OMCT’s partners and SOS-Torture network members join the international community in celebrating the contribution of human rights defenders to the fight against torture and advancement of humanity on the occasion of International Human Rights Day.
Human rights defenders (HRD) are the key to any success in the fight against torture. They provide vital information to assess Governments’ implementation of the Convention Against Torture and play a crucial role in the reporting procedure of the Committee Against Torture (CAT). It is therefore paramount that they can work freely as lawyers, journalists, trade unionists, and indigenous community leaders to carry out their peaceful activities on behalf of others.
What is more, denouncing torture is increasingly a high-risk activity in many countries around the globe. Individuals who commit themselves to this struggle are often the target of threats, attacks, arrests, arbitrary detentions and indeed torture by both State authorities and private groups. That is why the CAT specifically denounces any form of repression used to silence HRDs.
Using the International Human Rights Day milestone a an excuse to commend their work and lifelong commitment, OMCT’s SOS Torture Network joins the community of activists and practitioners who work against torture in thanking all human rights defenders worldwide for their dedication in upholding our human rights through its 10 December 2016 campaign “HRDs are the heroes of human rights”. The video and social media campaign portrays some of the HRDs mentioned in this post which will be placed over the 10 next days on OMCT’s website.
HRDs and the CAT
It was in 2001 that the CAT, in reference to Indonesia, first raised concerns about “allegations of numerous attacks directed against human rights defenders, sometimes leading to death.” Since then, the CAT has referred to a variety of issues and problems HRDs are facing. The CAT not only addresses threats, intimidation and attacks directed against HRDs (e.g. Kenya) but it is also concerned about the criminalization of their activities (e.g. Belarus and Guatemala).
In the last review of Colombia in 2015, the CAT raised concerns that senior government and military officials attempted to intimidate and stigmatize through pubic statements human rights organizations such as the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), led by human rights defender Gustavo Gallón Giraldo. Judicial harassment is also commonly found among the many strategies to discredit their work (e.g. Concluding Observations on Guatemala, CAT/C/GTM/CO/5-6, 2013).
Furthermore, Governments try to repress human rights defenders by constraining them financially and administratively. The CAT frequently refers to repressive laws that prevent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from receiving foreign funds and deny their registration or request their dissolution. In the 2012, review of the Russian Federation, for instance, the CAT said it was concerned about a “requirement that organizations receiving financial support from sources outside the State party register” had to identify themselves publicly as “foreign agents,” a term that seems negative and threatening to human rights defenders“. This has affected human rights defender and OMCT Executive Council member Olga Sadovskaya, for instance.
To guarantee that HRDs reporting on torture cases can operate in a safe and enabling environment, the CAT requests States parties to the Convention to strengthen their protection, particularly through the establishment of National Protection Mechanisms for HRDs (e.g. Mexico). The CAT has also attached special importance to the prompt, effective and impartial investigation of all incidents involving threats or aggression directed at HRDs, leading to the prosecution of the culprits (e.g. Honduras).
When raising concern about HRDs, the CAT also frequently refers to specific cases that were brought to its attention by NGOs. OMCT together with the OMCT together with the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) calledduring the review of Azerbaijan for the release of human rights defenders Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif Yunus, who had been arbitrarily detained and tortured. During the dialogue with the Government in November 2015, CAT member Mr. Tugushi asked Azeri representatives “whether the authorities had taken any action to address concerns about the conditions of imprisonment of the human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus.”. The day after the questions by Mr. Tugushi, Mr. Yunus was released from prison.
Subsequently, in its Concluding Observations, the CAT specifically mentioned Leyla and Airf Yunus by stating that it was “deeply concerned about consistent and numerous allegations that a number of human rights defenders have been arbitrarily deprived of their liberty, subjected to ill-treatment and, in some cases, denied adequate medical treatment in retaliation for their professional activities. Among those human rights defenders are Leyla and Arif Yunus [...]“. Coincidence or not, on that very day Leyla Yunus was finally set free.
Taking reprisals seriously
The CAT has recognizes that working directly with its reporting and complaint procedure can endanger HRDs. In light of Article 13 of the Convention, which requires Governments to ensure that complainants and witnesses are protected against all ill-treatment or intimidation as a consequence of their complaint or any evidence given, the CAT appointed in 2013 Rapporteurs to follow-up on any allegations of reprisals. When the CAT receives information about reprisals against HRDs in the framework of their work with the CAT it sends a letter to the Government representative in Geneva raising concerns and asking for information on the case.
Most recently, after the review of Burundi in July 2016, the Rapporteur on Reprisals exchanged letters with the government representative of Burundi in Geneva. He raised concern about the disbarment of four representatives of the Burundian Civil Society, including Armel Niyongere, because of their contribution to an alternative report submitted before the CAT for the country review. Burundi’s highest Court later dismissed the Government’s disbarment request but, like many HRDs, Mr. Niyongere still must continue his work from exile.
Just like the CAT, civil society care about HRDs. Thank you.