Aminatou Haidar with the High Commissioner for Human Right Ms. Michelle Bachelet. (Photo: Emoke Bebiak)

Highlights of the 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Council

From 24th February to the 13th March 2020, Right Livelihood participated in the forty-third session of the UN Human Rights Council. The session saw the presentation of a number of thematic reports on topics such as human rights defenders, the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, the use of torture, the right to food, and the right to a sustainable environment. The Council also considered various countries of concern, including Myanmar, Iran, and the Syrian Arab Republic.

**Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Council has prematurely closed. Therefore, Right Livelihood’s activities were limited during this time and the side event that we had organized – “Sexual and gender-based violence in conflict-affected areas – the situation of girls” – couldn’t take place. The event has been postponed to a later date.

Despite the circumstances, Right Livelihood took the opportunity to highlight the exemplary work of its Laureates, and to draw attention to the risks and obstacles they face due to the increasingly restrictive environment for civil society in their respective countries.

Here are some highlights from the three-week session:

Human Rights Violations in Western Sahara

“Strengthening the cooperation between the African and the UN Human Rights Mechanisms”: The Geneva Support Group for Western Sahara (GGSSO)[1] organised a side event to discuss the tools used by the African Union and the OHCHR to address the human rights situation in Western Sahara.

Aminatou Haidar with the High Commissioner for Human Right Ms. Michelle Bachelet. (Photo: Emoke Bebiak)

Aminatou Haidar (2019 Laureate) addressed the audience, denouncing MINURSO’s failure in protecting the Sahrawi people from the systematic human rights violations carried out by the Kingdom of Morocco. On the contrary, she deplored that they seem to satisfy the demands of the occupying power. She shared her personal experience as a detainee and victim of torture, and called on the international community to act in favour of the promotion of peace, freedom, independence and stability in the occupied territories of Western Sahara.

In their statements, the other participants reiterated their support for the Sahrawi people in exercising their right to self-determination.

The event was moderated by Mr. Gianfranco Fattorini (American Association of Jurists). Other speakers included Francisco Dionisio Fernandes (Chargé d’affaires a.i. of Timor Leste and GGSSO Chair), H.E. Ms. Lidwina N. Shapwa (Deputy Minister of Justice of the Republic of Namibia), H.E. Mr. Oubi Boucharaya Bachir, (Minister for Europe of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic), Mr. Donald O.Deya (CEO of the Pan African Lawyer Union), and Mr. Hassan Boutzegart (Representative of the Sharawi National Commission of Human Rights – CONASADH).

Read more here.

Aminatou Haidar, delivering her statement at the 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Council.

Oral Statement, General Debate Item 2: In her statement addressed to the Human Right Council, Aminatou Haidar (2019 Laureate) expressed her deep concern at the continuous suffering inflicted on the Sahrawi people, who are systematically deprived of their legitimate rights. She called on the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Michelle Bachelet, to adopt concrete measures to guarantee the respect of their fundamental rights. In particular, Ms. Haidar urged the United Nations to expand the mandate of MINURSO to include human rights monitoring and to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate all human rights violations in Western Sahara.

Oral Statement, General Debate Item 2: On behalf of a group of more than 200 organisations, including Right Livelihood, Mr Hassan Boutzegart, Representative of the Sahrawi National Commission for Human Rights, expressed deep concern at the non-action policy showed by the OHCHR concerning the breaches of International Humanitarian Law and the systematic violations of human rights in the occupied territory of Western Sahara. The statement called on the HRC to resume the technical missions to Western Sahara and the Sahrawi refugee camps, and to implement a programme of technical cooperation and capacity building with the Polisario Front.

During her stay in Geneva, Aminatou Haidar (2019 Laureate) met with a number of UN representatives, including the High Commissioner for Human Right Ms. Michelle Bachelet, and the mandates of the Special Rapporteurs on human rights defenders and that of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. She brought to their attention the grave human rights situation in Western Sahara, including the denial of economic, social and cultural rights, the widespread use of torture, arbitrary detention of activists and human rights defenders, false accusations, expulsion from work, and forced deportations to Moroccan cities. Ms. Haidar further denounced that since 2015 no international observers have been allowed to access the territory.

Indigenous Peoples and Peasants’ rights in Brazil

Davi Kopenawa speaking at the side event. (Photo: Amy Au)

“Atrocity Alert! Uncontacted Indigenous Peoples in Brazil”: Right Livelihood co-sponsored a side event on non-contacted indigenous peoples Brazil, in partnership with the Society for Threatened Peoples, Conectas Direitos Humanos, Instituto Socioambiental, Commisao Arns, Terra de Direitos, FIAN International, and the Hutukara Yanomami Association (2019 Laureate). The event focused on the current dismantling of the existing framework for the protection of uncontacted indigenous peoples. The participants highlighted that since the onset of Jair Bolsonaro’s government, the situation is particularly alarming, and several uncontacted groups are at serious risk of genocide.

At the event, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami (2019 Laureate) urged the international community to safeguard and guarantee the protection of the environment and lands of the Yanomami people, but also of those isolated peoples. Other panellists include Ms. Laura Greenhalgh (Executive Director of Commisao Arns), Mr. Antonio Oviedo (Researcher at the Instituto Socioambiental), and Julia Büsser (Society for Threatened peoples Switzerland).

Davi Kopenawa, delivering his statement at the 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Council.

Oral Statement, Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Right to a safe, clean and healthy environment: In response to the report presented by the Special Rapporteur, mentioning Brazil as an example of good practice with regards to environmental legislation and land protection, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami delivered a statement denouncing the violent attacks, destruction of property and the presence of illegal miners in the Yanomami territory. During the debate, he called on the Brazilian authorities to comply with their constitutional obligations and guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples.

Read more here. (in Portuguese)

Oral Statement, Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food: In response to the report of the Special Rapporteur Right Livelihood delivered a statement in support of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais sem Terra – MST (1991 Laureate). We expressed concern at the recent plans of the Brazilian government to classify MST’s activities as terrorism. The statement praised MST’s work in defense of Brazilian landless families and its firm opposition to hand over public land to transnational companies, and asked the Council to ensure that the vital work of peasants and environmental defenders be respected.

Read more here. (in Portuguese)

Oral Statement, General Debate Item 4: Together with more than 80 organisations, Right Livelihood delivered an oral statement denouncing the dismantling of the human rights protection mechanisms in Brazil. Given the alarming deterioration during the first year of Bolsonaro’s government, we called on the international community to develop incisive actions in the face of the grave attacks to rule of law and democracy in Brazil.

Read more here. (in Portuguese)

Human Rights Defenders in Saudi Arabia

Yahya Assiri speaking at the side event. (Photo: Amy Au)

“Saudi Arabia: Cosmetic Reforms and PR offensive to whitewash human rights abuses”: We co-sponsored a side event on the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, in partnership with ALQST and FIDH. In her opening remarks, Julia Legner, independent human rights consultant and Head of Advocacy at ALQST, underlined the stark contrast between the narrative that the Saudi government is trying to promote and the harsh reality on the ground, where authorities continue to crack down on any critical voice. She also highlighted that many activists and human rights defenders are currently serving long sentences in prison in the Kingdom, including the three Saudi Laureates, Abdullah Al-Hamid, Waleed Abu Al-Khair and Mohammad Fahad Al-Qahtani (2018 Laureates).

Other speakers included Ms. Areej al-Sadhan and Ms. Nina al-Hathloul, sisters of imprisoned activists, Mr. Yahya Assiri, Saudi human rights defender and Director of ALQST, and Ms. Francesca Garbagnati, Parliamentary Assistant to MEP Alessandra Moretti, S&D.

Read more here.

Camilla Argentieri giving addressing the 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Convention on behalf of The Right Livelihood Foundation.

Oral statement, Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism: Together with ALQST and MENA Rights Group we delivered a statement expressing concern over the crackdown on human rights defenders and peaceful critics under the pretext of fighting terrorism and urged the HRC to establish an accountability and transparency mechanism to monitor and address widespread and systematic human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. We highlighted the case of Waleed Abu Al-Khair (2018 Laureate), who is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence simply for exercising his right to freedom of expression.

Read more here.

Restrictions to Civil Society Space in Russia and Egypt

Oral statement, General Debate Item 3: We delivered a statement highlighting Russia’s use of the “foreign agents” law to restrict the human rights work of civil society organisations, including Human Rights Centre Memorial and International Memorial (2004 Laureate). In December 2019, they have been fined 5 million rubles solely for not having attached the label “foreign agent” to their websites and social media. The statement also drew attention to the continuous attacks against human rights defenders in Chechnya.

Oral statement, UPR outcome –  Egypt: In partnership with Nazra for Feminist Studies, the Foundation delivered a statement expressing concern over the criminalisation of civil society representatives under case 173/2011. We raised the issue of the continuous targeting and reprisals against women human rights defenders, including the case of Mozn Hassan (2016 Laureate). Right Livelihood and Nazra deplored that Egypt refused to accept recommendations to lift travel bans and asset freezes against human rights defenders and urged the government to take effective measures to guarantee a free and active civil society in the country.

Laureates in Geneva

We welcomed several laureates to Geneva during this session:

  • Aminatou Haidar (2019 Laureate) spoke at a side event organised by the Permanent Mission of South Africa on the cooperation between the African and the UN human rights mechanisms on the situation of Western Sahara She delivered an oral statement on the systematic human rights violations in the occupied territories, and participated in a range of high-level meetings.
  • Davi Kopenawa Yanomami (2019 Laureate) participated in a side event co-sponsored by the RLF on uncontacted indigenous peoples in Brazil. He delivered a statement on illegal mining in the Yanomami territory and participated in a conference at the University of Geneva (UNIGE): “Mining and infrastructure: a real threat to indigenous peoples and the Amazon”. He also participated in meetings with UN representatives.
  • Sima Samar (2012 Laureate), participated in the High-Level Panel on IDPs. She met with fellow Laureates Aminatou Haidar and Monika Hauser and was interviewed by a journalist of La Tribune de Genéve.
  • Monika Hauser (2008 Laureate), met with the German Ambassador, Mr Freiherr vonUngern-Sternberg, to discuss the engagement of Germany in the UN Human Rights Council regarding the implementation of UN resolution 1325.

The United Nations Human Rights Council gathers three times a year in Geneva to discuss human rights situations around the world. For further information about the work of the Council, please visit the OHCHR website.


[1] The Geneva Group for Western Sahara (GGSSO) is a transregional group composed of 13 countries (Timor Leste Algeria, Angola, Botswana, Cuba, Mozambique, Namibia, Nicaragua, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Venezuela and Zimbabwe), as well as the American Association of Jurists and the Polisario Front representation in Geneva.

[2] In January 2019 she was appointed by the UN Secretary-General Mr Antonio Guterres as a member of the High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation.

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