UU Nations: Reprisals Against Human Rights Defenders at the UN

UU Nations: Reprisals Against Human Rights Defenders at the UN

Human rights defenders—especially women and LGBTQ+ people—can suffer harsh consequences in their home countries for working with the United Nations.

Bruce Knotts
Photo of protesters behind jail bars holding yellow signs with black bars with white text #freerightsdefenders
© Amnesty International


One of the core values of the United Nations is protecting human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains one of its most revered documents. Despite this fact, human rights defenders of all ranks face reprisals for their work at the UN in their home countries.

The previous UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, told me that he could not run for a second term because no nation would vote for him after he’d criticized the human rights protections in all countries, including his own, Jordan.

Ivan Šimonović, who had been the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights from 2010 to 2016 also suffered for his principled stands for human rights. He stepped down under pressure from members of the UN Security Council to become the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect until 2019.

Last month there was a blockbuster report (PDF) on reprisals suffered by women human rights defenders (WHRDs) who testify before the UN Security Council. The report was prepared by the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace, and Security;UN Women; and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The introduction stipulates that “as the call for women’s full, equal and meaningful participation has grown louder, and recognition of their role has become more visible, so has the violence that threatens and limits their participation. This violence is targeted precisely at silencing their advocacy and inhibiting women in general from participating in public life.”

Among the many examples: “In Myanmar, the military junta has detained thousands of activists and protesters (more than 8,500, according to one participant, including 1,500 WHRDs and women doctors, students, and journalists), and 103 WHRDs have been killed. Many LGBTQI rights activists and young women protesters have been detained and tortured too, and in many cases, their families do not know where they are.”

In 2018, about a third of the people supported by the NGO Working Group to brief the UN Security Council have faced reprisals and intimidation, two-thirds committed by government entities.

Intimidations begin before briefing the UN Security Council, where women are told what to say and what not to say by their governments. These reprisals and intimidations have caused many women to flee their home countries.

“Sexual violence is often used not only to target WHRDs and LGBTQI rights defenders but close family members,” the report states. “The use of sexualized threats and sexual assault is extremely under-reported in public reports and statistics, in part because of stigma and risk of further reprisal, and in part because the victims are in detention and unable to report.”

There is a fund to help relocate Women Human Rights Defenders or protect them in other ways. Norway is by far the most generous donor. Other nations that help are Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, the United States, and others. Russia did not respond.

The UU@UN is one of about 60 civil society organizations working to protect WHRDS. Working to foster respect for human rights is core to our work at the UU@UN because it is core to our values at Unitarian Universalists. Our first and second principles call us to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person and to promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

The Preamble to the UN Charter declares “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”

The UUs and the UN are well matched.