(Geneva) – Human rights defenders advocating in relation to land-grabbing, corporate accountability, indigenous rights, labour rights, and other economic, social and cultural rights issues are at increased risk of enforced disappearance, according to a new report.
The report by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances will be discussed by the UN Human Rights Council when it convenes for its 30th session in Geneva in September and ISHR and the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are urging States to use the opportunity to highlight and press for accountability in cases of enforced disappearances of ESC rights defenders.
‘We are deeply concerned at the worsening incidence of enforced disappearances and other attacks against corporate accountability activists, trade unionists, and land and environment rights defenders, particularly those advocating or protesting against major business projects and investments,’ said ISHR’s Michael Ineichen.
‘Enforced disappearances, together with related violations such as arbitrary arrest, are increasingly used not only to punish protest and dissent, but also to intimidate and deter others from engaging in human rights advocacy,’ Mr Ineichen said.
‘By way of example, the enforced disappearance and ultimate death of Chinese human rights lawyer and housing rights activist Cao Shunli was intended both to silence her and send a chilling message to others,’ Mr Ineichen said. ‘So too the more recent enforced disappearance or arbitrary detention of Chinese economic, social and cultural rights defenders such as Mi Chongbiao, Guo Yushan, Su Changlan’.
In addition to highlighting other cases of enforced disappearance of economic, social and cultural rights activists, such as Sombath Somphone in Laos, the report highlights the increased labelling of such activists as ‘rebels, insurgents, terrorists or as being against development’; terms which are used to ‘justify, condone or minimise human rights violations committed against them’.
‘It is imperative that high-level government officials not only refrain from using and condemn such labels when used by others, but also publicly recognise the vital and legitimate role of human rights defenders in promoting economic, social and cultural rights and sustainable development,’ Mr Ineichen said.
Significantly, the report also found that ‘when an individual becomes a victim of enforced disappearance as a result of exercising or promoting economic, social and cultural rights, the enjoyment of those rights is also violated.’
‘Enforced disappearances of human rights defenders are grave human rights violations in and of themselves but also amount to violations of the rights for which they are advocating,’ said Lucy McKernan of the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR), which participated in consultations for the report.
‘In many cases, the effective protection of economic, social and cultural rights relies upon the work of human rights defenders. The enforced disappearance of a housing rights lawyer, for example, may leave a community who relies on that defender much more vulnerable to arbitrary eviction and deter other community members from claiming their housing rights’ Ms McKernan said.
‘Seen this way, enforced disappearances of human rights defenders violate not only the Declaration on Enforced Disappearance and the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, but the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights itself’.
In line with recommendations made in the report and previously advocated by both ISHR and GI-ESCR, States should enact specific laws and policies, and establish dedicated protection mechanisms, to ensure that human rights defenders are able to operate freely and safely and without fear and restriction. States also have an obligation to prevent and eradicate enforced disappearances, whether perpetrated by State or non-State actors, and ensure that any enforced disappearance of a human rights defender is subject to prompt and thorough investigation, with perpetrators prosecuted and punished and victims and their families provided with adequate and effective remedy.
With the report to be considered by the Human Rights Council on 15 September during an ‘Interactive Dialogue’ with the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, ISHR and the GI-ESCR call on States to use the opportunity to highlight and push for accountability in relation to cases of enforced disappearances of ESC rights defenders and to outline the steps and measures that they will take to prevent, punish and remedy any such acts.
This Sunday, 30 August marks the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.
International Service for Human Rights – Michael Ineichen on email@example.com
Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – Lucy McKernan on firstname.lastname@example.org