UN Expert: National Laws Must Not Restrain the Work of Human Rights Defenders

Resource: Charity and Security Network (http://www.charityandsecurity.org)

Anti-terrorism legislation is being "used to harass and prosecute defenders in the name of public security," a United Nations expert told the General Assembly on Nov. 2, 2012.  Margaret Sekaggya, the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, expressed serious concerns about suppression of political activism through legislation governing the functioning of organizations' funding and restrictions on Internet access.  She urged governments to align their national legislation with the principles of international human rights law. "Legislation needs to be non-discriminatory, clearly defined, proportionate and necessary in order to ensure it is not applied arbitrarily and not used to hinder the work of human rights defenders," she added. On the same day, Sekaggya released a report that documents ways governments restrict civil society, and makes recommendations for improving the environment in which they work. 

"Human rights defenders have been detained, arrested, prosecuted, convicted, sentenced and harassed by governments under the guise of the enforcement of anti-terrorism legislation and other legislation relating to national security," the report says. "In the past few years, defenders exercising their rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association and, to some extent, freedom of peaceful assembly have been at particular risk."

In the report, the UN expert emphasizes that governments must inject a level of proportionality in their actions, saying "the impact of the restrictions must be proportionate and the harm caused by the restrictions cannot outweigh the benefits derived from applying the restrictions."    This has not been the case in many countries that have used overly-broad counterterrorism measures that severely limit the space for a healthy civil society.   These include shutting down humanitarian organizations or banning groups without notice or trial.  "The grounds for justifying such bans are often unclear in the laws themselves, given that they tend to be limited to formulations such as "to avoid public disorder" or "to ensure that public services are not interrupted," without defining what amounts to "public disorder" or "interruption of public services.""

Questionable legislation is also granting governments extensive powers to supervise and limit the activities of civil society. In many cases, international funding is barred and overly burdensome and intrusive reporting requirements are imposed on groups.  In the most extreme cases, "the government is authorized by law to place associations under surveillance, to force them to take management decisions and to demand any documents in an association's possession, without prior notice." The Special Rapporteur believes that such provisions amount to a "serious infringement of the right to freedom of association," and that "only legitimate requirements that should be imposed on associations should be to ensure transparency."

Her recommendations include:

  • Countries need to ensure that national legislation designed to guarantee public safety and public order does not arbitrarily suppress the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly
  • Countries should ensure that their anti-terrorism legislation clearly identifies acts defined as terrorism
  • Countries should ensure that civil society, national human rights institutions and other stakeholders are involved in the process of creating relevant legislation
  • Countries should ensure that reporting requirements placed on associations are reasonable and do not inhibit functional autonomy

In March 2008, the Human Rights Council appointed Sekaggya as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.  Sekaggya is a magistrate from Uganda and was the Chairperson of the Uganda Human Rights Commission from 1996 to 2008. Between 2006 and 2008 she was a member of the United Nations High Level Task Force on the Implementation of the Right to Development.


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