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United Nations and human rights defenders: a parasitic relationship

The United Nations recently commemorated its 75th anniversary with a high-level meeting to adopt a declaration to reaffirm its collective commitment to multilateralism. In this meeting, it reiterated its obligation to protect human rights defenders. I certainly expected stronger support when I later reported a reprisal case, but was left disappointed by the dismissive response to my request for specific actions to protect me as a human rights defender.

Human rights defender: Alicia Wallace

In October 2018, I participated in the 71st session of the Committee on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (the CEDAW Committee) in Geneva as a representative of civil society. Equality Bahamas, the organization I represented, had submitted a shadow report. It responded to claims made in the government’s report on its progress in coming into compliance with CEDAW. I felt fortunate to be able to take time off from graduate school to engage committee members in person. In Geneva, I made an oral statement at The Bahamas’ review session by the CEDAW Committee, which posed questions to the government of The Bahamas. In my statement, I called for attention to the specific needs of marginalized people and specifically included LBTQ+ people. I had only three minutes to speak, so I needed to make clear, succinct points. This was the reason I traveled to Geneva, and strong delivery was imperative. 

National news outlets reporting on the session included quotes from my oral statement and a radio personality took issue with my advocacy, especially the explicit naming of LBTQ+ people as a vulnerable community in need of protection and expansion of their rights. I learned of this from an upset family member while I was in Geneva. It was frustrating to find out that this media person was creating an unsafe environment for me by making homophobic and misogynistic statements. His verbal attacks emboldened people who think like him to be vocal about their hatred of people like me. I had, up to this point, done my best to shield my family members and friends from this part of my work, where people feel free to say whatever they want and influence other people to respond negatively to what I do. Now it was on the airwaves and the internet. Not only was protecting them out of my control, but I wasn’t sure that I could protect myself.

A need to raise the bar on responses to reprisals

Intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders engaging with the UN are not uncommon. Reprisals include harassment, threats of violence and detention, which may be carried by the government or civilians, in order to prevent human rights defenders from speaking out in international spaces. The United Nations has a system for responding to reports of intimidation and reprisal and publishes an annual report on them. 

I did not expect the United Nations to take a casual approach to intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders engaging with it. More specifically, I didn’t think it would set the bar unthinkably low for governments, who are responsible for keeping citizens safe.

The United Nations Secretary General António Guterres’ 2019 report on reprisals included summaries of dozens of reprisal cases. For example, in China, reprisals include detention and seizure of property. A Malaysian human rights defender and LGBT+ person experienced online harassment after delivering a statement during the country’s Universal Periodic Review (a review of human rights situations on the ground by the Human Rights Council).

In this report, Guterres acknowledges that women and LGBTQ+ people and those advocating for these communities are disproportionately experiencing reprisal. It gives the impression that the United Nations understands the effect of reprisals and is prepared to take action to protect human rights defenders. Unfortunately, that has not been my experience.

Dismiss ceremonial responses, demand real action

At an event focused on the protection of women human rights defenders, I was encouraged by members of the CEDAW Committee to make a formal report to its focal point on reprisals. I later made the submission, which was time consuming as it required playing and replaying the video, checking timestamps, and transcribing. The disappointment came months later.

Following my report, I was contacted by a government official who asked whether or not I had reported to the police. The government of The Bahamas then reported to the United Nations that it contacted me and suggested I report the matter to the police, and the United Nations considered this an adequate response. 

No one was able to explain the purpose of reporting to the police. I was not even offered accompaniment to the police station. Most of my interactions with police have been, at the very least, difficult and uncomfortable. Being sent to them was both unhelpful and even making a report would have been ineffective. I wanted the government to take real action and recognize that the onus was on them to discourage acts of reprisal and state their support of women human rights defenders who are not enemies of the state, but working for the good of the most vulnerable people.

Guterres’ 2019 report on reprisals includes my case, noting the “disparaging comments about CEDAW, and about Ms. Wallace and her colleagues.” Though these reports have a follow-up section, come 2020, my case was not included. 

“The follow up section is for new information received on cases previously included in the report,” Madeleine Sinclair explained, who is the New York office director and legal counsel at International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) “It’s something we fought for so that the mandate wasn’t just to shine a spotlight on a case and move on when the vast majority of cases remain unresolved from the victim’s perspective.” 

She added that the follow up is weak and the onus is often on the victim to follow up with the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR). ISHR has pushed for unresolved cases to be included in the updates in order to prioritize accountability and not allow the passing of time to obscure the realities of human rights defenders.

A need to center human rights defenders in our own narratives

Follow-up on my case would have considered my perspective as a victim and not simply those of the United Nations’ and the government of The Bahamas, which considered my case closed. As it stands, the report gives the appearance that I made a report, the government responded and it was considered appropriate. If my follow up had been included, it would be a record of my dissatisfaction with the outcome. I am no better off than I was two years ago. No message has been sent that harassment, threats and violence against human rights defenders would not be tolerated. It would not be surprising if similar reprisal takes place following my participation—or the participation of any other advocate—in another international mechanism designed to highlight issues and hold governments accountable, while depending on human rights defenders’ participation.

ISHR’s 2020 report, Ending intimidation and reprisals against those who cooperate with the UN in the field of human rights , includes information on individual cases along with updates. It clearly states that I am not satisfied with the outcome and includes my recommendations to the government of The Bahamas that it publicly express its commitment to protect human rights defenders at the national level. Rather than limit its support to international spaces and rebuke incidents of reprisal, it should address perpetrators, and ensure its laws provide protection against hate speech.

Guterres called on United Nations entities to assist in follow-up, find resolutions to the large number of reprisal cases and encourage examination and accountability. He also said, “These incidents are absolutely unacceptable. Our partners are indispensable, and we must all do more to protect and promote their fundamental rights to engage with the United Nations.” 

If only the Guterres’ statement was more than words. If only they were applied to real people. If only human rights defenders were seen to have as much value as our contributions to United Nations processes. If only. Until then, we are left to protect ourselves and each other, press on or opt out of these processes, and bring people awareness to the fight for our own safety while we try to create a better world for us all.

Alicia Wallace
Alicia Wallace
Alicia A. Wallace is a queer Black feminist, human rights defender, and research consultant from The Bahamas. She is the Director of Equality Bahamas which promotes women’s and LGBTQ+ rights as human rights through public education, community engagement, and advocacy. Alicia writes a weekly column on sociopolitical issues in Bahamian daily newspaper The Tribune and produces The Culture RUSH monthly newsletter. She enjoys baking, cycling, gardening, eating ice cream, and talking to everyone and no one at the same time on Twitter.
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