The 48th Session of the UN Human Rights Council will sit from 13 September - 08 October, 2021 and there are a number of critical human rights resolutions up for debate and for the 47 Council members to address. Stay up to date by following @civicusalliance and #HRC48
During the 48th Session of the Human Rights Council, CIVICUS encourage States to continue to raise the importance of civil society participation, which makes the Human Rights Council stronger, more informed and more effective.
We look forward to engaging on a range of issues in line with our civic space mandate, set out in more detail below. In terms of country-specific situations on the agenda of the Council, CIVICUS will be engaging on resolutions on Cambodia and Burundi and debates on the Philippines, Myanmar, Venezuela and Tigray, as well as calling for formal Council action on Cameroon and for the for the urgent establishment of an investigative mechanism on Afghanistan.
On thematic issues, CIVICUS will be engaging on the resolution on equal participation in public and political affairs and the resolution on cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights.
CIVICUS will also engage in the panel discussion on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests; the debate with the Working Group on arbitrary detentions; and the debate with the Working Group on enforced disappearances.
Since the last resolution on Cambodia was negotiated and adopted at the Human Rights Council’s 42nd Session in September 2019, the human rights situation in the country has drastically worsened. Research undertaken by the CIVICUS Monitor shows that laws are routinely misused in Cambodia to restrict civic freedoms, undermine and weaken civil society, and criminalize individual’s exercise of their right to freedom of expression. Human rights defenders, civil society activists and journalists are often subject to judicial harassment and legal action.
These concerns have escalated over the past two years. COVID-19 and the government’s repressive response has only exacerbated restrictions on fundamental freedoms. Engagement by Cambodia with the Council to date has been minimal at best, with no tangible human rights progress to be seen, and weaponized by Cambodia at worst.
Should the resolution continue its current cycle, the next opportunity for renegotiation on a Cambodia resolution would be September 2023: that is, after both commune elections set for July 2022 and national elections set for July 2023. The last round of elections in the country took place under, essentially, a one-party state. They were neither free nor fair. The next round of elections are likely to be even less so. The government has shuttered almost all independent media outlets and totally controls national TV and radio stations. Repressive laws – including the amendments to the Law on Political Parties, the Law on Non-Governmental Organizations, and the Law on Trade Unions – have resulted in severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. It is imperative that the Council takes action with regards to these developments ahead of the next round of elections, and puts into place a robust monitoring mechanism to assess and address further election-related violations.
The gravity of the situation, along with the current dire trajectory of human rights in Cambodia, merits action under Item 2 or indeed Item 4. We call on States to ensure that, at the minimum, an Item 10 resolution which adequately addresses the situation would include additional monitoring from the High Commissioner, particularly in the context of the lead-up to elections. A resolution should similarly highlight the deteriorating situation, raising particularly persisting restrictions on civic space and the repression of dissent; arbitrary arrests and detentions; acts of intimidation or reprisal; violations of the right to peaceful and public demonstrations; and repressive laws or decrees that unduly restrict the rights to the freedoms of expression and association.
Cambodia is rated as repressed on the CIVICUS Monitor.
The UN joint programme on human rights, developed to implement Human Rights Council resolution 45/33 and focusing on specific areas for capacity-building and technical cooperation, was signed into existence earlier this year. However, the Joint Programme does not further any steps towards accountability for the thousands of murders under the auspices of the ‘war on drugs’ over the past five years, nor does it address their root causes. National efforts towards accountability have remain in name only; worryingly, they also serve to establish a false perception of sufficient action while atrocities continue as routine.
The situation urgently requires direct accountability action by the Council. That the ICC Prosecutor, after a four-year process, has called for a full investigation into the Philippines confirms the severe gravity of the situation. The ICC only has jurisdiction on Philippine cases dating before the country’s official withdrawal for the Rome Statute in March 2019. It is therefore incumbent on the Council to investigate the violations that have continued past this date.
During the Council’s 48th Session, we urge States to raise the Philippines in the Item 10 General Debate, drawing attention to the ongoing lack of tangible action towards accountability. We further call on States to consider a more robust response to the High Commissioner’s report with a Council-mandated independent investigative mechanism to address the ongoing systemic human rights violations perpetrated with impunity. This is clearly warranted by the situation set out in the 2020 OHCHR report as well as the demonstrable lack of adequate domestic investigative mechanisms.
The Philippines is rated as repressed on the CIVICUS Monitor.
CIVICUS is deeply concerned about the safety of human rights defenders, journalists and staff of civil society organisations in Afghanistan following the collapse of President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the takeover by the Taliban. The resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council during its Special Session in August 2021 in response to the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan failed to effectively address grave human rights violations in the country. The Council now has a further opportunity to respond affectively to the crisis by establishing an independent investigative mechanism.
The Taliban have a track record of attacking civilians and engaging in reprisals against those who criticise them. Some have been abducted and killed. Following the takeover of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, human rights defenders have reported that lists of names of representatives of civil society have been revealed by the Taliban and raids have been carried out in their homes. Women human rights defenders and journalists are particularly at risk. Demonstrations, often led by women, have been violently dispersed. The courage of those calling for justice on the ground, at grave personal risk, cannot be overstated and it is vital that their efforts be supported by the international community.
The failure of the Human Rights Council to address the human rights concerns of the people of Afghanistan and hold the Taliban accountable for its human rights violations was a missed opportunity. It must now take action to establish an urgent investigative mechanism to investigate all crimes under international law and human rights violations and abuses with a view to furthering accountability and justice – as called for by civil society, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, a number of Special Procedure mechanisms, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Afghanistan is rated as repressed on the CIVICUS Monitor.
Despite some improvements over the past year, the human rights situation in Burundi has not changed in a substantial or sustainable way. All the structural issues the CoI and other human rights actors have identified since 2015 remain in place. In recent months, there has been an increase in arbitrary arrests of political opponents or those perceived as such, as well as cases of torture, enforced disappearances and targeted killings, apparently reversing initial progress after the 2020 elections. Serious violations, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity, continue. Impunity remains widespread, particularly relating to the grave crimes committed in 2015 and 2016. Even if some human rights defenders have been released, national and international human rights organisations are still unable to operate in the country.
In the absence of structural improvements, and in view of the recent increase in human rights violations against persons perceived as government opponents, there is no basis, nor measurable progress, that would warrant a failure to renew the mandate of the CoI.
We call on States to ensure continued scrutiny on Burundi through a resolution which continues documentation, monitoring, reporting, and debates on Burundi’s human rights situation, with a focus on justice and accountability.
Burundi is rated as closed on the CIVICUS Monitor.
In the English-speaking North-West and South-West regions, abuses by armed separatists and Government forces continue to claim lives and affect people’s safety, human rights, and livelihoods. The grievances that gave rise to the “Anglophone crisis” remain unaddressed. In the Far North, the armed group Boko Haram continues to commit abuses against the civilian population. Security forces have also committed serious human rights violations when responding to security threats. In the rest of the country, Cameroonian authorities have intensified their crackdown on political opposition members and supporters, demonstrators, media professionals, and independent civil society actors, including through harassment, threats, arbitrary arrests, and detentions.
We call on States to consider raising these concerns. A joint oral statement could include benchmarks for progress, which, if fulfilled, will constitute a path for Cameroon to improve its situation. If these benchmarks remain unfulfilled, then the statement will pave the way for more formal Council action, including, but not limited to, a resolution establishing an investigative and accountability mechanism.
Cameroon is rated as repressed on the CIVICUS Monitor.
Since the military coup of 1 February, over 800 people have been unlawfully killed, most during protests and with impunity. More than four thousand activists, protesters, journalists and politicians have been arbitrarily detained and some activists are facing trumped-up charges, including of treason. There have also been credible first-hand reports of torture or other ill-treatment of political prisoners by the military. Despite the intimidation and violence by the security forces, the anti-coup protests continue, but the military has amended laws to impose restrictions on civic space and imposed internet blackouts.
A strong resolution adopted in the Council’s 46th Session in response to the military coup in Myanmar mandated reports of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar. We strongly encourage States to engage in the interactive debates following the updates of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the progress report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar.
Myanmar’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is due to be adopted at this Session after being posponded from the Council’s 47th Session. CIVCIUS and other national and international organisations strongly urges the Council to postpone again the adoption of the outcomes of Myanmar’s UPR Council amid the military coup. We further call on the Member and Observer States of the Human Rights Council to reject the representative of the Myanmar military junta to the UN Offices in Geneva and recognize the National Unity Government formed on the basis of the outcomes of the November 2020 elections as the legitimate government of the people of Myanmar.
Myanmar is rated as repressed on the CIVICUS Monitor.
The resolution adopted during the Council’s 47th Session, which ensures Council scrutiny on the Tigray region of Ethiopia, was a vital step towards preventing further human rights violations and abuses in Tigray and furthering accountability.
Since Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy came to power in April 2018, his initially much-lauded domestic reforms have been severely undermined by ethnic and religious conflicts that have left thousands dead. Conflict broke out in the Tigray region in November 2020 between the Ethiopian army and the leading party in the Tigray region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Since then, an overwhelming number of reports have emerged of abuses and violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, including a surge in sexual violence and assault, massacres of civilians, and reports of ethnic cleansing. There have been widespread arrests of and attacks against journalists covering the conflict.
We encourage States to engage in the enhanced ID on the High Commissioner’s update on the situation of human rights in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, and particularly on questions relating to ensuring accountability for crimes perpetrated.
Ethiopia is rated as repressed in the CIVICUS Monitor.
Since 2018, President Ortega’s administration has precipitated a socio-political and human rights crisis in Nicaragua. Human rights defenders, journalists and members of the political opposition have been subjected to acts of intimidation, arrests and detentions by security agents. In March 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution in response to human rights violations which renews and strengthens scrutiny on Nicaragua. In March 2021, Nicaragua was placed on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List, due to concerns about the country’s rapidly declining civic space.
The situation continues to deteriorate; just months before the November elections, the authorities have increased their attacks against members of the political opposition, human rights defenders and journalists. Nicaraguan human rights defender Medardo Mairena Sequeira was detained a month ago as part of a wave of arrests targeting activists and people who expressed their desire to stand for the Presidency ahead of Presidential elections scheduled for November 2021. In addition to Medardo, those detained include labour leaders Freddy Navas Lopes, Pablo Morales and Pedro Joaquin Mena. Many of those arrested are accused of complicity in the kidnapping and killing of police officers in 2018 during large scale protests that swept through Nicaragua that year. The authorities have stated that they are investigating those arrested for inciting foreign interference and violating national sovereignty.
The government has not adopted any electoral reforms – a key ask of the resolution adopted in March 2021. On the contrary, for several months, leaders and members of Unamos have been subjected to arbitrary arrests and detentions. The authorities have also imposed travel bans on other members of the political opposition and civil society, and froze their bank accounts.
At a critical time for Nicaragua, we call on States to take the opportunity to call for the immediate and unconditional release of political opposition, human rights defenders and journalists who have been arbitrarily detained, as well as for Nicaragua to implement crucial electoral reforms as a matter of urgency.
Nicaragua is rated as repressed on the CIVICUS Monitor.
The Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) will present is second report to the Council during the 48th Session. With local elections due for November 2021, the ongoing scrutiny of the FFM is vital. Parliamentary elections held in December 2020 were neither free nor fair, and the environment for enjoyment of fundamental democratic freedoms has deteriorated still further since then.
A raft of repressive laws and ordinances introduced this year risks restricting the work of CSOs in the country, and highlights a growing trend identified by the FFM in March: that of the targeting of individuals and non-governmental organizations engaged in humanitarian and human rights work. Such laws would have a devastating impact on organisations working to provide much needed humanitarian assistance in the country.
Restrictions on freedom of expression continue; recent attacks against media outlets include the raid and seizure of newspaper El Nacional, and acts of arson of the offices of media outlet CNP in Sucre. 153 media outlets were affected by digital censorship in Venezuela in 2020. As people continue to take to the streets in the context of a dire socioeconomic situation, security forces continue to use excessive force against protesters. Local organisations reported that during the first four months of 2021, 23 demonstrations were repressed, and one person killed.
Venezuela has shown some indications of engagement with regional actors; however, it continues to refuse to engage with the FFM and its ongoing processes. We urge States to engage with the dialogue of the FFM and to ensure its adequate funding, and, in line with an emphasis on accountability, to consider investigating and prosecuting those identified by the FFM to be suspected of committing crimes under international law. We further call on States to support the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC in using FFM findings to determine whether to open a formal investigation into Venezuela.
Venezuela is rated as repressed on the CIVICUS Monitor.
Resolution on equal participation in political and public affairs
Equal participation in political and public affairs relies on access to information and the protection and promotion of the freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly. In the last two years, these preconditions have been put under severe strain by the COVID-19 pandemic and its responses. In particular, participation has been impeded by rollbacks in democratic freedoms engendered by governmental response to the pandemic; the growing phenomenon of internet shutdowns; the impact of a growing digital divide; and elections postponed on grounds of both genuine public health concerns but also overreach of emergency powers.
During 2020 and into 2021, the CIVICUS Monitor documented a range of restrictions on rights introduced by governments under the pretext of protecting people’s health and lives which had a significant impact on democratic rights. This includes the use of restrictive legislation to silence critical voices, including through the proposal, enactment and amendment of laws on the basis of curbing disinformation.
According to a report published by Clement Voule, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of association and peaceful assembly, in June 2021, Internet shutdowns continue to be “a growing global phenomenon.” These measures have the ultimate aim of stifling dissent, stopping the free flow of information, and concealing grave human rights violations. More broadly, online forms of participation expedited owing to the pandemic have shown starkly the impact of unequal access to the internet - the digital divide - on equal participation. At times of crisis, it is even more critical that people have a voice, and a platform where they can hold their governments to account.
This is particularly the case as a number of governments postponed elections as a result of the health crisis, with corresponding impact on the right to participation. From 21 February 2020 until 21 August 2021, at least 79 countries and territories across the globe decided to postpone national and subnational elections. The postponement of elections can be a legal and legitimate response to emergencies, to avoid diverting resources from more urgent life-saving work. In this context, however, there was a real risk that the pandemic was used for political purposes. This was particularly prevalent in States with a narrowed, repressed or closed civic space, and often in line with the establishment of restrictive emergency laws which similarly curtailed freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association.
We encourage States to support a resolution which highlights and seeks to address these barriers to equal participation which have been engendered or exacerbated by COVID-19, in order to strengthen such participation.
In a report presented to the Human Rights Council at its 47th Session, Special Rapporteur Clement Voule described Internet shutdowns as “a growing global phenomenon.” Authorities in Myanmar, Iran, India, Chad, Belarus and Cuba, among others, have particularly turned to shutdowns in response to, or to pre-empt protest. The number of governments imposing internet shutdowns during mass demonstrations continues to grow, and shutdowns have increased in length, scale and sophistication.
HRC res. 44/20, adopted by the Council in 2020, mandated a panel discussion on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests, with a particular focus on achievements and contemporary challenges, to be held during the Council’s 48th Session. It also mandated a report by the Special Rapporteur on the protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests during crisis situations.
Crises take interrelated forms which have socio-political impacts. In response to such crises, governments across the world have increasingly imposed internet shutdowns, which have a serious impact on the rights to assembly and other civic-space related rights. Shutdowns have been used as pre-emptive tools against peaceful assemblies, and have been especially deployed to target marginalized and at-risk populations. Such shutdowns, often implemented hand in hand with other repressive tactics against protesters, facilitate abuses and gross human rights violations committed in the context of peaceful protests.
We call on States to engage with the panel discussion on peaceful protests and raise the increasing issue of internet shutdowns.
Resolution on cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights
UN action is only possible with strong engagement from civil society on the ground, who not only provide information and analysis, but are on the front line of ensuring that human rights standards are respected by their own governments, and that violations are held to account. Reprisals have a significant impact on citizen participation at every level of the international human rights infrastructure and are another example of civic space being squeezed.
At the moment, there is no political cost to States engaging in reprisals. There are a number of emerging trends in types of reprisals leveled against individuals and civil society – false narratives driven on social media and the engagement of non-state actors being just two such escalating tends.
Until such a political cost is established, the only deterrent to States engaging in this practice remains to publicly name them. We recommend that States use the Interactive Dialogue with the Assistant Secretary General to raise specific cases of reprisals – cases of reprisals in Egypt, Bahrain, Viet Nam and China are particularly prevalent.
CIVICUS also recommends that reprisals taking place within the UN itself are highlighted – such as that perpetrated by the delegate of Cambodia against prominent Cambodian human rights defender and monk, Venerable Luon Sovath, during a debate held in the Human Rights Council’s 45th Session.
Current council members:
Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, China, Côte d'Ivoire, Cuba, Czech Republic, Denmark, Eritrea, Fiji, France, Gabon, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Libya, Malawi, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Mexico, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Republic of Korea, Russia, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela
Civic space ratings from the CIVICUS Monitor