ARTICLE 19 welcomes the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, presented to the 28th Session of the UN Human Rights Council on 9 March 2015.
In the report, the mandate underscores that violations of freedom of expression are a central feature of attacks against human rights defenders.
As well as outlining his recent activities, the report sets out a clear and comprehensive “road map” for the issues the mandate will address during his tenure based on extensive consultations. In this regard, Michel Forst emphasises that he will interpret his mandate as broadly as possible, and identifies nine key themes he will address through his work. On this basis, he calls on all States to, inter alia:
- Combat impunity for threats and violations aimed at human rights defenders;
- Repeal laws criminalising the work of human rights defenders;
- Pay particular attention to defenders “most exposed” to risk;
- Unequivocally condemn reprisals against defenders who engage with international human rights mechanisms;
- Cooperate with the mandate, including by responding satisfactorily to communications, and extending open invitations for country visits.
ARTICLE 19 encourages States to take action on the basis of these recommendations, and to provide robust support to the Special Rapporteur as he addresses these crucial issues in greater depth.
The recommendations outlined in the Special Rapporteur’s report are pertinent to a number of cases that ARTICLE 19 has recently brought attention to.
Increasingly we see legal frameworks being abuses to criminalise the work of human rights defenders, for example:
- In Malaysia, the colonial-era Sedition Act has been the tool of choice for the government in an intensifying crackdown on dissent, in particular online. In 2015, cartoonist Zunar has been investigated and human rights lawyer Eric Paulsen charged in relation to their critical tweets. We have called for the repeal of this law, and for the harassment of human rights defenders in Malaysia to end.
- In Myanmar, amendments to the Right to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law have failed to secure the right of human rights defenders to take to the streets. Reforms to this law must also be accompanied by changes in institutional attitudes to facilitate the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.
The report highlights that ending impunity for attacks and threats against human rights defenders is crucial to ensuring protection. There is a pervasive culture of impunity in a number of the countries in which ARTICLE 19 works:
- In the Russian Federation, there is a culture of impunity. On 4 February 2015, North Caucasus human rights lawyer Murad Magomedoy was brutally assaulted by five unknown men near Dagestan’s Supreme Court. The prospects for accountability are weak; we point to on-going impunity or partial impunity in the cases of murdered journalists Natalia Estemirova and Anna Politkovskaya, where we are still waiting for justice.
- In Mexico, municipal and federal authorities have failed to follow up on the disappearance of Moisés Sánchez in Veracruz earlier this year. From 2007 to 2014, there have been 86 physical attacks and 22 incidents of intimidation against the press in Veracruz alone. Protests in the wake of the abduction of 43 college students in September 2014 were characterised by police attacks against human rights defenders, and there has been no accountability for this.
Importantly, the Special Rapporteur emphasises that he will pay particular attention to human rights defenders most exposed to risk. ARTICLE 19 welcomes this focus, as we continue to defend at risk groups through our work. Illustrative examples include our work in defence of women’s rights activists in Iran, such as documentary filmmaker and activist Mahnaz Mohammadi, and the rights of environmental human rights defenders in Europe.
The Special Rapporteur also expresses serious concerns regarding reprisals against defenders engaging with international human rights mechanisms. Of 34 defenders recently convicted or imprisoned in Azerbaijan as part of a broad campaign to suppress dissenting voices, we have noted that several have been targeted for their engagement with the Council of Europe and European Court of Human Rights. We have joined ten other civil society organisations in calling for the Human Rights Council to address Azerbaijan under Item 4 of the Council’s agenda.
ARTICLE 19 congratulates Michel Forst on his first report to the Human Rights Council, and looks forward to working with him over the coming months and years.