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November 19, 2004

Human Rights Personnel Under Attack

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - The world's human rights defenders – including lawyers, journalists, judges, women's activists, and representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – are increasingly coming under attack by repressive governments, according to a senior UN official.

"The violation of the physical integrity of defenders takes the form of killings, attempted killings, torture, beatings, death threats, and disappearances," says Hina Jilani, the Geneva-based UN special representative on human rights defenders.

In a 23-page report to the current session of the UN General Assembly, she says human rights organizations are also increasingly facing "invasive policing."

Jilani cites 22 cases of raids by officers of law enforcement agencies, who seized documents, files, and databases relating to rights abuses, and also confiscated computers and cameras – all from human rights organizations

"Such police operations are often conducted without [search] warrants and, in some countries, occur repeatedly," she said.

Jilani reported that several human rights defenders who attended the June 2004 session of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva complained that security officials had visited their homes or offices during their absence to question colleagues and family members about the Geneva trip.

Iain Levine, program director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), told IPS that the president of a gay and lesbian association in Sierra Leone, who was at the same Geneva session, was subsequently murdered in her office in Freetown after being raped and stabbed.

"She was a brave woman who was not only a strong gay activist in Sierra Leone but also played an active role globally," he added.

Levine said gay and lesbian activists are some of the new victims of violence worldwide.

"The protection of human rights defenders is the barometer of a government's tolerance and respect for human rights," he added.

According to Levine, some of the countries using repressive tactics against human rights defenders include Egypt, Iran, Uzbekistan, Russia, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Neil Hicks, director of the Human Rights Defender Project at New York-based Human Rights First, says defenders are also being targeted in Colombia, Thailand, Indonesia, China, Cuba, Belarus, and several other former Soviet republics.

As Jilani notes in her report, Hicks added, many governments have used the threat of terrorism as a pretext to clamp down on the work of nonviolent human rights defenders.

"Counter-terrorism measures taken by many governments, both democratic and non-democratic, have resulted in violations of human rights. These governments have objected to protests and opposition from human rights defenders by branding them as terrorist sympathizers," Hicks told IPS.

This denigration and mischaracterization of the work of human rights defenders is very widespread, he added. "We have seen it here in the United States, for example, in the comments of [outgoing Attorney General] John Ashcroft and others."

Undermining and discrediting human rights defenders is always regrettable and irresponsible, and counter to the principles of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, said Hicks, but in some countries it contributes directly to increasing the dangers human rights defenders face as they carry out their work.

Jilani catalogues a series of incidents where unnamed governments took arbitrary action against such defenders:

- A journalist who focused on human rights abuses in his work was arrested at the airport while on his way to attend a conference on freedom of the press.

- Several human rights defenders were reportedly arrested and detained by police two days after participating in a peaceful demonstration against human rights abuses and restrictions on democratic practices.

- A journalist who published a report on the allegedly poor working conditions in the mines in his country – leading to the deaths of miners – was convicted by a court of defamation and sentenced to five years' imprisonment.

- A human rights defender who had been investigating alleged torture of detainees by police left his home and has not been seen since.

Levine cited more concrete cases of abuses by governments worldwide. He said the Egyptian government has closed down the only clinic for the rehabilitation of torture victims. In Uzbekistan, there were "enormous assaults" on human rights activists. In Iran, hundreds of students and activists have been imprisoned, he added.

In early November, HRW gave its highest honor to three leading rights activists from Afghanistan, Russia, and DRC. All three, Habib Rahiab, Natalia Zhukova, and Maitre Honore Musoko, were in New York to accept the awards. But two of them – the Afghan and the Congolese – were living in exile outside their home countries, Levine said.

The three honorees "illustrate the lack of safety and security in Afghanistan, serious abuses within the Russian military, and the conflict in eastern Congo, which has killed more civilians than any war since the Second World War," HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth said in a statement released before the award ceremony.

"They have worked courageously – often in life-threatening environments – to expose rights abuses and turn the international spotlight on their countries," he added.

Levine said Human Rights Watch is "particularly troubled about the worsening trend" in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin is amassing and centralizing power and getting rid of directly elected officials.

Putin has also recently launched an attack on human rights organizations. "It was a broad attempt to discredit human rights ideals," he added.

In Zimbabwe, said Levine, the government is trying to prevent NGOs from launching a voter education program, rejecting it on the grounds that these organizations receive funding from abroad.

In her report, which should be discussed before the end of the General Assembly session in mid-December, Jilani says the bank accounts of several human rights NGOs have been blocked and their assets frozen to prevent them from accessing international funding.

In one case, the ministry of the interior in an unnamed country prohibited a human rights organization from accessing the second half of a European Commission grant intended to fund its activities.

As a result, the NGO has been unable to pay its office rent and is threatened with eviction.

According to Hicks, the most recent attacks on human rights activists have been under the guise of fighting terrorism.

"Steps taken to silence the voices of human rights defenders in a context of heightened concern about the threat of terrorism include broad controls on freedom of expression, association and movement, and measures to intimidate, demonize, brutalize, imprison, exile, or murder the individuals who stand up for human rights," he said.

These measures affect basic freedoms for all but often have a particular impact on human rights defenders, in some cases leading to threats to their lives and liberty and in all cases constraining their ability to protect the rights of others, Hicks added.

"The use by governments of restrictive laws of association, many now couched in the language of counter-terrorism and thereby insulated from domestic and international criticism, presents severe obstacles to the work of human rights defenders."

(Inter Press Service)

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    Thalif Deen has been Inter Press Service's U.N. Bureau Chief since 1992. A
    former Information Officer at the U.N. Secretariat and a one-time member of
    the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions, he is currently
    editor of the Journal of the Group of 77, published in collaboration with
    IPS. A Fulbright-Hayes scholar, he holds a Master's degree in Journalism
    from Columbia University in New York.

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