In an interview with DW, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour talks about the findings of the UN secretary general's 2018 report on reprisals against human rights defenders worldwide.
DW: What can you tell us about this report?
Andrew Gilmour: We have listed 38 countries and given examples from 38 countries in this report, but we believe the number is far higher. We have actually received many other cases, but we cannot put them in the report. We have a principle of do no harm and getting the consent of the victims or their family. So, the last thing we want to do is make the situation even worse for human rights defenders who have been threatened or punished. So the number is higher than the one we put into the report.
It is a very worrying problem because what it is is an attempt, in my view, by governments to deter human rights defenders from speaking out. This is a problem for the United Nations because the UN relies on civil society to do our work and we need to hear from civil society about the problems or the real situation in these countries. But clearly there are a number of governments who take the view that civil society should not be allowed to speak to the UN and therefore they aim to punish them or to deter them from speaking out.
A demonstration in Germany against Myanmar's treatment of its Muslim Rohingya minority in September 2017
What does the report tell us about the human rights situation globally?
Working on human rights globally as we do — and we cover the whole spectrum of human rights: political civil, economic, social, cultural — I would say that we are experiencing a global backlash against human rights in many parts of the world. This has made it all the harder for human rights defenders to their work, including cooperation with the UN. But it has also made their work that much more important, to stand up against the very worrying trends that we see in so many places.
One area, and this is a global trend, too, is the increasing use of the term "terrorist” to try to silence human rights defenders. We see in many instances that when we raise the case with governments, they try to dismiss the people, not as human rights defenders but as terrorists — in many cases very unconvincingly. An increasing number of governments seem to be ready to invoke terrorism and counterterrorism as a reason for cracking down on civil society, preventing organizations from operating effectively, preventing organizations from receiving funding from abroad to allow them to operate, and then claiming that those individuals who have bravely spoken out are in fact doing it to undermine the government and to promote the cause of terrorism. So, that is a very worrying trend, and our reprisals report very much fits into that trend.
There are some African countries that have been mentioned in the report: Rwanda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. What can you tell us about these countries?
Well, the report is not specific to Africa at all. It is a global problem and the report is global in scope, and, actually, I would say that Africa is not the worst place when it comes to this particular set of violations of human rights. But other parts of the world, particularly the Middle East, is worse. But, in some African countries, including the ones you just mentioned, we do have strong instances. I would say that this has led to, for example in Burundi, cooperation with the UN has dwindled and there are fewer NGOs and journalists left in the country, and those that are have been intimidated from speaking to us. So, this is definitely a problem. And then there are other instances, for example in Mali, where there is widespread intimidation, particularly by nonstate armed elements, and clearly people have been punished and probably killed for having cooperated with the UN.
The annual report from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council
How do you plan to engage with the governments mentioned to ensure the safety of those you work with?
Every one of the cases you see in the report we have raised individually with the government — usually in private form, not in some public denunciation. I have been working with many ambassadors based in the United Nations but also governments in their capitals, raising these issues with them and pointing out that we think these are cases of reprisals against legitimate human rights defenders. So, we do this. There is also a more public form when we feel there is a particular need when there's a very instant case. For example, when Egypt arrested a man at the airport who was coming to Geneva to meet the working group on involuntary and enforced disappearances and he himself was disappeared by the Egyptian authorities and we presume tortured. So, in that instance we went public very quickly but normally we try to work behind the scenes with the government in order to try to achieve a solution to the individual cases.
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What is the UN doing on Cameroon, in light of the crisis in the Anglophone regions?
We are trying very hard to get to Cameroon and to get to the affected areas, but I have to say the government is very reluctant to allow us there — and not just my human rights colleagues, but also on a political high level. There's been tremendous reluctance on the part of the Cameroonian authorities to allow human rights observers or any sort to get to these areas to see first hand. So, what that means, and this is something that happens all over the world, when we cannot get to a place, we report remotely and we talk to people through various other means, particularly when there have been refugees who have been forced to flee their countries. We do that with Myanmar, for example, we do that with Venezuela, and we will also be doing that with people fromCameroon as well.