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FOCUS September 2017 Volume 89

Working for Human Rights: Risks and Consequences


In his address1 at the opening session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on 11 September 2017, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights, reported on the human rights situation in many member-states. He noted the numerous reports received by his Office on the arrest, detention and prosecution of human rights defenders, journalists and social media activists.

He cited the harassment, criminal prosecution and denial of State protection of those who work for the rights of the most vulnerable groups in India – including those threatened with displacement by infrastructure projects such as the Sardar Sarovar Dam in the Narmada river valley. 

He observed that many Pakistani “journalists and human rights defenders face daily threats of violence.” The threat of vigilante violence existed even for “allegations of blasphemy, or suggestions that blasphemy laws require revision to comply with the right to freedom of thought and religion.” He also observed that the excessive application of the Pakistani digital space law and regulations on non-governmental organization (NGO) activities had “limited critical voices and shrunk democratic space.”

He said that the Philippine President’s “order to police to shoot any human rights workers who ‘are part of’ the drug trade or who ‘obstruct justice’ is yet another blow to the reputation of the Philippines and its people's rights.”

He noted the delegitimization of human rights organizations in Israel through a 2016 law that considered their work in the Occupied Territory as “anti-Israeli” and through the Prime Minister’s plan to “extend restrictions limiting foreign funding for human rights organisations.” He also noted that the Palestinian human rights defenders faced “harassment, including arrests for social media postings and peaceful protests.” While in both the West Bank and in Gaza, he observed that there appeared to be a “crackdown by the Palestinian authorities on human rights defenders, particularly on journalists and news websites – including legislative measures, arrests and harassment of individuals and bans on websites.”

He expressed concern for the “action taken against defence lawyers” in China.

He was alarmed by the severe restrictions imposed by the Bahraini government on “civil society and political activism through arrests, intimidation, travel bans and closure orders, with increasing reports of torture by the security authorities.”

In 2015, the United Nations Committee against Torture expressed concern about the detention of lawyers in China. It was2 

deeply concerned about the unprecedented detention and interrogation of, reportedly, more than 200 lawyers and activists since 9 July 2015. Of those, 25 remain reportedly under residential surveillance at a designated location and 4 are allegedly unaccounted for. This reported crackdown on human rights lawyers follows a series of other reported escalating abuses on lawyers for carrying out their professional responsibilities, particularly on cases involving government accountability and issues such as torture and the defence of human rights activists and religious practitioners.

The Committee likewise cited other abuses such as

detention on suspicion of broadly defined charges, such as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, and ill-treatment and torture while in detention. Other interferences with the legal profession have been, reportedly, the refusal of annual re-registration, the revocation of lawyers’ licences and evictions from courtrooms on questionable grounds…

The Committee is concerned that these reported “abuses and restrictions may deter lawyers from raising reports of torture in their clients’ defence for fear of reprisals, weakening the safeguards of the rule of law that are necessary for the effective protection against torture (art. 2).”

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), a non-governmental organization, compiled reports on a number of journalists in the Gulf region that are facing charges in court.3  
GCHR noted the difficult situation in the Gulf Region and neighboring countries including war (Syria, Iraq, and Yemen), continuing “intimidation, arrest, detention, lengthy prison sentences and even assassination as a result of their writings,” and restrictions based on cybercrime and anti-terrorist legislations.
With the armed conflict in Yemen, a 2016 joint letter to UN member-states by NGOs pointed out the “human rights violations committed by all sides and [called] for the international, independent investigation into civilian deaths and injuries in Yemen.” A similar call was made by GCHR for the staff of Violations Documentation Centre (VDC) and other personalities in Syria. 
In Oman, GCHR noted that the “Internal Security Service (ISS) systematically targeted media outlets, journalists and online activists.” Similarly, in Kuwait, authorities invoked “vague provisions of the new Cyber Crime legislation against those exercising their right to freedom of expression online.”
Role of People Working for Human Rights
The services of lawyers and other human rights workers are needed by people who have limited resources to protect their properties and their rights to livelihood, health and access to public services. Peaceful protests and complaints aired through mass and social media are important means to address the suffering of the poor and make corrupt and/or abusive government officials accountable. Thus lawyers and other human rights workers using the legal and judicial mechanisms to address these issues should be supported rather than stopped on grounds of national security.
Mr Al Hussein also mentioned that those who help the “most vulnerable groups” should be considered “allies in building on India's achievements to create a stronger and more inclusive society.”4 This is how people who help the most vulnerable, marginalized and oppressed members of society should be seen. They help address injustice and the underlying causes and systems that sustain such injustice.
Treating them as threat to national security is tantamount to ignoring the plea of those who need their help in securing the enjoyment of their most basic right to survive with dignity.
The use of laws on national security (particularly, the anti-terrorism law), cybercrime, and NGOs prevented the free circulation of information, and facilitated detention, arrest, prosecution and imprisonment of people (lawyers, journalists, and NGO workers) who raise issues to the government. The United Nations human rights bodies see the use of these laws against these people as serious violations of human rights.
For more information, please contact HURIGHTS OSAKA.

1 Darker and more dangerous: High Commissioner updates the Human Rights Council on human rights issues in 40 coun-tries, Opening Statement by Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Council 36th session, 11 September 2017,
2 Committee against Torture, Concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of China, CAT/C/CHN/CO/5, 3 February 2016,
3 See Gulf Centre for Human Rights, SEE THEIR STRUGGLE, REALISE THEIR RIGHTS - Human Rights Defenders at Im-minent Risk in the Gulf Region and Neighbouring Countries, 2016 ANNUAL REPORT, March 2017, available at
4 Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, op. cit.