investigations and prepare case files to be shared with relevant prosecutorial authorities.”
The GEE recommended that the Security Council refer the situation in Yemen to the International Criminal Court. The report also called on UN Member States to cooperate and conduct trials with international jurisdiction when necessary. In the long term, the GEE encouraged the conducting of further dialogue on the establishment of a specialized court, such as the hybrid court, to prosecute those most responsible for crimes and violations. The GEE also addressed the right of victims to effective reparation, including compensation.
For its part, the Core Group on Yemen announced in a joint statement with Switzerland, Austria and Germany that “accountability of the Yemeni people has always been our primary concern.” Germany also affirmed in this statement that “violations of international human rights and humanitarian law have grave consequences for the civilian population for years to come, and therefore cannot go unpunished, and that the perpetrators must be held accountable. There is no sustainable peace or justice without accountability. The work of the Group of Experts is one of the very few sources of information we possess from the field, and it is crucial to enable us in holding accountability for all human rights violations.”
In an oral intervention before the Council, CIHRS and Mwatana confirmed that “the fate of millions in Yemen depends partially on the extent to which the international community responds to the calls of the GEE, and to take appropriate steps in addressing the impunity rampant in Yemen.”
 The core group of the Special Resolution for Yemen includes Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
Libya: Demand for immediate and effective steps to ensure that Libya respects its international human rights obligations
In an oral intervention by CIHRS before the Human Rights Council, in cooperation with the organizations of the Libya Platform coalition, the urgent need for the Libyan authorities to ensure full cooperation with the United Nations Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya was reviewed. The organizations also called for immediate steps to be taken to ensure that Libya respects its international human rights obligations and complies with the recommendations submitted to it by UN member states within the framework of the Universal Periodic Review mechanism of its human rights file before the United Nations.
The authorities had rejected important recommendations during the review process regarding lifting all current restrictions imposed on civil society, and taking measures to protect human rights defenders, the media, and lawyers. Libya also refused to lift its reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), nor did it take any immediate measures to adopt asylum legislation and end arbitrary and indefinite detention of migrants.
COVID-19: Ensuring equality, distribution, and equitable access to the vaccine
In an oral statement to the Council, CIHRS and its partners denounced “the ways in which countries have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic, which have fuelled and reinforced inequalities based on race, class and gender, within and between countries.” In another oral statement, more than 70 organizations including CIHRS, called on UN member states to support the Interim Agreement on Commercial Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and to ensure a fair distribution of vaccines in a way that guarantees the right to development for all. The organizations also denounced the stalling in the waiver of intellectual property rights related to trade, describing it as profiteering at the expense of human lives. This profiteering includes Israel's attempts to reap political gains by providing surplus stored vaccines.
Photo: United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet addresses the Opening of the 46th session of the Human Rights Council, Palais des Nations. 22 February 2021. UN photo by Violaine Martin
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