FoRB on the Frontlines: It’s Time to Defend the Defender

Over the past month CSW has been speaking with HRDs across South Asia to find out what it means to be a FoRB defender in the region. Today, International Human Rights Day, we present a guest blog post by Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders.

“Human rights defenders are those community and religious leaders, journalists, activists, lawyers, trade unionists and others who take on the plight of the most marginalised in their society. These defenders of human rights represent people in the face of oppression, violence and harassment, doing what they can to hold perpetrators to account, and uphold the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), among many other resolutions that states across the world are committed to upholding. Many of these defenders face the same intense persecution as those they seek to defend, with many facing threats and risks of violence, torture and even death on a daily basis.

That is why, this year, I joined calls to award the Nobel peace prize to the global community of human rights defenders – especially as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders on 10 December.

As the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, I believe that this declaration must be given foremost importance amongst the international community moving forward, with regards to the protection and sanctity of all human rights worldwide. Indeed, this year the recipients of the Nobel peace prize were human rights defenders Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, further proof that the work of HRDs worldwide helps to bring about lasting change, peace and reconciliation.

Continue reading “FoRB on the Frontlines: It’s Time to Defend the Defender”

FoRB on the Frontlines: Under threat of violence

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In the run-up to Human Rights Day on 10 December and the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders on 9 December, CSW has been speaking with HRDs across South Asia to find out what it means to be a FoRB defender in the region.

Nehemiah Christie is a human rights defender working in India:

“My experience as a human rights and FoRB defender in South India has worsened ever since the Modi government came to power. With the BJP relying on the backing of Hindu fundamentalist groups, the threat to minorities has increased, especially with regard to Christians in India. In Tamil Nadu, where I and many others work on the front line defending people’s right to freedom of religion and belief (FoRB), we have faced extreme hostility.

HRDs here have been shot, raped, and threatened by both state and non-state actors. Threats are often perpetuated by police and other authorities trying to silence our voices by labelling us as anti-national elements working against the interests of India. Continue reading “FoRB on the Frontlines: Under threat of violence”

Long read: Eritreans wonder why their president is “making peace with everyone but the Eritrean people”

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On the morning of 17 September, Eritrean security operatives arrested former Minister of Finance Berhane Abrehe in Asmara.  According to local reports, 73 year old Mr Abrehe was out having breakfast with his son when he was approached by security agents and instructed to accompany them.

The arrest followed the publication and launch of a two-volume book authored by Mr Abrehe entitled ‘Eritra Hageray’ (Eritrea My Country) in Washington DC. The book is described on the cover as presenting an Eritrean plan on how to end dictatorship and prevent it from happening again. The book received endorsements from several former Eritrean officials in exile, and were accompanied by an audio clip in which Mr Abrehe called, among other things, for the convening of the National Assembly and challenged President Afwerki to a public debate.

Mr Abrehe is currently in an unknown location.  He has been unwell for some time, and there are legitimate concerns for his wellbeing.  Mr Abrehe’s wife, Almaz Habtemariam, has been detained since early 2018, in reprisal for one of their four children fleeing the country.  Both he and his wife are veterans of the liberation struggle.

Continue reading “Long read: Eritreans wonder why their president is “making peace with everyone but the Eritrean people””

From Deferral to Denial: CSW Continues to be Blocked from the UN by the NGO Committee

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“Without the participation of non-governmental organisations and civil society groups, no initiative, however visionary, can be fully achieved” – Former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon

Civil society participation at the United Nations (UN) is not an ‘add-on’. Rather, inclusive and genuine NGO engagement increases accountability and strengthens the work of the UN, making it more effective and better-informed. This has been flagged numerous times by many of the key human rights experts within the UN.

The importance of the contribution of civil society actors to the capacity, efficiency and impact of the UN Special Procedures and other human rights mechanisms was stressed in the latest report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, meanwhile, has pointed out the significant obligation international human rights law places on Member States to respect the freedoms which enable civil society to develop and operate.

Given the role civil society has to play in the protection and promotion of human rights, the recent decision by the UN NGO Committee to deny Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s access to the UN – after arbitrary deferral of its application since 2009 – sends a controversial and troubling message to civil society. Far from being just an administrative hurdle or minor oversight, the decision is effectively an attempt to silence the voice of an NGO promoting FoRB– thus undermining the protection of FoRB within the UN system.

Continue reading “From Deferral to Denial: CSW Continues to be Blocked from the UN by the NGO Committee”

From Pledges to Action: Human Rights Defenders play a vital role in advancing justice

Moving from official commitments to tangible changes people’s lives remains a key challenge in the realisation of human rights. I am reminded of the wonderful quote from African-American civil rights campaigner, Philip Randolph, who said, “Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.”

“Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.” – Philip Randolph

This quote draws attention to the importance of promoting human rights while reminding us that very rarely do human rights “just happen”; they are regularly contested, challenged and often only progressed through the active work of individual human rights defenders (HRDs) and NGOs who promote and defend human rights through activities such as advocacy, campaigning, demonstrations, and human rights journalism – whether paid or unpaid and regardless of geographical location.

The right and responsibility to promote human rights – either individually or in association with others – is the cornerstone of all human rights work.

Reprisals for defending human rights

As an advocacy organisation working in over 25 countries, Christian Solidarity Worldwide continues to receive reports of intimidation and harassment towards human rights defenders (HRDs), lawyers, activists, students, and journalists from many faith and non-faith organisations who promote freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). Severe reprisals committed against peaceful human rights defenders take many forms including physical violence and killings, arbitrary detentions, crackdown on social and economic rights.

For instance, since July 2015, over 300 human rights lawyers, activists, their colleagues and family members have been interrogated, detained and in some cases imprisoned or disappeared in China. This figure includes many prominent members of the weiquan community (referred to in English as rights lawyers, rights protection lawyers or human rights lawyers), who have been at the forefront of advocating for civil rights and legal reforms. Many of these lawyers have represented clients from religion or belief communities, including Christians from unregistered church and Falun Gong practitioners. One such lawyer is Jiang Tianyong.

Jiang Tianyong, a leading member of the China Human Rights Lawyers Group, has been missing since 21 November. Jiang has worked on a variety of rights-related cases, including representing religion or belief communities and on the high profile cases of activists Chen Guangcheng and Gao Zhisheng. His lawyers’ license was revoked in 2009 by the Beijing authorities, but Jiang continued to provide legal advice to victims of human rights abuses. As a result he has been repeatedly harassed, detained and beaten.

On 21 November, Jiang went missing on his way home to Beijing after visiting the wife of detained human rights lawyer Xie Yang in Hunan. He has not been seen since and human rights groups fear that he has been forcibly disappeared and is at risk of torture.

Government pressure against human rights defenders and NGOS

Many countries have also introduced legal obstacles and administrative measures to restrict the work of the HRDs and NGOs. In Egypt, the parliament adopted the Civic Association Law in November which places complete responsibility for administering civil society on government departments and the security apparatus. According to the local NGOs, the new law effectively eradicates civil society in the country.

In India, there are significant concerns that human rights defenders and NGOs, and foreign organisations which provide them with funding, are becoming targets for state repression. The Ministry of Home Affairs barred several NGOs and human right activists with international links from receiving foreign funds, by suspending their licences for six months and freezing their bank accounts.

Right and Responsibility to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms

After more than a decade of tireless lobbying by civil society, the United Nations (UN) Declaration of the Right and Responsibility to Promote Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms – the flagship document protecting key rights relevant to HRDs – was adopted in 1998. The mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, established in 2000, and the work of the current rapporteur Mr Michael Forst has also helped to raise the profile of the HRDs and find ways to improve international protection mechanisms for HRDs.

Since then, the role of HRDs has been increasingly acknowledged by the UN member states through various resolutions and statements. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has highlighted concerns about widespread intimidation and reprisals against HRDs collaborating with the UN, and indicated that the reprisals, which are becoming more severe and varied, undermine the UN. This year The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights launched its new campaign “Stand up for someone’s rights today” on Human Rights Day, a theme which by no doubt reflects the importance of HRDs’ work.

Moreover, the silencing of HRDs also takes place within the UN system with the NGO Committee in New York continuing to block NGOs access to the UN in a way that should deeply embarrass the international community.

On Human Rights Day, it is important to acknowledge the diversity of HRDs and to reflect what is needed from the international community to adhere to the principles of the 1998 UN Declaration on HRDs. Some of the key actions should include:

  • Repealing and removing legal restrictions and administrative obstacles restricting civil society and HRDs.
  • Releasing all arbitrarily detained HRDs and ending the misuse of criminal justice system to silence them.
  • Protecting HRDs from any harassment and human rights violations and monitor and investigate effectively any acts of reprisals or harassment.
  • Recognising and supporting the work of HRDs.

Devising future strategies to improve protections for HRDs should be further prioritised and here the Special Rapporteur’s report on best practice in this regard is a vital resource. Without effective protection for those who defend and promote human rights, there is little hope for the alleviation of bleak human rights situations and preventing the erosion of fundamental rights across the world will not “just happen” on its own.

By Sini Maria Heikkila, CSW’s Public Affairs Team Leader