What to do if you face reprisals when engaging with the UN?

Potential reprisals you might face when working with UN human rights mechanisms and how you can respond to such risks

This section highlights the risks that defenders can face from interacting with the UN human rights mechanisms, and suggests ways in which defenders can leverage the weight of the UN to provide some degree of protection against those risks. In does not aim to provide a fully comprehensive protection solution. In all cases defenders should consider which option might be best, based on the context and particulars of a case.

Apart from some of the options touched on that may be available through diplomatic missions and non-governmental organisations, it is important to note that the options presented in this section do not provide physical protection. In many cases the aim in engaging one of these options is to increase visibility and publicity, which may in turn provide some protection in particular contexts through deterrence, denunciation and prevention. These options should be resorted to in conjunction with a more comprehensive security plan.

Potential Risk of Reprisals

Defenders should be fully aware that, as important as it is to pursue international and regional human rights work, doing so could increase their exposure to significant danger. Because the UN system in particular can seem remote, there is perhaps a tendency to underestimate the risks that can be faced from engaging with it. Those seeking to engage with the UN should be aware of the importance some States place on being able to control what information is heard in international and regional fora, and therefore of the potential risks associated with that engagement. The following sections explain the nature of these risks and point to resources to help you respond to the dangers.

Learn about reprisals, in particular the potential risks facing human rights defenders when they cooperate, or attempt to cooperate, with UN human rights mechanisms. This video features the personal accounts of defenders detailing the plight of targeted individuals who face life-altering consequences after cooperating with the UN.

It would be extremely detrimental to the effective functioning of regional and UN human rights systems if, as a result of the risks faced, human rights defenders avoided interacting with them. Defenders have crucial information regarding human rights situations on the ground, and international and regional mechanisms depend on that knowledge and input to make informed decisions.

There are unfortunately cases where State institutions are simply unable, wilfully neglectful, or deliberately obstructive when it comes to ensuring that defenders can cooperate safely with UN and regional human rights bodies. In those situations, defenders who dare to speak out face heightened risk of retaliation or reprisals. Reprisals can include travel bans, stalking, personal threats or threats against the family, detainment and in many cases, even conviction.

Responding to Reprisals

How can I protect myself or others from further reprisal?

If you suffer reprisals as a result of cooperating or attempting to cooperate with the UN or regional human rights systems you are unlikely to want to risk further reprisals through continuing that engagement. If you are planning to pursue a case of reprisal, you should always consider the risks involved in having a case of reprisal made public. While the publicity can serve a protective function, it can also further expose you and make you, and those connected to you such as colleagues, associates or family members, more vulnerable.

Many of the suggested avenues in the ISHR Reprisals Handbook adopt a ‘do no harm’ approach and take the safety of the victim into account to the extent possible.

1. Notifying the UN mechanism

The UN human rights mechanisms offer different avenues for you to report – and for them to respond – to acts of intimidation or reprisal. Detailed, practical information on the tools available for these mechanisms is contained in ISHR’s Reprisals Handbook.

In general, you should first notify the mechanism of what has occurred. For reprisals related to cooperation with:

Human Rights Council

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Contact: the President and Bureau of the Human Rights Council

Special Procedures

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Contact: the relevant mandate holders, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, the Coordination Committee or the President of the Human Rights Council

Defender Story

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China – Reprisals after country visit

After the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty visited China, one of the human rights lawyers he met with, Jiang Tianyong, was arbitrarily detained and charged with subverting State power.

The Special Rapporteur made a specific reference to Jiang Tianyong during the presentation of his country mission report to the Human Rights Council. Making a ‘special plea’ to China to release him, the Special Rapporteur stated that the charges were ‘the equivalent of a legal sledgehammer and should have no place in such contexts.’ The country visit report explicitly referred to actions taken by the Special Rapporteur to respond to reprisals against human rights defenders who had met or were planning to meet with the mandate holder during the country visit, which included a communication and press release.

The Special Rapporteur followed the case closely, and with other mandate holders issued four press releases from the time of Jiang Tianyong’s disappearance to March 2018, raising concerns about access to adequate medical care while serving a two-year sentence.

Treaty Bodies

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Contact: the secretariat and Committee Members of the relevant Treaty Body

Defender Story

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Burundi – Reprisals during Committee Against Torture review

In August 2016 the Committee Against Torture (CAT) took action on allegations of reprisals against representatives of Burundian NGOs that had sent reports and participated in the CAT session during which the situation of Burundi was reviewed. Four of the representatives were lawyers, three of whom were subsequently disbarred and one suspended for one year at the request of the Attorney General of Bujumbura.

The Committee expressed concern that the request of the Attorney General was related to cooperation of these members of civil society with the human rights mechanism. The Committee sent a letter to the State asking for information on the measures taken to stop all reprisals against members of civil society working with the Committee, and addressed the issue of reprisals in the concluding observations of their review of Burundi.

Universal Periodic Review

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Contact: the President and Bureau of the Council

Defender Story

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Bahrain – Reprisals during Universal Periodic review

In 2012, the President of the Council took up the case of a group of Bahraini defenders who were participating in the country’s Universal Periodic Review. These defenders had come to Geneva to observe delegates from their country face questions from other States about its human rights record. However, they faced threats from their own government as a result.

The information about the threats was passed on to the President of the Council, who made a statement listing the names of all the defenders who had faced threats, and called on the government to ensure their safety once they returned to their country.

These mechanisms can take a variety of steps to respond, including meeting with representatives of the relevant State, sending letters to different stakeholders and issuing public statements.

2. Notifying the UN Secretary General

You can take an additional step – which is to submit your case to the Secretary General of the UN. Every year, the Secretary General prepares a report to the Human Rights Council containing a compilation and analysis of any available information on alleged reprisals, as well as recommendations on how to address the issue of intimidation and reprisals. The report is not comprehensive.

Not all cases are reported to the OHCHR, either due to lack of awareness of the report’s existence, or fear of further reprisals. In addition, the OHCHR will not include cases in which

  • the defender’s situation will be made worse if the case is publicly reported
  • if consent of the victim is not obtained
  • where defenders have chosen to ‘self-censor’ and not to engage at all with the UN system due to fear of reprisals.

In 2016, Andrew Gilmour, the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, was appointed as senior official to lead the efforts within the UN system to address intimidation and reprisals against those cooperating with the UN on human rights. This function is complementary to existing UN mechanisms to address reprisals and does not in any way diminish the obligation of other bodies and mechanisms to develop and implement policies and take necessary actions to prevent, investigate and remedy cases of reprisals. The senior official primarily fulfils this work through outreach and engagement with victims and those who may be in a position to prevent and address reprisals. He also raises awareness about the need to prevent reprisals more generally during speeches and statements and encourages other UN agencies to adopt a zero tolerance policy against reprisals.

  • You can submit a case to the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights by emailing reprisals@ohchr.org

When the Assistant Secretary-General receives allegations, he sends confidential letters to and meets with high-level government officials. More rarely, he makes public statements on the situations.

Defender Story

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Honduras – Different UN mechanisms respond to reprisals

In September 2015, the email accounts of the Asociación para una Ciudadanía Participativa (ACIPARTICIPA) in Honduras were reportedly hacked. In March 2017, Hedme Castro, general coordinator of ACIPARTICIPA, was briefly held at Tegucigalpa airport when she was about to travel to Geneva to participate in the Human Rights Council. She was reportedly questioned about her activities scheduled in Geneva and the human rights related complaints she intended to make. Castro was also subjected to further acts of intimidation, including the slashing of the tires on her car and physical attacks during a demonstration against a mining company.

Special Procedures took action in response to these allegations and have been in contact with the government to that end. Furthermore, the Assistant Secretary-General raised the cases with the government of Honduras.

3. Sources of protection outside of the UN

The mechanisms within the UN system may not provide sufficient protection. There are other sources of protection, including at the national level, that human rights defenders may access in an effort to protect against reprisals when engaging at the regional and UN levels. In particular, States and NGOs can provide effective support.

Diplomatic community

The diplomatic community can be an important source of protection, albeit limited in most cases, at the national level. Some States have developed specific guidelines for their missions on the protection of human rights defenders in the countries in which their missions operate. Therefore, those missions would be particularly responsive to human rights defenders who have faced or are facing reprisals as a result of their engagement with regional or UN human rights systems.

Keep in mind:

  • Sometimes defenders seen going to and from embassies may be putting themselves more at risk.
  • Embassies can be limited in what they can do if their actions would put their own staff at risk.
  • Some smaller embassies do not have enough staff to dedicate resources in this area.

For more information on this, see the ISHR Reprisals Handbook.

Other State support: It can also be helpful to lobby States that are responsive to concerns about reprisals to raise cases bilaterally or in multilateral spaces and push States to ensure the safety of human rights defenders. For example, States might be persuaded to raise cases of reprisals in their statements at the Human Rights Council, in the context of the Universal Periodic Review, or at the General Assembly.

Defender Story

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Cuba – States respond to reprisals

During a pre-session meeting for Cuba’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the Human Rights Council in April 2018, two of the scheduled panellists were not in attendance as they had been detained by Cuban authorities at the airport (in Cuba). NGOs participating in the pre-session condemned this reprisal by the Cuban government, and noted that the OHCHR and the High Commissioner for Human Rights had been informed of the incident.

Representatives from Germany, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, the UK, Finland, USA, Ireland, Slovakia, Croatia and Mexico all made interventions reinforcing this point.

Non-governmental organisations

NGOs can also be an important source of support and protection, whether administrative, material, financial, logistical, or practical. This could include:

  • urgent monitoring
  • reporting and advocacy support
  • appeals to relevant authorities
  • protective publicity
  • practical help with temporary relocation or assistance with medical or legal expenses
  • rapid practical support
  • emergency subsistence
  • legal advice
  • physical security
  • digital security
  • communications
  • capacity building in security
  • secure transportation and social assistance (including family support)

ISHR aims to highlight cases of reprisals and communicate those cases to the international and regional human rights systems, provide protective publicity to human rights defenders at risk, and work towards ensuring that national, international and regional human rights systems have the mechanisms to prevent reprisals and ensure accountability where they occur.

Useful Organizations for Human Rights Defenders facing Reprisals:

Some options available for human rights defenders facing imminent threats or who have experienced targeted violence include the following organisations. This list is by no means exhaustive, nor is the inclusion of an organisation here an endorsement of any kind: