Some States have the courage to set out their commitments as members of the Human Rights Council

July 17, 2014






have successfully co-hosted for the third time an event where candidate countries for the UN Human Rights Council have voluntarily shown up to set out their views and commitments in case they would be elected. ‘We are delighted to see more and more States prepared to participate in what is becoming an annual event, said Eleanor Openshaw of the ISHR. We would encourage all State candidates to see this as an opportunity to speak about their vision and commitments as members of the Council and, through their participation, to demonstrate the kind of transparency and accountability that should be expected of all Council members.  Ahead of elections to the UN Human Rights Council in November by the GA, seven candidate States have subjected themselves to public questioning, at the event hosted at UN Headquarters by the 2 NGOs and the missions of Tunisia and Uruguay.

Albania, Bolivia, Botswana, Costa Rica, Latvia, The Netherlands and Portugal elaborated on their pledges and were questioned on how they would work as members of the Council to challenge human rights violations and uphold the credibility of the Council. It is a pity that the other 10 candidates did not (yet) have the courage to join.

The protection of human rights defenders featured prominently in the discussion, with the Netherlands Human Rights Ambassador, Lionel Veer, describing human rights defenders as agents of change and calling for stronger recognition and protection of their work under both national and international law.  Building on this, all speakers affirmed their State’s commitment to the protection of defenders, with Albania and Bolivia committing to support and strengthen civil society engagement with the UN and Costa Rica pledging to support the right of peaceful protest. Botswana was explicit about its commitment to prevent and ensure accountability for reprisals and to work for the endorsement of Human Rights Council Resolution 24/24, adoption of which by the General Assembly would provide for the appointment of a high-level UN focal point to combat reprisals. We welcome the statements and commitments made by States to protect the work of human rights defenders and support robust civil society engagement with the UN, said Ms Openshaw. This is a recognition of the crucial role played by defenders in holding States to account for their human rights obligations at both the national and international levels.

A webcast of the event is available here:…-aspirations-and-vision-for-membership/3676385473001/.

via States set out their vision and commitments as members of the Human Rights Council | ISHR.

Ben Whitaker died: one of the early human rights defenders at the international scene

July 16, 2014

Ben (Benjamin) Whitaker died on 8 June 2014. The memory of the human rights world being notoriously short, there will be many who do not recognize the name of one of the early human rights defenders in the international arena. A UK citizen, in 1965 he spoke out forcefully against detention camps in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), became one of the most activist members of the UN SubCommission in the mid seventies and lead the struggle to have the Armenian Genocide recognised. His 1985 final report on the question of genocide – which only had a brief but controversial mention of the Armenia – was for that reason blocked at the Commission level by Turkey and could not be distributed as such. I was at that time Director of the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights (SIM) and we agreed to publish a few thousand copies of the complete text under his own name.

As his link with the Armenian community was and remained strong, it should not surprise that one of the obituaries was published in DIARIO ARMENIA in Argentina. It was written by Leandro Despouy, President of the Argentine Audit Office and Former president of the SubCommission as well as the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations. Below is the English translation of this piece:

Benjamin Whitaker, the Argentine dictatorship and the acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide by the United Nations

Ben Whitaker died on June 8th. Predictably, an Armenian friend gave me the news. Whitaker’s name will forever be consistently associated to the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the United Nations. It happened after extensive and difficult sessions, sabotaged by Turkey during fifteen years, which finally materialized in 1985 with the approval of the document that carries his name, the Whitaker Report.

He was a man of remarkable virtues, but two of these: coherence and sense of humour, were present in each and every one of the multiple activities he undertook during his life. Born into an aristocratic family, he made his first political incursions in the north London borough of Hampstead: he won the Hampstead seat for the Labour Party, a seat that had traditionally gone to the Tories for the previous 81 years. He had already graduated from Oxford to the bar, and spoken out vehemently against the local police regime in his book The Police.

Ben remained faithful to his neighbourhood football club throughout his life. An “argumentative idealist” –as he liked to describe himself-, who intensified the campaign for the enforcement of Human Rights worldwide, he battled against discrimination, the death penalty, the criminalization of homosexuality, against the outlawing of adultery and abortion, in favour of environmental care and all the issues that were surfacing with enormous force during the sixties and the seventies of the past century, an era which produced an unprecedented cultural change.

His condemnation, in 1965, of the clandestine detention camps of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) is well-known. He served as consultant for Labour governments and became executive director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, created by an Armenian in Portugal, which is dedicated to the advancement of the arts, sciences and education. There is no doubt, however, that his better known activity took place in the United Nations, where he was appointed Special Rapporteur of the United Nations SubCommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities -a competent area of independent expertise-, by David Owen, the British Minister of Foreign Affairs of the seventies.

During his time at the SubCommission, after multiple attempts at public accusation, Whitaker, the French ambassador Nicole Questiaux and Theo van Boven managed to unfetter the restraints that the diplomacy of the Argentine dictatorship (Gabriel Martínez, Mario Amadeo) had used to muzzle the accusations – presented  before the United Nations since 1976 -, of murders and disappearances in our country. In 1979, Whitaker delivered a clear message to the effect that countries who exercised terrorism within their territories should not try to use the same methods in the United Nations.

In 1983, the SubCommission and the Human Rights Commission (nowadays Council) entrusted Benjamin Whitaker with a study and revision of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and its relation to the Convention of the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity, in order to insure that Governments would comply with these directives. Whitaker was chosen for this research because of his intellectual stature and his proven integrity; nevertheless, one of the female experts advised him to add a bullet-proof vest to his wardrobe.

In point of fact, two preliminary studies (1973 and 1975) developed by the Rwandan expert Ruhashiankiko, included a paragraph , number 30, which would become renowned because it labeled the Armenian Massacres of 1915 and 1923 as “the first genocide of the twentieth century”. This paragraph raised a storm of great proportions, conducted by the Turkish diplomacy, and had to be suppressed from the final report in 1979. The Rwandan expert vanished from the international arena.

We met at the SubCommission. We were 26 experts. Alfonsin’s administration was just getting started, as was the revolution of the cause of Human Rights. When I was appointed General Rapporteur of the SubCommission in 1984, the project of Whitaker’s excellent Report was being debated. It contained the definition of the Armenian Genocide. I agreed entirely with its contents, but found it difficult, from a political standpoint, to show signs of support and proximity to an Englishman, when the wounds of the Malvinas War were still so fresh. Concurrently, the investigation of the Argentine dictatorship’s crimes and the legal summons issued to the Juntas drew us closer, so we established an undercurrent of mutual sympathy in an almost clandestine fashion, sometimes mediated by the French judge Louis Joinet who was also an expert in the SubCommission. I told him I supported him. By 1985 we already enjoyed a fluid relationship and though the context was not simple, we were able to overcome that contingency; we shared a profound dialogue, and we both had knowledge of the world of the United Nations and Human Rights.

The situation was also very complicated for Whitaker; Margaret Thatcher ruled in Great Britain, her government did not endorse his condition of Rapporteur, and he had to receive the backing of a British NGO in order to finish his mandate at the United Nations. A committed socialist, Whitaker did not support the policies of Thatcher’s administration, and although these circumstances weakened him personally, the forcefulness of his Report made him stronger. That situation was taken advantage of by the Turkish diplomacy, who tried to erase from his Report the paragraph about the Armenian Genocide. During the debate of this issue, I brought up the changes which had taken place in Argentina, our solidarity with the victims of genocides and openly declared that the controversial paragraph must be kept.

In 1985, Whitaker reported to the SubCommission the theft of documents which he was never to recover. In that same session, as General Rapporteur, I pointed out that the expression “genocide” had been replaced by “Armenian question”. In those days, Whitaker received the visit of two Turkish diplomats who tried to dissuade him from continuing with his investigation. But Whitaker was a man of principles, not easily swayed by political pressure. The final approval in 1985 of the historical Report, which has become part of the patrimony of the United Nations, is the culmination of an unprecedented diplomatic battle that produced an important judicial and political impact throughout the world.

Whitaker ended his Report stating that it was necessary to close that chapter of History in an honourable way, and that if the experts did not have the courage to tell the truth, then participating in the SubCommission’s work would be useless, since it was the duty of the SubCommission to protect the victims from the governments and not the other way round.  For ethical reasons and in an act of chivalry, Whitaker abstained from voting for his own Report. When we met again in 1986, during his visit to Buenos Aires, he declared that the approval of the Report had been a good example of Anglo Argentine cooperation. Unknown to the media, he met with Dante Caputo and president Raúl Alfonsín.

He dedicated his last years to painting, and he campaigned to have a statue of George Orwell installed in front of the BBC, where it stands today.



More on UN Process Toward Contentious Treaty on Business and Human Rights

July 11, 2014

The virtual ink on my post this morning is hardly dry when I see a case reported by Front Line on anti-mining protesters in Malaysia who were released on conditions that infringe their right to freedom of expression, while Mintpress of 10 July published a more detailed piece by Carey Biron on the intricacies of the new UN proposal to negotiate a legally binding treaty to prevent human rights abuses by transnational corporations.

On 8 July 2014, six human rights defenders were released on condition a social media ban, as well as monthly reporting to the police station. Six members of the Malaysian environmentalist movement Himpunan Hijau (“Green Assembly”) were detained on charges of illegal assembly and rioting, following their participation in a protest on 22 June 2014 calling for the closure of Australian mining company, Lynas Corporation. The Lynas Advanced Materials Plant – a rare earth processing plant being set up in Kuantan – will potentially impose tonnes of toxic waste on the local community. On 22 June 2014, around 1000 activists and local residents gathered to protest Lynas Corporation’s activities at Jalan Bandaran in Gebeng. At around 4:30pm, while the demonstrators were sitting peacefully, the police moved in and reportedly started beating and arresting the protesters. Allegedly, the human rights defenders did not disperse when Kuantan police issued a directive to do so. ..The lawyer for the human rights defenders rejected the conditions, arguing that this injunction was an unconstitutional infringement of his clients’ right to freedom of expression. Furthermore, the judge in Kuantan ordered an injunction (a ‘gag order’) against the six human rights defenders not to discuss their case on social media, and they must also report to the police station once per month.

The article in Mintpress entitled “Without the US and EU on board, what might become of a UN proposal to negotiate a legally binding treaty to prevent human rights abuses by transnational corporations? is so relevant that I include the full text below:


In a landmark decision at the end of June, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to allow negotiations to begin toward a binding international treaty around transnational companies and their human rights obligations.

The move marked a key success for activists worldwide who have been working for decades to jumpstart such a process. Yet while the development is being lauded by many groups, others are cautioning that the treaty idea remains unworkably broad and could even divert attention from a nascent international mechanism already working toward similar goals.

That mechanism, known as the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, was unanimously adopted only in 2011. Formal conformance to these principles has thus far seen only stuttering, initial success. And while the same session of the Human Rights Council approved a popular second resolution to now strengthen implementation of the Guiding Principles process, some worry the new treaty push will divert energy.

Indeed, this was the rationale offered by the U.S. delegation to the council, explaining why the United States voted against the start of treaty negotiations. The U.S. now says it will not take part in the intergovernmental working group that will initiate discussions around a binding agreement. It is also urging other countries to boycott the process.

“We have not given states adequate time and space to implement the Guiding Principles … this resolution is a threat to the Guiding Principles themselves,” Stephen Townley, the U.S. representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council, said on June 26.

“The proposed Intergovernmental Working Group will create a competing initiative, which will undermine efforts to implement the Guiding Principles. The focus will turn to the new instrument, and companies, states and others are unlikely to invest significant time and money in implementing the Guiding Principles if they see divisive discussions here in Geneva.”

The European Union also voted against the treaty process in June, and had initially suggested that it, too, would not take part in the intergovernmental negotiations process. Sources tell MintPress News, however, that the EU could now be rethinking this position.

Home-state skepticism

The treaty push has come primarily from countries in the Global South, spearheaded particularly by Ecuador and backed by South Africa, Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela. Ecuador floated the initial resolution in September, and others voting for the measure in June included China, India and Russia.

Perhaps reflecting this division, Townley warned in his speech that the treaty process would “unduly polarize these issues.” Certainly, any treaty on transnational corporate rights obligations would be largely meaningless if neither the U.S., nor the EU, takes part, given that the vast majority of the world’s major corporations are based in these countries.

“The development of a treaty on business and human rights is an important opportunity to strengthen corporate respect for human rights, the protection of human rights defenders working on issues of corporate accountability, and access to justice for victims of corporate human rights violations,” Phil Lynch, director of International Service for Human Rights, a Geneva-based advocacy group, told MintPress in an email.

“If a treaty is to be effective in fulfilling these purposes, however, it needs to be developed in close consultation with all relevant States, including those that headquarter many transnational corporations such as the US and EU States, together with other stakeholders such as human rights defenders and affected communities.”

Influential voices in the global business community, which have vociferously pushed against binding rights commitments for decades, have expressed broad concern over the idea of a treaty.

“While the business community continues to be fully engaged to effectively implement voluntary commitments for respecting human rights, no initiative or standard with regard to business and human rights can replace the primary role of the state and national laws in this area,” Viviane Schiavi, a senior policy manager with the International Chamber of Commerce, a prominent lobby group, said in astatement.

The chamber expressed its “deep concern” over the new treaty process. Like others, it is warning that the new aims will divert attention away from the Guiding Principles.

The U.S. delegation, meanwhile, has already laid down an important marker in this argument. Immediately following last month’s vote, Townley, the U.S. representative, noted that any treaty “would only be binding on the states that became party to it.”

Excuse for inaction

Among supporters of the new treaty process, response to the concerns and stances of the U.S. and EU has been highly critical. While nearly all such groups continue to support the Guiding Principles, their concern has always revolved around the voluntary nature of these principles. A binding treaty, on the other hand, would likely include enforcement mechanisms for recalcitrant corporations and governments alike.

“The U.S. position is misguided. The real threat to the U.N. Guiding Principles comes from the reluctance of governments to give effect to them,” Peter Frankental, director of the economic relations program at Amnesty International U.K., a watchdog group, told MintPress.

“Our main concern with the U.S. delegation’s stance on the Human Rights Council resolution is that it offers governments an excuse for inaction.”

Gauging progress on the Guiding Principles is complex, and it is undeniable that the global environment today around the idea of corporate rights obligations has seen a sea change from just a decade ago. Companies around the world have moved to conform their corporate policies with a variety of related concerns, though much more remains to be done.

At the same time, analysts have told MintPress that only around eight governments worldwide have come out with national action plans on how they will implement the Guiding Principles, as urged by the Human Rights Council in June. Despite its strong support for the Guiding Principles, the U.S. also has yet to release such a plan. (Last week, Danish and U.S. groups released a comprehensive report offering a roadmap for countries aiming to put together such a plan.)

“It has been clear from the outset that the U.N. Guiding Principles alone would not be enough,” Frankental said. “They must be complemented by effective regulatory measures, including with extra-territorial effect, to address the continuing human rights protection gaps relating to the adverse impacts of business.”

Parallel processes

Advocates say that these two processes can now proceed alongside one another — implementing the voluntary Guiding Principles while simultaneously pursuing a binding treaty, which would likely take a decade or more to complete.

“There is no reason why countries and businesses should not continue working on implementing the [Guiding Principles]. It has taken civil society, governments and companies years to agree on a set of criteria that businesses need to uphold when operating at an international level,” Anne van Schaik, accountable finance campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, a watchdog group, told MintPress.

“They should continue to work on this, but now there is a parallel process that ensures that if companies do not abide by international human rights obligations … they can be hold responsible.”

Global civil society groups are also preparing parallel pressure campaigns. Van Schaik says her office will begin pushing governments to step up their drafting of national action plans on implementation of the Guiding Principles, while simultaneously trying to convince countries that voted against the recent treaty resolution to honor it.

“We think this threat is another example of how the Western countries are trying to bully NGOs and other countries in order to weaken support for the Ecuador resolution,” she said.

“We have built in very short time a coalition that consists of more than 610 organizations … That shows there is huge support for this idea, and that people, organizations as well as 95 countries are fed up with transnational corporations’ cowboy style [of] producing where and how they want to. Enough is enough, and that was shown in Geneva last month.”

Overly ambitious?

Even among some of the most forceful proponents of stronger accountability around corporate rights abuses, however, there remains significant concern about the current scope and potential impact of the treaty process.

As it stands today, for instance, the language of the Ecuador resolution appears to focus solely on multinational corporations, leaving national companies accountable solely to domestic legislation and regulation.

As John Ruggie, the Harvard professor who led the drafting of the Guiding Principles as a U.N. rapporteur, wrote in a nuanced analysis published Tuesday, this would hold foreign companies involved in last year’s Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh solely responsible for the catastrophe. The treaty would place no liability on the garment factory’s local owners for the fire and building collapse, which killed more than 1,100 workers.

Ruggie, who remains a widely admired figure, also expressed concern that the treaty’s scope, as currently envisioned, is unworkably broad, warning that “neither the international political or legal order is capable of achieving [such an agreement] in practice.” Speaking also of a “resurgent polarization” seen over the past year around the issue, Ruggie warns that proponents on both sides are becoming increasingly, and unhelpfully, dogmatic.

Ultimately, observers say the ideas behind the Guiding Principles are now increasingly entrenched across the globe. But implementation remains up in the air, and it is here that the treaty’s impact is uncertain.

“What is at issue today is not whether we will have a treaty or not. What matters today are the effects of a treaty process on the politics of the corporate accountability movement and the effects of a treaty process on the likelihood of regulation by governments,” Mark Taylor, a senior researcher at the Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies, a Norwegian think tank, told MintPress.

“The challenge for activists — no matter where they sit with respect to a treaty — is to identify an advocacy strategy that can pressure states to deliver actual protection and accountability. Making sure any treaty process is narrowly focused, for example, on judicial remedies, would be a step in the right direction.”

The U.N. Human Rights Council’s new intergovernmental working group on a treaty around business and human rights is expected to begin talks next year.

Contentious Start For UN Process Toward Business And Human Rights Treaty.

More on the strange letter from the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry

July 11, 2014

Today the Asian Human Rights Commission has come with further information on the letter from the Ministry of Defence I referred to a few days ago:  This letter had come under serious criticism from many NGOs within Sri Lanka and beyond. The United Nations wants inquire into the circumstances under which this letter was issued.

As a result of this condemnation, the Ministry of External Affairs has issued another letter, attempting to explain away the earlier one. The Ministry for External Affairs’ letter attempts to create the impression that the work of NGOs are restricted by several laws under the Voluntary Social Service Organizations Act Number 31 of 1980, by amendments to the Act, by regulations issued under an Extraordinary Gazette, as well as by a Circular Letter of the Secretary to the President. This letter from the External Affairs’ Ministry is a complete misrepresentation of the law in Sri Lanka. Read the rest of this entry »

NEWS: UN Human Rights Council agrees to start negotiating about a binding treaty against human rights abuses by corporations

July 11, 2014

The NGO Aliran reports “Victory!” in describing today’s decision (11 July 2014) by the UN Human Rights Council UNHRC to start elaborating an international, legally binding instrument to regulate the activities of Transnational Corporations [TNCs] with respect to human rights. The resolution passed with twenty states in favor, fourteen mostly European states against and thirteen abstaining at the twenty-sixth session of the UN Human Rights Council. More than eighty nations and 500 organisations supported the  resolution, which could bring about a legally binding treaty on businesses and human rights. Read the rest of this entry »

Human Rights Defenders in the News

July 9, 2014

Even this blog cannot keep up with all the news on individual human rights defenders. For those who want to see more, there is also: “HRDs in the News“. It is a regular news round-up in which Front Line draws together news about human rights defenders who have been appearing in the world media. In the latest edition, you can find amongst others:

  • The Independent report on the detention of Egyptian HRD Yara Sallam;
  • Al-Ahram Online report on the assassination of Salwa Bugaighis in Libya;
  • The Guardian and The Independent report on the threats faced by environmental rights defenders in Peru

via HRDs in the News | Front Line.

Navanethem Pillay finishes her term as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: a great lady

July 9, 2014

In September 2014, Navanethem (Navi) Pillay will finish her term as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Since her appointment in 2008, she has been a principled and dedicated advocate for universal human rights, the protection of human rights defenders, accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations, and access to justice for victims. She has encouraged her staff to speak out and has done so herself courageously. Unanimity about her performance should not be expected – for that the topics she had to deal with are too controversial – but the human rights world generally has seen her as a ‘champion’ and one of them.
To get some idea of the scope of her involvement in favour of human rights defenders, see some of my 20 previous posts:

Read the rest of this entry »

Pinar Selek case in Turkey: the Supreme Court overturns life sentence against Pınar Selek

July 9, 2014

With a bit of delay, here is the good news that the Turkish Supreme Court – on 11 June – overturned the life sentence issued which was issued against sociologist Pınar Selek on January 24, 2014. The case will have to be re-tried before a lower court for the fifth time. On June 11, 2014, the Criminal Chamber No. 9 of the Supreme Court decided to overturn the decision of a lower court to sentence to life imprisonment Ms. Pınar Selek, an academic known for her commitment towards the rights of vulnerable communities in Turkey. The court argued that Istanbul Special Heavy Criminal Court No. 12 had violated procedural rules, by revoking its own decision of acquittal while the case had already been transferred for review to a higher court.  Read the rest of this entry »

Guatemala: Human rights defender Telma Yolanda Oquelí goes free because ‘woman cannot carry machete’

July 8, 2014

Interesting illustration in Guatemala of how macho notions can get a woman human rights defender off the hook:  On 27 May 2014, charges of “false imprisonment”, “coercion” and “threats” (including brandishing a machete) against human rights defender Ms Telma Yolanda Oquelí Veliz del Cid were dismissed by a Court of First Instance. However, the trial against four other community members, who face the same accusations, is set to continue. The decision of the judge to dismiss the proceedings against Telma Yolanda Oquelí Veliz del Cid was partly on the basis that, as a woman, she would not be able to carry a machete. The decision regarding Telma Yolanda Oquelí Veliz del Cid can be appealed by the complainants within three days. Judge Adrian Rolando Rodríguez Arana stated that additional evidence to support the charges against the four other community leaders must be presented by the Prosecutor’s Office on 30 June 2014. The four men are under house arrest and must present themselves to the Justice of the Peace of San José Del Golfo every month. Read the rest of this entry »

Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense to Human Rights Defenders: stop breathing…

July 8, 2014

A National Secretariat functioning under Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence and Urban Development has issued a curious letter on 1 July 2014. The following is the letter in full:

“MINISTRY OF DEFENCE AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT National Secretariat for Non Governmental Organizations

To All Non Governmental Organizations

Non Governmental Organizations acting beyond their mandate

It has been revealed that certain Non Governmental Organizations conduct press conferences, workshops, training for journalists, and dissemination of press releases which is beyond their mandate.

We reiterate that all Non Governmental Organizations should prevent from such unauthorized activities with immediate effect.

D.M.S. Dissanayake

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), which made the letter public, adds the understandably sarcastic comment that the next letter may well read:  “It has been revealed that certain Non-Governmental Organisations have members who are breathing and still moving. We hereby call upon all of them to cease from such unauthorized activities with immediate effect.”

For the full context see this Statement online on AHRC’s revamped website:



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