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.

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Iran: How the Judicial System is used to Target Religious and Ethnic Minorities

Five Iranian Christians were arrested by Iranian Intelligence (VEVAK) Officers on 26 August while picnicking with their wives in a private garden in Firouzkooh, an area 90 miles east of Tehran. They were not holding a religious service. They were simply enjoying a picnic. Now they are detained in Evin Prison in Tehran.

Since President Rouhani came to office in August 2013 there has been an increase in the number of religious minorities imprisoned on account of their faith. The rise in harassment, arrests and restrictions on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) are a major concern for non-Muslims, converts to Christianity, members of the Baha’i faith and minority Muslim groups.

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From the Darkness into the Light: the Hope for Justice in North Korea

Today, marching, singing and dancing will flood the capital of one the most notoriously secretive and closed nations in the world. 15 April is the “Day of the Sun” in North Korea, one of the most important national holidays in the country because it venerates the late founder and perpetual leader, Kim Il-Sung.

Despite the awesome displays of colourful dance events and firework displays to celebrate Kim Il-Sung’s perceived achievements in creating the ‘revered’ nation, the reality is far from being a day in the sun, but more a descent into darkness.

The ‘Great’ Leader Who Founded a Despotic Regime

Kim Il-Sung, the ‘Father’ of North Korea, was highly instrumental in establishing one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world. Between the late 1940s and early 1990s he oversaw the creation of a country ruled by fear. The Workers’ Party he founded crushed dissent, abducted foreign nationals, created an extremely discriminatory and hierarchical ‘songbun’ caste system, and forcibly detained hundreds of thousands into a hidden prison system, which still subjects North Koreans to forced labour, torture and even execution. Both his son, Kim Jong-Il, and his grandson, Kim Jong-Un have continued the brutal legacy.

Human Rights Violations Committed with Impunity

The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea concluded that the leadership of North Korea has and continues to commit “systematic and appalling human rights abuses against its own citizens on a scale that is unparalleled in the modern world.” These abuses are tantamount to crimes against humanity and include public executions, torture, forced labour, sexual violence, food deprivation, incarceration in political prisoner camps (kwan-li-so), and the denial of the freedom of expression, thought and religious belief.

The songbun and prison camp systems are key features that maintain these human rights violations. Songbun classifies North Korean citizens into three classes, the “core”, “wavering” and “hostile”; it determines all aspects of one’s existence in North Korea, such as education, housing and employment.  Once citizens are deemed “wavering” and certainly “hostile” they are forcibly removed from society and plunged into the hidden and torturous conditions of the prison camps.

Citizens who believe in or are found to be practicing a religion or belief are classified as part of the hostile class. Christians are especially singled out and commonly incarcerated in the infamous and remote kwan-li-so prison camps. The families of Christians are subject to “guilt by association”: whole families, up to three generations, can disappear into these camps. Hundreds of testimonies have painfully recalled the appalling conditions and human rights violations they are subject to, including forced labour, torture, starvation, and rape.

Shining a Light on Injustice

The COI’s landmark report is a tool for the international community to usher in the dawn of justice in North Korea. The UN Human Rights Council, UN General Assembly and the European Parliament have passed resolutions endorsing the Inquiry’s recommendations, and the Security Council has had formal discussions about North Korea’s human rights abuses. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has opened a field office in Seoul, as recommended by the COI. It aims to “strengthen monitoring and documentation of the situation of human rights as steps towards establishing accountability in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” and to “maintain visibility of the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea including through sustained communications, advocacy and outreach initiatives”.

Despite these efforts, there is more to be done by the international community to change the situation in North Korea, as the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, highlighted in January 2016. A referral to International Criminal Court is necessary to establish accountability and work towards justice. The international community must work together with determination and cooperation towards action. Nevertheless the dawn of justice has arrived and a concerted effort will enable North Korea and its citizens to truly enjoy a day in the sun.

By CSW’s North Korea Desk Officer

Religious Leaders as Human Rights Defenders?

In the early hours of 1 July 2015, Pastor Hafiz Mengisto, senior minister of the Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church in Sudan, was arrested after trying to prevent police officers from demolishing a building on church property, which they did not have authorisation to do. While in police custody, he sustained injuries to his head and ear that required medical attention upon his release. Pastor Mengisto was only acquitted of ‘obstructing a public servant from performing the duties of his office’ on 29 December 2015.

While his acquittal is welcome, his case is not an isolated incidence of harassment but is indicative of a continued and wide crackdown on human rights defenders (HRDs) – including religious leaders or members of faith communities making a stand for human rights within their community. HRDs face various challenges ranging from de jure discrimination and bureaucratic hassles to harassment, violence, torture and murder.

Is the international community waking up to reprisals against HRDs?

In his report to the UN General Assembly in 2015, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst drew attention to the “disturbing increase in the number of reprisals and acts of intimidation reported by defenders.” Today, thousands of human rights activists across the world face severe intimidation and harassment. One of the most difficult countries for human rights defenders is China where at least half of the country’s most prominent human rights lawyers – many of them Christians – have been interrogated, detained and in some cases disappeared since 9 July 2015. At least 30 of the over 300 HRD’s interrogated during this period, as well as others connected to them, have vanished into China’s detention system.

Since the adoption of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (1998), the international community has increasingly recognised the role of HRDs in promoting human rights. The work of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders has been instrumental in this. Moreover, the adoption of UN resolutions on human rights defenders has ensured that their situation remains visible in international human rights platforms.

In November 2015, the UN General Assembly passed an important resolution calling for states to adopt strong and effective measures to protect human rights defenders. The resolution was passed with 117 countries voting for it and 14 countries – including several Human Rights Council members such as Pakistan, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia – voting against. A further 40 countries abstained from the vote. It’s clear that many countries, including several members of the Human Rights Council, still remain uncomfortable with the work of HRDs.

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The UN at 70: Will Freedom of Religion or Belief Continue to be Sidelined?

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In October 2015, the United Nations – the most significant global human rights project serving seven billion people in 193 member states – turned seventy.

There is no doubt that the last 70 years have witnessed significant positive development with regards to the legal framework protecting freedom of religion or belief, however, when it comes to the actual realisation of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) across the world, the situation on the ground in many countries remains challenging.

FoRB in International Law

Although religious freedom does not have its own convention, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a core human rights treaty with 169 state parties and ratified by 169 states, as well as Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) provide strong, legal protection of FoRB These legal protections also cover those with non-religious beliefs. Furthermore, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief has reported a number of violations of freedom of religion or belief to the UN Human Rights Council and provided a wealth of interpretative information and normative analysis of FoRB.

In practice: the global realisation of FoRB

However, if you base the assessment of the success of the UN on the actual realisation of religious freedom across the world, the performance of the UN remains discouraging.  According to PEW Research Centre, about 5.5 billion people (77% of the world’s population) were living in countries with high or very high overall levels of restrictions on religion in 2013. CSW has reported a wide variety of FoRB violations from 26 countries including Eritrea, Sudan, Burma, China, Pakistan, Cuba, Iran and Egypt. Violations range from violence, killings, imprisonment and sexual violence to discrimination in employment or education and restrictions on the construction of places of worship. Given this background, it is obvious that the implementation of FoRB for all faiths and none remains on a rocky road.

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