UN : Defending the universality of human rights - Priority #HRC29

All human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated (Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, paragraph 5). Yet, 67 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 49 years after the adoption of the two main international Covenants (ICCPR and ICESCR), and 22 years after the World Conference on Human Rights and the creation of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), universal human rights are under attack in the very forum that is supposed to lead in promoting and protecting them, the Human Rights Council.

In the last few years, we have witnessed attacks against the rights of women and vulnerable groups, such as LGBTI persons, gender equality, and freedom of expression, freedom of association and of peaceful assembly. These attacks are not isolated but coordinated. They are part of a comprehensive agenda promoted by governments that try to stifle civil society and prevent societal progress in an attempt to retain power.

FIDH calls on UN member states to oppose these attacks by systematically reminding states of their obligation to protect individuals from violence and discrimination, by invoking the existing international standards [1] and by deconstructing the relativist narratives that are used to deprive individuals, in particular women and LBGTI persons, of their rights. In this regard, “double standards” must be denounced everywhere, including where the fundamental rights of migrants and asylum-seekers are denied.

1. Protection of the family

In September 2014, at HRC 27, the Human Rights Council held a panel discussion on the “protection of the family and its members” following a resolution adopted at HRC 26 (June 2014) at the initiative of, among others, Egypt and Russia. While the panel officially sought to clarify states’ obligations with regard to family protection, interventions made by a large number of panelists, states and NGOs demonstrated some of the flaws of the resolution, namely that:
(a) The limited definition of the family promoted by the sponsors of the resolution does not encompass the diversity of its forms in various societies and indigenous communities, be they, among others, single-parent, same-sex, childless, kinship or extended families. In this context, children raised in families that do not conform to the majority form must be protected from discrimination and stigmatization and their rights fully guaranteed;
(b) The fact that human rights abuses are also committed within the family, notably through domestic violence, sexual abuse and marital rape, child, early and forced marriage, or “honor” killings, was not recognized. Indeed, these situations persist throughout the world despite states’ obligation to protect individuals and to combat behaviors, norms and traditions that legitimize discrimination and abuse;
(c) It did not clearly recognized the absolute obligation of states to protect all individuals from discrimination and abuse, irrespective of the family form they were raised and live in.

FIDH warned against the dangers associated with such an initiative, including the fact that it could undermine not only international standards on women’s rights, children’s rights and gender equality, but also the right to non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. This takes place in a context in which women’s rights, in particular, as well as sexual and reproductive rights, have been increasingly challenged in recent years.

Any follow-up initiative (a resolution is likely to be presented at HRC 29) should reflect the contents of the panel discussion, [2] including the above mentioned flaws that were identified in the initial resolution. Should Egypt, Russia and other sponsors of the resolution take their initiative forward and ignore the substance of the panel discussion they themselves created, it would set a bad precedent for the Council and send a signal that they are directly challenging universal rights. In this context, moderate states like Tunisia, Morocco, South Africa, the Philippines or Brazil should disassociate themselves from the path on which the most regressive states embarked and unambiguously reject attacks on international standards, which threaten to run counter the constitutional, legal and societal progress they have made.

2. Sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI)

The initiative on the “protection of the family” [3] goes hand in hand with attacks against the rights of LGBTI persons and of persons on grounds of their sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), in particular protection from violence and abuse and the right to non-discrimination.

FIDH applauded the adoption by the Council of a resolution on SOGI, at its 27th session, which requested OHCHR to update its report on “discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity” and present it at HRC 29. It was noticeable that a large majority of states supported this initiative. [4]

However, the resolution did not create a dedicated mechanism (such as a Special Rapporteur on the rights of LGBTI persons or on SOGI issues), nor did it “institutionalize” the discussion of SOGI issues within the Council by making them a matter of official, regular discussion. It simply requested OHCHR to update a report on violence and discrimination based on SOGI – a bottom line on which all states should agree. Debates and negotiations on the resolution were at best tense, at worst disgraceful when a group of states led by the OIC used language close to derogatory with regard to LGBTI persons, and refused to discuss patterns of violence and discrimination against them. More than ever, as a number of states (from Russia to Central Asian states, the Gambia and Uganda) have adopted discrimination targeting persons on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity, efforts are needed to counter these narratives and advance the rights of all human beings, irrespective of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

FIDH therefore calls on the Human Rights Council to move forward and institutionalize the discussion of SOGI issues by creating a regular mechanism – at the very minimum bi-annual reporting by OHCHR and interactive dialogue at the Council.

3. “Defamation of religion”

In 2011, overcoming deep divisions, the Human Rights Council adopted resolution 16/18 on “combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence, and violence against persons based on religion or belief” by consensus. HRC resolution 16/18 tackled a number of issues and – at least it seemed at the time – together with the Rabat Plan of Action, put an end to challenges to the border between free speech and hate speech (and the high threshold to be met, under international law, to restrict free speech) by moving from the human rights incompatible concept of “defamation of religion” to an approach based on international standards. Indeed, the latter concept was clearly invalidated by UN special procedures and experts from various regions. [5]

A series of meetings on the implementation of HRC resolution 16/18, held every year since 2011 and known as the “Istanbul Process,” has allowed states and other stakeholders to meet regularly. However, despite a promising start, the process has failed to address some of the key issues contained in HRC resolution 16/18 and related to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief – from religious pluralism to the protection of religious minorities and atheists and agnostics – and has witnessed renewed attempts to challenge international standards on freedom of expression on the basis of “respect for religion.” Theseattempts, which rely on terminologies (“contempt of religion,” “contempt of religious symbols,” “denigration of religion,” or “vilification of religion”) that are different from, but intrinsically tantamount to, “defamation of religion,” are evidence of a rejection of international standards and consensus insofar as their aim is to criminalize forms of free expression with regard to religious issues, including criticism of religion, and to break the relationship between freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression – two sets of rights that are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

At the last meeting of the Istanbul Process, held at the OIC General Secretariat in Jeddah, in which FIDH participated (read our position paper), a coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Algeria tried to reopen the old “defamation of religion” agenda. They also acted in bad faith by refusing to discuss issues pertaining to religious freedom and pluralism, the protection of minorities and legitimate criticism of religion or belief.

In the face of such attacks and of the use of religion and traditional values to justify human rights violations, including the persecution of independent voices like Saudi Arabian blogger and free thinker Raif Badawi, the Human Rights Council must stand firm in its defense of international standards. [6] At HRC 29, the defense of international standards should start with the adoption of a resolution on the right to freedom of artistic expression, which should be substantive and uncompromising, i.e. build on international standards and on the very high threshold defined, inter alia, in articles 19 of the ICCPR and paragraph 22 of the Rabat Plan of Action.

4. Anti-terrorism narratives

In March 2015 (HRC 28), Egypt and a group of sponsor states presented a resolution on the “effects of terrorism on the enjoyment of human rights” that was allegedly (but speciously) victims-oriented and aimed to address the effects that terrorist acts may have on human rights. This initiative was a departure from the Council’s consensual approach to terrorism, which is centered on respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, a key principle in a post-11 September 2001 world in which many states – Egypt and Bahrain are quintessential examples in this regard – have adopted anti-terrorism legislations and policies under the guise of which human rights defenders and independent voices have been prosecuted and arbitrarily detained and convicted.

Despite a call by a number of civil society organizations not to support the draft resolution tabled by Egypt, the latter was adopted by vote. It created a panel discussion, which will be held at HRC 29. Many of the concerns that were raised in the NGO letter dated 25 March 2015 are still valid. On the one hand, the Egyptian initiative failed to clearly recognize that national anti-terrorism laws must be in conformity with international human rights law. On the other hand, it failed to recognize the need to protect human rights defenders and other civil society actors and the role of a vibrant and pluralistic civil society and of expressive rights in countering terrorism. It also appeared to “continue the regrettable practice of invoking the suffering victims of terrorism to justify measures that too often are abused to violate human rights, without delivering real justice, remedy, and support to the victims themselves” (see NGO letter). All of these issues have been repeatedly raised by FIDH – all the more since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris, early 2015.

By advancing an “anti-terrorism” agenda that is markedly different from the consensus approach, Egypt and sponsors of the initiative seek to occupy the political space, to challenge international standards and to divide the Human Rights Council. In this context, FIDH calls on states to oppose attempts to challenge universal human rights on the basis of specious “victims-centered” anti-terrorism approaches and to do all they can to come back to the consensus approach – respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism – the only one that protects all individuals, including victims and civil society voices.

5. Human rights of migrants

However, the universality of human rights is also at threat when states do not, or even openly refuse to, guarantee the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers, including in the Mediterranean and in the Andaman Sea. In recent months, in front of a migration crisis fed, inter alia, by the Syrian and Libyan wars and by crimes against humanity committed in Eritrea, member states of the European Union have refused to adopt a victims-centered approach through, for instance, an EU-wide search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean or the opening of legal and safe channels for migration to Europe. Instead of adopting measures to protect migrants’ lives, the EU has attempted to shelter itself from migrants by toughening border protection and by putting an emphasis on repressive measures (e.g., the proposal to destroy boats off the Libyan coast) and on combating trafficking – two issues that have served to divert attention from the EU member states’ obligation to respect the rights of migrants. [7] In this regard, deaths in the Mediterranean are truly “Europe’s dishonour.” Europe must put an end to a shameful policy.

In parallel, ASEAN member states including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have failed to provide adequate protection to Burmese and Bangladeshi migrants in the Andaman Sea, in particular Rohingya who have fled Burma because of persecution.

Defending the universality of human rights requires more than speech. It requires committing to action to actually promote and protect all rights of all persons, irrespective of their race, colour, language, sex, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, sexual orientation or gender identity, or other status. To be meaningful, the “enhanced interactive dialogue” on migrants that will be held on the first day of HRC 29 (Monday 15 June 2015) should address all of the issues that are related to the rights of migrants everywhere and in a holistic manner.

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