Regarding Rights

Academic and activist perspectives on human rights

A UN focal point on reprisals: The time has come

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19th session of the Human Rights Council, Room XX © UN Photo/JeanMarc Ferre

By Madeleine Sinclair, International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)

The Secretary-General recently shared his annual report on reprisals against individuals and groups cooperating with the UN and the picture is alarming. From the torture in Tajikistan of a prisoner who cooperated with a UN human rights expert, to the serious threats against a defender and his family in Burundi following his briefing to the Committee against Torture, the Secretary-General’s report exposes the horrific human cost of cooperating with the UN.

The Secretary-General concludes that ‘the types of acts reported seem to have become more varied and severe over time, targeting not only the individuals or groups concerned but also their families, legal representatives, NGOs and anyone linked to them’.

All the more reason why States and civil society are pushing the Secretary-General to finally appoint a focal point on reprisals. A focal point is viewed by a range of stakeholders as the best way forward because a high level appointment would increase the political cost for offending States of reprisals.

Two years ago the world’s peak human rights body, the UN Human Rights Council, requested the Secretary-General to appoint a focal point to prevent and address reprisals. However, a group of spoiler States successfully pushed through a resolution at the General Assembly to defer the appointment. Regrettably the issue then stalled in the General Assembly, with little meaningful engagement by States on either side to resolve the impasse.

A new opportunity arose two weeks ago when the African Group withdrew a resolution to further defer the issue, effectively releasing the General Assembly’s procedural grip on the issue. While there remain spoilers in the Group who insist the battle isn’t over, a number of States –including 63 signatories to a recent statement at the Council, are of the view that the time has come. They are encouraging the Secretary-General to appoint the focal point without further delay. This would be a huge step toward systematically addressing the need for a unified, coordinated, and effective response – ensuring that individuals can engage with the UN human rights system without fear of intimidation or attack.

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