CIVICUS speaks to Agnes Callamard, United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, about her latest report, Saving lives is not a crime, which goes beyond documenting attacks on civil society to show how closing civic space also affects people who need life-saving help.
Your latest report presented to the UN General Assembly is titled Saving lives is not a crime. Why did you choose this topic as the theme?
This particular report initially grew out of outrage. Outrage over the repeated examples that I came across of people acting in solidarity with others and being threatened with legal action, such as in Europe and the USA in the context of anti-migration policies. Outrage as well over the criminalisation of humanitarian organisations and assistance because of the counter-terrorism and sanctions regime. So, outrage is the initial driver for this particular report. My subsequent research into empirical evidence and international law applicable to these situations showed that governments were violating their obligations to protect the right to life whenever they prevented or criminalised people from intervening in situations characterised by or leading to arbitrary killings or deprivation of life.
In which areas did you find the most direct examples of such actions leading to deprivation of life?
The greatest direct impact I found was on migrants at borders, whether in the Mediterranean or in desert areas. It’s very clear in the case of the Mediterranean that the number of refugees and migrants killed or murdered has increased due to the fact that there are no longer any humanitarian actors engaged in search and rescue of those who are taking the risk of crossing the sea. The data is not so clear in the case of the border between Mexico and the USA, but one can only extrapolate that if people are prevented from dropping food and water in desert areas, it’s likely that someone will lose their life as a result of not being able to find these life-saving resources. Another example is related to counter-terrorism. Security Council resolutions and national laws on counter-terrorism have led to a significant decrease in humanitarian aid for critically endangered populations. For example, funding to humanitarian organisations operating in Somalia declined by half between 2008 and 2011, and it is estimated that half a million people died in the famine of 2011.
Additionally, there is evidence of people losing their lives as a result of the global gag rule and related policies. [The global gag rule prevents US government funding from going to organisations that provide abortion services, including the provision of information and counselling, and advocacy to decriminalise abortion.] Organisations working to assess the impact of the global gag rule have noticed an increase in mortality rates in countries such as Mozambique and Zimbabwe, particularly among vulnerable groups such as people living with HIV and AIDS. Because of the way the policy is implemented, and because of civil society organisations (CSOs) providing integrated health services, the global gag rule is having a negative impact on many people beyond women, and many services beyond the provision of safe abortion. And regarding the latter, experts are saying that the global gag rule is in fact increasing the number of women seeking abortions, as a result of the decrease in access to family-planning services.
How have governments engaged with your report? Do you see any opportunities for civil society to build upon?
Most governments are giving a polite nod to my report, and a few attacked it but they don’t really engage with the substance of it. There are exceptions. I believe some governments are truly troubled by the criminalisation of humanitarian and medical assistance to civilian populations in armed conflicts. Some steps have already been taken to mitigate the effects of counter-terrorism and others are being explored and considered.
Civil society needs to use every possible opportunity to question the legal framework of counter-terrorism and national security more generally, for what it is doing to civil society and to society more generally. It’s essential for civil society to go on the offensive because this global discourse has become a monster that is devouring international law and ethically-based global governance. We cannot afford to be on the defensive and to accommodate the security language. Security is a human rights issue but not in the way it’s being currently approached, including through counter-terrorism measures that do not have much respect for established legal standards such as those of the Geneva Conventions or international human rights law as they relate to the right to life and many other rights.
What advice do you have for CSOs and activists that are interested in using the findings of your report to protect and promote their life-saving work?
Far more must and can be done to protect life-saving interventions by national and international civil society. I hope that CSOs and activists will be able to use my report and its recommendations for their advocacy work with government and UN bodies such as the Security Council. For instance, civil society could advocate for the principle of ‘humanitarian exemption’ to be fully recognised by international bodies and states, and implemented in the context of both counter-terrorism and migration policies. More empirical evidence is needed on the impact of counter-terrorism, migrations or other measures on beneficiaries’ human rights, including their right to life. Civil society could research and report regularly on the impact of counter-terrorism, migration or sexual and reproductive health policies on the human rights of beneficiaries, including their right to life.
I hope civil society can also rely on the legal analysis and interpretation in my report to strengthen the protection of their work, including for litigation purposes.
They can use it to back the argument that it is not just their right to the freedom of association that is being threatened, but also the rights of the people they are serving: in the first place, their right to life; their right not to be arbitrarily killed. The services those CSOs provide help fulfil state obligations, and if the state is unable or unwilling to provide those services, at least it should not stop others from doing what it should be doing in the first place. I hope that CSOs, whatever their field of work, will be able to use those arguments not only in strategic litigation but also to raise awareness with the public. Solidarity is not a crime. Acts of solidarity should be protected, should be put forward as a model for societies, and should never be criminalised. Brotherhood and sisterhood are values that we need to protect. That’s what really prompted this report: I was outraged by the fact that acts of decency, acts of profound humanity, life-saving acts – that such acts could become the targets of criminal action. I hope the report also helps raise the alarm about the misuse of the law. Its purpose is not to prevent or prosecute good behaviours, but to encourage them. Saving lives is not a crime.
Get in touch with Agnes Callamard through her UN email address at: , her website, or follow @AgnesCallamard on Twitter. For her upcoming report, UN Special Rapporteur Callamard would like to hear from disability rights organisations with expertise on institutional violence.
Photo credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias