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Saturday, June 3, 2023
KATHMANDU, Nov 25 2022 (IPS) - Human rights defenders are alarmed at what appears to be a new process permitting countries to keep confidential their responses to UN experts about allegations of human rights abuses.
A page on the website of the UN human rights office hosts letters (known as “communications”) from human rights experts, or “special rapporteurs”, to those alleged to have committed the abuse — usually a government. In most cases the page also hosts the response, but in some recent instances a placeholder document has appeared that says, “The government’s reply is not made public due to its confidential nature.”
That withholding of information, say the defenders, is unacceptable because the person who sent the allegation of a human rights violation, sometimes at the risk of personal harm, deserves to know how the government is responding.
“There is a lot of effort from the side of those sending information about incidents of human rights violations happening to them, and they send these to the rapporteurs even knowing that there can be risk to their lives,” says Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, executive director of the Philippine human rights organization Tebtebba, which works for the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“Part of the process of resolving issues brought before the special rapporteurs is for the victims to read the response of the state, which will be the basis for the next steps they can take. Withholding publication of responses is a dead end for potential resolution of issues,” added Tauli-Corpuz in an email interview. She was the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of Indigenous peoples from 2014 to 2020.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which hosts the webpage, did not respond to requests for comment about the apparent change in process.
Communications can also include objections to laws or practices that contravene human rights standards. In 2021, a total of 1,002 communications were sent from experts to 149 countries and 257 “non-state actors”, which include businesses and international bodies and agencies, says an OHCHR report. Of those communications, 651 received replies.
The 1,002 communications concerned 2,256 alleged victims. No statistics are available on how many requests were made for communications to be kept confidential, adds the report.
One Nepal-based defender says she’s not surprised that states have asked for confidentiality, but was startled to hear that it was granted. “Individuals and organizations seek help from the UN because their government does not respond to these issues… they should be receiving updates,” says Mandira Sharma, a human rights lawyer who has experience with UN human rights bodies. “Otherwise why would anyone engage?”
“Unless there is very critical information that would put someone’s life at risk they should be able to make the information public,” added Sharma.
It is not unusual for a reply from a government to include information that is redacted.
There should be a space for human rights experts and countries to have private conversations about allegations, says Sarah M. Brooks, Programme Director for the organization International Service for Human Rights.
“But the communications process is premised on information coming from the ground, from victims and advocates, who often take great risks to share it with the UN. To then hold state responses confidential aligns neither with the purpose of the communication procedure, nor the principle of actually respecting and empowering victims in its conduct,” she said in an online conversation.
“To bend to states’ requests to hold certain information confidential — in other words, to not share possibly life-saving information with victims, family members and lawyers — would be a grave error on the part of any UN actor,” added Brooks.
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