The 49th Session of the Human Rights Council
28 February – 1 April 2022
Agenda Item 3 – Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development
Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Situation with Human Rights Defenders
11th March 2022
By Conall Corrigan / GICJ
On the 11th of March 2022, the 24th meeting of the 49th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council considered the report of Ms Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders (A/HRC/49/49), during an interactive dialogue on the same topic.
Ms Lawlor opened the interactive dialogue by presenting the findings of her latest report which was dedicated to the role human rights defenders (HRDs) play fighting corruption on a global scale. The Special Rapporteur recognised that corruption is deeply ingrained in certain societies, but called on states to recognise the value of the work anti-corruption HRDs have carried out in their countries and noted the significant risks many undertake in effectively advocating for their cause.
Ms Lawlor highlighted that HRDs across the world often feel abandoned by the UN and the wider international community. An emphasis was placed on the increasingly dangerous nature of the work undertaken by HRDs fighting against corruption and the lack of recognition and support they receive from states for their efforts. The Special Rapporteur noted that HRDs are vulnerable to a diverse range of attacks including direct threats, cyberattacks, online harassment, and physical attacks. As such, she pleaded for states to take more effective measures to protect anti-corruption defenders.
A significant number of delegations expressed strong support for the work undertaken by HRDs and the role they play in strengthening civil society across the globe. However, concerns were raised about the threats and reprisals many defenders face for exposing corruption, with much attention being given to the gender-based nature of attacks HRDs are forced to endure. Many civil society groups welcomed the report of the Special Rapporteur and urged states to acknowledge the danger HRDs place themselves in especially when working in sometimes volatile societies. NGOs encouraged states to adopt concrete laws and policies that will afford defenders greater levels of protection from discrimination and intimidation.
The Special Rapporteur concluded the discussion by urging states to implement policies that will ensure the protection of HRDs and called on the international community to engage more productively with them in their advocacy. Ms Lawlor emphasised that states need to take threats against HRDs seriously as they can escalate if left unchecked.
In May 2020, Ms Mary Lawlor, was appointed by the Human Rights Council as Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, with the protection of HRDs being her overriding concern. The Special Rapporteur noted an increasing number of reports regarding the detrimental impact of corruption on the realisation and full enjoyment of human rights and, as such, dedicated her thematic report to the examination of anti-corruption efforts.
Ms Lawlor has identified defenders working against corruption as a priority of her work, as demonstrated in her 2020 report to the General Assembly (A/75/165). She has noted with concern that human rights defenders who work on corruption are often attacked for exposing or fighting against abuses of power, impunity and other undemocratic practices. Corruption, and how it relates to the work of HRDs, has become an increasingly pressing issue in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Numerous instances of corruption have been unearthed within this context, including fraud and bribery in health-care supply chains as well as a lack of transparency in the allocation of resources. Such practices have reinforced the need for a close examination of the link between corruption and human rights and the role HRDs play in exposing and investigating such wrongdoings.
Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders
Report A/HRC/49/49 on human rights defenders working against corruption.
The Special Rapporteur lamented the lack of an internationally agreed-upon definition of corruption but noted that it is fundamentally a human rights-related issue that undermines the rule of law and public trust in democratic institutions. The report acknowledges the dangers HRDs place themselves in when investigating those in power and emphasised that they continue to be exposed to many forms of attacks, including but not limited to, electronic and physical surveillance, direct threats and judicial harassment.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic opened up more avenues for the abuse of power and HRDs continue to be targeted for their efforts to expose corruption in this context. The report acknowledged that healthcare professionals, medics, journalists and human rights researchers were inadequately protected by many states when highlighting corruption arising from the pandemic. The Special Rapporteur bemoaned the failure of many national and international anti-corruption initiatives designed to adequately protect and promote the efforts of HRDs fighting against corruption and acknowledged that some states have passed laws making it harder for anti-corruption defenders to do their work. Despite the difficulties HRDs continue to face in carrying out their work, the Special Rapporteur noted that efforts to combat corruption have begun to show some success. The report documented cases in Pakistan, Kenya, Guatemala and Cyrus that demonstrate the role HRDs played in expanding access to vital services and undoing corrupt practices. In spite of this, however, the Special Rapporteur acknowledged that states need to do much more in order to rid society of widespread corruption.
Among the groups fighting corruption, including academics and lawyers, the report stated that media workers account for more than half of the recorded violations against anti-corruption defenders. In a majority of cases, media workers were harassed by authorities for investigating and reporting on corruption cases or misuse of public funds and this intimidation often extends to family members of HRDs. Among media workers, the use of legal threats was noted as being a particularly prevalent practise used in response to their work with many acknowledging it as an area of extreme concern. Moreover, the Special Rapporteur noted the difficulty whistle-blowers face in exposing corruption, with the threat of legal and financial consequences often hindering their ability to carry out their work effectively. Such legal proceedings can act as a significant drain on the human and financial resources of HRDs and NGOs.
An area of particular note within the report concerned the gender-based nature of attacks against anti-corruption HRDs. The Special Rapporteur highlighted the fact that many female defenders reported receiving threats based on their gender, including threats of sexual assault, rape and murder. As a result, women campaigning against corruption are exposed to greater risk than their male counterparts as they are threatened for the work they carry out as well as their gender. Additionally, the Special Rapporteur noted the issue of ‘sextortion’ and the impact it has on the work of HRDs. Such practices expose female HRDs to additional layers of vulnerability and intimidation and reinforce the dangers women face in advocating for anti-corruption causes.
The Special Rapporteur concluded her report by reaffirming the linkage between corruption and human rights and encouraged the work of HRDs to be recognised, celebrated and protected by the international community and civil society. The report provided a number of recommendations to states, international organisations and civil society to ensure they address the current mistreatment of anti-corruption HRDs and guarantee the promotion of their work in the future. The Special Rapporteur called on the international community and civil society organisations (CSOs) to embrace and engage with HRDs in order to strengthen their efforts to address corruption. The report also calls on states to effectively investigate and prosecute those who engage in discriminatory and violent practices against anti-corruption defenders and stipulated that an enabling environment for HRDs should be fostered in order to allow them to conduct their work without impediments.
Interactive Dialogue on the Special Rapporteur Report
Geneva, 12 March 2022. At the 24th meeting of the 49th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders held an interactive dialogue regarding the treatment of HRDs fighting against corruption.
The Special Rapporteur opened the meeting by informing the council that she had recently spoken to HRDs in Ukraine, as well as Afghanistan, who felt abandoned by the UN. Ms Lawlor noted that female HRDs were being forced to adapt to increasingly dangerous conditions in order to carry out their work and have recently had to change their focus from advocacy to documenting war crimes. The Special Rapporteur highlighted the fact that the Russian invasion of Ukraine coincided with sustained attacks against HRDs in Russia and Belarus and warned of bleak days for defenders in these two states. In her 2021 report, Ms Lawlor detailed the killings of HRDs in 64 UN member states and repeated her request for states to explore ways to prevent the further loss of life of those fighting against human rights violations.
In her latest report, the Special Rapporteur discussed the situation of HRDs working to expose and eradicate corruption. Her report detailed how a number of groups, including journalists, lawyers and academics, faced severe risks for exposing and fighting against corruption. In recent years, many HRDs have been targeted for exposing corruption related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Ms Lawlor noted that HRDs achieved some success in their efforts to combat corruption, but in states such as Yemen and Vietnam, anti-corruption advocates had been attacked for their peaceful human rights work. The Special Rapporteur called on states to open up fair, transparent and independent investigations into attacks against HRDs and implored states to listen to HRDs when formulating policy. Ms Lawlor recognised that, ultimately, states need to find the political will to prevent harassment of HRDs and ensure their fair treatment within their jurisdictions.
The European Union delegate applauded the work of HRDs in exposing corruption and recognised their efforts in contributing to an open and fair society. The delegate expressed deep concern about the findings of the Special Rapporteur’s report and acknowledged that much of the work carried out by HRDs takes place in an environment of impunity. The killing of anti-corruption defenders, as well as gender-based attacks carried out against female advocates, was an area of particular concern for the delegation. The EU affirmed its commitment to working with the Special Rapporteur’s mandate to protect HRDs and highlighted that they have already adopted rules to ensure a high level of protection for defenders. The delegate confirmed that the EU will continue to take a human rights-based approach to anti-corruption efforts to ensure a safe and enabling environment for HRDs.
The delegate for the Nordic and Baltic countries emphasised the importance of the link between human rights and corruption. The delegate encouraged states to participate in negotiations of the resolution on HRDs presented by Norway which addressed the protection needs of HRDs operating in conflict and post-conflict situations. Alarm was expressed about threats and reprisals carried out against HRDs for speaking out and fighting against corruption. The delegation espoused the view that corruption undermines trust in public institutions and undermines the rule of law.
The Chinese delegate emphasised that its government is committed to the protection of human rights and argued that corruption undermines fairness and justice which hinders economic development. The delegate stressed that while China is dedicated to fighting corruption, some lawbreakers act under the guise of defending human rights in order to destabilise society. In the view of the delegate, such actions should be opposed by the international community and law breakers should be punished for the crimes they have committed. Issue was taken with the China related case in the report which detailed the arrest of a HRD in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. The delegate argued that the person in question was not a HRD but was guilty of numerous crimes and was committed to the subversion of state power. The Special Rapporteur was accused of exceeding her mandate in including the case in her report and was told to refrain from interfering in China’s judicial sovereignty by the delegate.
The delegate for Cuba discussed the proactive role civil society has played in preventing and combating corruption and commended student groups and professional organisations for their efforts. The delegate showed support for the work of anti-corruption defenders but expressed alarm at the sometimes “indiscriminate and unjustified” use of the term HRD and that the Special Rapporteur is in a position to defend the appropriate use of this qualifier. The delegate rejected what it believes is the “manipulation” of UN human rights mechanisms by some individuals and organisations that seek to promote politically motivated disinformation campaigns against the Cuban state and urged the OHCHR to carefully verify all of the information that they receive.
The Iraqi delegate highlighted his shared concern with the Special Rapporteur over reports of threats made against HRDs. Emphasis was placed on the important role anti-corruption defenders play in identifying and working to prevent acts of corruption and it was stressed that a partnership must exist between HRDs and governmental institutions to effectively combat these issues. The delegate noted that HRDs have played a vital role in raising awareness about the dangers of corruption within civil society and society at large. The delegate emphasised that the government has always tried to establish judicial conditions to defend HRDs and examine violations committed against them. It was highlighted that the justice system has already handed out rulings against those who have assaulted or killed HRDs and remains committed to ensuring the protection of defenders.
A number of civil society organisations were subsequently permitted to speak on the report’s findings. NGOs welcomed the report of the Special Rapporteur and acknowledged the risks HRDs face in fighting corruption and the detrimental effect corruption has on human rights. An emphasis was placed on the need to protect HRDs from discrimination and intimidation with one group noting that, while the internet allows for defenders to carry out their work more effectively, it also opens up more avenues for the proliferation of fake news and abuse towards those fighting corruption. NGOs reinforced the need for states to commit to creating an enabling environment for HRDs in order to ensure they do not have to resort to dangerous methods to do their work. A number of groups called on states to adopt a resolution that would acknowledge the dangers HRDs place themselves in and also hold states accountable for any human rights violations committed against them.
The Special Rapporteur reiterated her stance that the key to protecting HRDs is ensuring that policies and laws are put in place that will provide them with greater visibility and legitimacy within society. Ms Lawlor emphasised the need for states to take digital threats against defenders seriously, noting that a pattern has emerged regarding the escalation of online attacks to physical attacks. The Special Rapporteur discussed the need for non-state actors, such as online companies, to be held accountable for allowing these threats to be posted on their sites. Ms Lawlor again highlighted the continuing threats HRDs face in fighting corruption noting that a number of defenders have had their devices infected with the Pegasus spyware. The Special Rapporteur concluded her remarks by calling on states to take more effective measures to protect the human rights of HRDs.
Position of Geneva International Centre for Justice
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) commends the vital role HRDs play in contributing to the enhancement of democracy and civil society across the globe. GICJ fully supports the efforts of anti-corruption defenders and calls on states to offer them better protection to carry out such work. The findings of the Special Rapporteur’s report, which documents the dangers HRDs face while carrying out their work, raises a number of concerns and GICJ calls on states to ensure greater accountability of perpetrators who threaten the wellbeing of those advocating for better human rights practices.
It is imperative that states recognise the detrimental impact corruption plays in the full enjoyment of human rights, engage in proactive consultations with HRDs, and allow them to play an active role in the formulation of public policy. In order to achieve this, states must make a concerted effort to address the structural failings that have allowed corruption to become embedded in their institutions. It is vital that governments engage with domestic and international mechanisms to ensure HRDs do not have to resort to dangerous methods to carry out their work and are able to work in a safe and enabling environment.
Human Rights Defenders, HRDs, Corruption, United Nations, Geneva4Justice, GICJ, Geneva International Centre for Justice, Justice