What are reprisals?

Everyone has the right to defend human rights. Ordinary people often take action to defend their own rights or the rights of others.

Human rights defenders promote dignity, fairness, peace and justice in their homes, workplaces, communities and countries. They challenge governments that fail to respect and protect their people, corporations that degrade and destroy the environment, and institutions that perpetuate privilege and patriarchy. For many the United Nations (UN) is the last arena in which they can confront abuses.

In considering human rights situations around the world, the UN system is profoundly dependent on the information and testimonies provided by human rights defenders who document situations, abuses and violations. They are essential voices from our communities that need to be part of the conversations at the UN.

This important role is a key reason why some States seek to systematically prevent defenders from engaging with UN bodies and mechanisms , and to reprimand and punish those who do engage. Those governments see these defenders as enemies and their engagement with the UN as a threat to their image and power.

Reprisals and intimidation take different forms , from travel bans, threats and harassment, including by officials, smear campaigns, surveillance, introduction of restrictive legislation, to physical attacks, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and ill-treatment, including sexual violence, denial of access to medical attention and even killings.

This is not right. Everyone has the right to access and safely communicate with the UN . The right to safe and unhindered access to international and regional justice mechanisms, and to be free from any form of intimidation or reprisal for seeking justice, is both a fundamental human right and essential to the relevance and effectiveness of these mechanisms.

How does the UN respond to intimidation and reprisals?

The UN has developed a number of mechanisms to deal with intimidation and reprisals over the last 30 years. The main mechanism is currently a report entitled “Cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights” and published annually by the UN Secretary-General. It collects and publishes incidents of intimidation and reprisals documented by the different UN human rights mechanisms or otherwise submitted by victims.

In addition, since 2016, the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights has been designated as the senior official to lead the efforts within the UN system to address intimidation and reprisals .

While this appointment led to an increase in resources and better reporting and follow up, there is still room to strengthen the UN’s response . For instance:

  • there is no clear tracking and follow up system on cases and there has been no long-term analysis after 30 years of UN work on reprisals regarding what is working and what is not;
  • many incidents go unreported and others are excluded;
  • few states have taken a clear, vocal and public stance against reprisals and even fewer have called on their peers to stop these violations;
  • almost 50% of the current members of the Human Rights Council, the main international body in charge of human rights, have been cited in the last five annual Secretary-general reports for carrying out reprisals;
  • few human rights defenders know about the UN mechanisms to address reprisals and/or don’t know how to use them effectively.

What is ISHR doing to address reprisals?

ISHR seeks to ensure that international and regional human rights systems have the mechanisms to prevent reprisals and ensure accountability where they occur. ISHR provides protective publicity to human rights defenders at risk and works to bring cases of alleged intimidation and reprisals to the attention of relevant officials in an effort to press for effective preventative measures and responses.