UN Reveals Alarming Surge in Reprisals For Human Rights Defenders Cooperating with UN

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22 September 2017 – The UN expressed alarm at the increase in human rights defenders facing reprisals for cooperation with the UN in a new report this week, condemning Bahrain among the culpable states.

Read extracts on Bahrain and Saudi Arabia from the report here.

The report by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, states that Bahrain has “an ongoing trend of major harassment and intimidation against human rights defenders”, naming nine Bahraini human rights defenders and activists as victims of reprisals that include sexual abuse and torture by the Bahraini Government for their work with the UN.

The list of 29 countries that have perpetrated acts of reprisal or intimidation against human rights defenders marks a significant rise from the previous highest number of 20. Eleven of the states criticised in the report are current members of the UN Human Rights Council.

Among those targeted in Bahrain are detainees Ebtisam al-Sayegh, who has faced both torture and sexual assault, and Nabeel Rajab, whose arrest and travel ban were of “concern” to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as being connected to his engagement with the Human Rights Council. The UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights has expressed deep concern that al-Sayegh “has reportedly been beaten and sexually assaulted, and remains in detention”.

The report also raises allegations of travel bans imposed on civil society representatives, naming Mohammed Jawad, Nedal Al-Salman, Hussain Salam Ahmed Radhi, Mohammed Al-Tajer, Enas Oun, Ebrahim Al-Demistani and Abdulnabi Al-Ekry as having suffered such reprisals related to their cooperation with the UN Human Rights Council.

Reprisals within Bahrain have included sexual assault, torture, rape, harassment, intimidation, and ill-treatment. The UN draws attention to the fact that Bahrain imposed travel bans against human rights defenders as an apparent strategy to prevent human rights defenders from travelling abroad or participating in international human rights events.

The report states that, “Special procedures have expressed concerns about an orchestrated crackdown on civil society, stressing that the authorities have resorted to drastic measures to curb dissenting opinions, including reprisals for cooperating with the United Nations.” 

Saudi Arabia is also among the countries criticised in the report, which features the case of Issa al-Hamid, a Saudi human rights defender sentenced to 11 years in prison followed by an 11 year travel ban and a fine of 100,000 Riyals. Among al-Hamid’s charges was that he “communicated with international organizations in order to harm the image of the State”. The report highlights this as an act of reprisal for al-Hamid’s cooperation with the UN, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights.

The UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that the problem was far more widespread than the report presents, saying, “It is frankly nothing short of abhorrent that, year after year, we are compelled to present cases of intimidation and reprisals carried out against people whose crime – in the eyes of their Governments – was to cooperate with UN institutions and mechanisms.”.

“We should see these individuals as the canary in the coalmine, bravely singing until they are silenced by this toxic backlash against people, rights and dignity – as a dark warning to us all,” he said.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stresses in the report that, “When government or other officials intimidated, arrested or harmed individuals, they attacked a fundamental element of the work of the United Nations.” The report concludes that reprisals are “often perpetrated by State officials or at the very least are condoned by the State” and are “aimed at penalizing organizations for contacting human rights mechanisms.”

Read extracts on Bahrain and Saudi Arabia from the report here.

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