The 54th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council began on 11 September in the context of ongoing and unfolding human rights crises. A longer than usual session, consisting of five weeks of debates, negotiations and events, discussed key human rights issues in the international arena The 54th session closed on 13 October with 36 resolutions adopted by the Human Rights Council membership.
Civil society has been instrumental in facilitating dialogue, promoting peaceful Resolutions, and ensuring that voices of excluded groups are considered. CIVICUS and other fellow civil society organisations called on the Council to address crises and situations of concern across the globe. The Council’s response varied on situations, with weak resolutions or lack thereof, calling into question States’ willingness to address human rights violations and abuses and other situations of concern meaningfully and effectively.
Human rights defenders, journalists, media workers and activists continue to be arbitrarily detained across the globe. Those arbitrarily detained must be immediately and unconditionally released. CIVICUS’s Stand As My Witness Campaign highlights in particular arbitrary detention in Algeria, Bahrain, Belarus, Egypt, Eswatini, Guatemala, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Mexico, Tajikistan and United Arab Emirates. CIVICUS underscores the urgent need for a concrete action plan to prevent and put an end to arbitrary arrest and detention on the international level.
Outcomes of the Human Rights Council Elections
We note the election of 15 Members to the Human Rights Council for the 2024-2026 term at UNGA78. The fact Russia was kept out of the Council highlights the value of competitive elections in each regional bloc. We regret that non-competitive elections in some regional blocs have enabled states with poor human rights records to serve as members of the Human Rights Council. We continue to advocate for competition and civil society scrutiny of candidates. CIVICUS remains deeply concerned about the election of Members responsible for patterns of intimidation and reprisals and widespread civil society space restrictions, in particular those with ‘closed’ and ‘repressed’ civic space.
The Council adopted several key Resolutions on thematic and country-specific issues. CIVICUS worked to promote civic space in several Resolutions and to mainstream civic space related issues.
The Council adopted a Resolution on Cooperation with the UN, which condemns all acts of reprisals for cooperation with the UN. References to the gender dimension of reprisals and the need for adequately resourced, dedicated civil society focal points are welcome additions. The strong focus on prevention and accountability is also welcome. However, we regret that the preventative role of the Council could play in regard as signs of deterioration in civic space conditions has not been addressed. The Resolution noted trends identified by the Secretary General, such as increased surveillance of those cooperating with the UN and application of laws to deter cooperation with the UN, however we regret that the resolution does offer ways to address these trends. In addition, States’ monitoring and reporting responsibilities in relation to allegations of acts of intimidation or reprisal could be addressed more fully. Furthermore, we highly welcome States using the Interactive Dialogue with the Assistant Secretary-General Brands Kehris to highlight specific cases of reprisals, including human rights defenders of the #StandAsMyWitness campaign, Viasna Human Rights Defenders, Khuramm Parvez, and Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja.
CIVICUS welcomes the adoption of the Resolution on the enhancement of technical cooperation and capacity-building in the field of human rights and its focus on the Universal Periodic Review. The key references to the positive role civil society in the context of technical assistance and possible role multi-stakeholder partnerships between States, UN agencies and civil society in promoting human rights are important acknowledgements in the Resolution. We look forward to the establishment of an online repository on technical assistance and capacity-building activities, as mandated by the Resolution, and look forward to encouraging civil society to use this tool in their advocacy efforts and collaboration with relevant UN agencies. The repository could also help identify opportunities to share best practices and capitalize on lessons learned in regard to technical assistance.
We welcome the adoption of the Resolution on the right to privacy in the digital age, which contains strong standards on surveillance systems and acknowledges that some applications of new and emerging technologies may not be in compliance with international human rights law. CIVICUS, in line with fellow civil society organisations, calls on a more thorough consideration of new technologies that may violate international human rights law or have the potential to do so if further developed. In the wider UN context civil society remain concerned about the draft UN Cybercrime Treaty and its potential risks to fundamental rights.
We welcome the establishment of a Fact-Finding Mission on the situation in Sudan, following consistent calls by civil society for an investigative and accountability mechanism since the outbreak of the conflict. We underscore the need for the international community to also step up to its humanitarian responsibilities and support the millions of Sudanese who have been forcibly displaced.
The adoption of the Resolution on Afghanistan without a vote is particularly welcome. The grave situation in Afghanistan, further exacerbated by recent earthquakes, requires the international community to speak in unison against the assault on human rights by the Taliban. We highly welcome the call for the re-instatement on the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the provision for an enabling environment for civil society. Nonetheless, CIVICUS continues to call for an independent investigative mechanism on the situation to promote accountability for ongoing violations and abuses.
The mandate renewals of Special Rapporteurs on the human rights situations in Burundi and the Russian Federation, respectively, are also important developments. In light of the “effective closure of the civic space, silencing of public dissent and independent media” in Russia and the culture of fear and self-censorship in Burundi, these mandates are crucial to ensure continued monitoring and reporting of the situations. While also welcoming the mandate renewal of the Special Rapporteur on Cambodia, we remain concerned that the resolution does not adequately address the on the ground.
While the Council’s adoption of these Resolutions will be crucial in fulfilling the HRC’s mandate and credibility, we regretfully have witnessed failure to act on number of concerning situations during this session.
Despite the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia’s findings of an acute risk of ongoing and further atrocity crimes in Ethiopia, the Council failed to renew the critical mandate on the situation. The UN Commission’s mandate ends this month, October 2023, however the work needed to ensure accountability and justice for victims of human rights violations and abuses is far from complete.
While we acknowledge the Resolution brought forward on Yemen, we regret that the Resolution does not adequately respond to the most pressing needs including the need for accountability and deteriorating civic space conditions.accountability and deteriorating civic space conditions.
CIVICUS regrets that, for the first time since 2012, no Resolution was presented on Syria, this session. This is particularly concerning in light of continued deterioration of the humanitarian and economic situation, as reported by the Commission of Inquiry, and brutal repression of recent protests. We call on the Council to renew the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry in its 55th session.
One year since the release of an OHCHR report on the human rights situation in Xinjiang and a narrowly rejected decision to hold a debate on the issue, the Council again fails to adequately address the situation. This session, we regret that no State attempted to bring a resolution or joint statement on China’s human rights situation. The 2022 OHCHR report concluded that violations in the region, including arbitrary detention, cultural persecution and forced labour systematically perpetrated against Uyghurs and Muslim minorities in China, may constitute crimes against humanity. The Human Rights Council must respond to such a grave finding.
Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories
As the 54th session drew to a close, the bombardment of civilians and the onset of humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza came to the fore. CIVICUS condemns the loss of lives in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We remain gravely concerned for the continuing situation, including the disruption of basic necessities in Gaza. Imposition of collective punishment on civilians by bombarding them and their homes amounts to war crimes. While it was too late to address the situation at the 54th session, the Human Rights Council must not remain silent. We urge the international community to urgently take steps to address the root causes of the conflict as a pathway to enduring peace.
CIVICUS and its members made statements in a number of important debates at this session, including on Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Senegal, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ethiopia, Burundi, Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh, the Philippines, India,Cambodia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Georgia, Somalia and Yemen as well as at the UPR Outcomes of Burundi and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
During Burundi’s support to 25 recommendations made on civic space at its 4th cycle Universal Periodic Review. However we remain concerned about the ongoing restrictions facing civil society and climate of fear and self-censorship. We urge recommending States to ensure the implementation of their recommendations.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) supported 19 recommendations related to civic space, however the situation for civic space remains grave. CIVICUS raised the treatment of Ahmed Mansoor and Nasser Bin Ghaith which demonstrates the crackdown of authorities on human rights defenders and critics. The international community must maintain close scrutiny of civic space in UAE, especially as COP28 draws closer.
The international community should closely monitor situations in Watchlist countries
CIVICUS highlighted the serious and rapid decline of civic space taking place in Bangladesh, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ecuador, Senegal and the United Arab Emirates, as highlighted by the CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist. The lack of respect for civic space, particularly in the 75th anniversary year of the UDHR, puts States’ commitment to human rights into serious question. The international community must take its responsibilities seriously and call out violations of human rights wherever they occur.
CIVICUS highlights statements delivered on situations of concern in Asia, particularly in the context of mandate renewals at the 54th session and upcoming Universal Periodic Reviews.
Serious action against crimes in Afghanistan must be taken
Civic space in Afghanistan has continued to deteriorate since the Taliban takeover in 2021. Activists, especially women human rights defenders and journalists have been arbitrarily arrested, detained and subjected to ill-treatment. With Afghanistan’s Universal Periodic Review scheduled for April 2024, CIVICUS urges the international community to make meaningful recommendations to address closure of civil society organisations and media outlets and persecution of human rights defenders. The international community must do more for accountability for abuses discriminatory policies and gender apartheid.
Bangladesh: Release of human rights defenders welcome, but more required
Space for civic freedoms has seriously and rapidly declined in Bangladesh, with the harassment of human rights defenders and journalists creating a climate of self-censorship. At the Human Rights Council CIVICUS condemned the arrest of Adilur Rahman Khan and Nasiruddin Elan, while welcoming the release of human rights activists on bail on 15 October. Their sentences must now be quashed. In the context of Bangladesh’s upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) we call on the international community to raise concerns regarding ongoing restrictions to civic space and make recommendations to address restrictions on civic space.
Human Rights Council action on Cambodia must reflect reality
The Special Rapporteur on Cambodia, last year, established a number of benchmarks on civic space. Despite these clear targets, no tangible progress has been made to achieve these. Civic and political space in the country has been severely repressed with Cambodian authorities using draconian laws to criminalise human rights defenders, political opposition remain subject to mass trials and ASEAN remains silent. We remain concerned that the resolution adopted at this session does not adequately address the worrisome situation for civic space in Cambodia.