IBAHRI at the 53rd Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council
With the conclusion of the 53rd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), held from 19 June to 14 July 2023, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) reflects on the key discussions and outcomes of the session, the side events held, and the resolutions passed.
Highlights and key takeaways from the UNHRC 53rd session
Independence of judges and lawyers
The IBAHRI welcomed the adoption of the resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers. The IBAHRI participated and intervened during the informal consultation on the resolution, indicating the Institute’s support for the mandate and stressing the importance of its renewal in a time of increasing attacks against the independence of the legal profession at a global level.
The IBAHRI welcomed the first report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Margaret Satterthwaite, titled ‘Reimagining justice: confronting contemporary challenges to the independence of judges and lawyers’ which was presented at the 53rd session of the UNHRC. The report is forward-looking, addressing several challenges relating to judicial independence and the protection of lawyers, including authorisation and democratic decay, disinformation, the use of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), and the use of artificial intelligence in decision-making processes. During the Interactive Dialogue (ID) on Ms Satterthwaite’s report, the IBAHRI delivered a joint oral statement urging the UNHRC to act swiftly to address the alarming trend in attacks against lawyers and bar associations who are being increasingly targeted, often by states, for performing their professional duties. The concerning situation in Guatemala was referenced by the IBAHRI alongside what is happening in China, the Philippines and Turkey. During the ID the IBAHRI also made a joint statement with Lawyers Rights Watch Canada (LRWC), Lawyers for Lawyers and The Law Society of England and Wales focusing on the situation of lawyers in Colombia, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world for human rights defenders. Judges, justice operators and lawyers are among those experiencing threats and murder.
The IBAHRI issued a joint statement with Lawyers for Lawyers, LRWC and The Law Society of England and Wales on the situation in China, and joined The Law Society of England and Wales in a statement addressing concerning issues for lawyers in Iran. Since September 2022, at least 70 lawyers in Iran have been arrested and at least 16 have been sentenced to prison.
In a joint statement, the IBAHRI and The Law Council of Australia condemned the Taliban’s dismantling of Afghanistan’s independent legal system, contempt for the independence of judges and lawyers, and exclusion of women from legal education, legal practice and the judiciary, which violates their obligations under international law.
The IBAHRI co-organised a side event with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) on current challenges to the independence of judges and lawyers, centring on the issues raised in Ms Satterthwaite’s report. The event was co-sponsored by The Law Society of England and Wales, Lawyers for Lawyers, LRWC, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and the Geneva Bar Association. IBAHRI Senior Human Rights Lawyer Francesca Restifo moderated the event. Following opening remarks from Ms Satterthwaite, the panel featured testimonies of legal practitioners from Belarus, Myanmar, the Philippines, Tunisia, and Venezuela, with concluding remarks by ICJ Legal and Policy Director Ian Seiderman. The IBAHRI, UPR Info and the International Development Law Organization also co-organised a side event with Argentina and the UPR Group of Friends (Argentina, Armenia, Fiji, Norway, Pakistan and South Africa) on the contribution of legal professions to the work of the UNHRC and its Universal Periodic Review.
Freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and civic space
The IBAHRI, along with other CSOs, deplored the adoption of the resolution on countering religious hatred as it seriously undermines all achievements and political efforts so far to protect freedom of expression. The resolution focuses on the protection of religious books. While we are dismayed over the rise of hatred against persons on the basis of their religion or belief worldwide, we recall that international human rights law protects individuals and not religions, and that prohibitions on the defamation of religions fuel division and religious intolerance by shutting down interfaith dialogue, and can facilitate and legitimise human rights violations against religious minorities. By evoking language on the defamation of religions, this resolution seriously endangers the consensus achieved in 2011 Resolution 16/18 and the progress made in that direction. Ahead of the vote, a joint letter was sent to Permanent Missions expressing these concerns. Pictured below is the voting result for this resolution.
The IBAHRI welcomed the resolution on civil society space, which addresses the limitations to civil society participation in decision-making processes and calls on states to ‘enable and institutionalise meaningful online participation in hybrid meetings’. The resolution also acknowledges the significant role played by civil society. However, the IBAHRI regrets that the role of civil society in the prevention of human rights violations, as well as the UNHRC’s prevention mandate, was not highlighted. The IBAHRI welcomed that the resolution emphasises undue restrictions of civic space but is concerned that it does not address the misuse of restrictive laws in a comprehensive manner. The IBAHRI contributed to the drafting of the written resolution, and regrets that the valuable work of lawyers was not duly reflected.
The IBAHRI issued a joint statement with LRWC, Lawyers for Lawyers and The Law Society of England and Wales during the ID with the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Irene Khan. The statement addresses attacks against human rights lawyers and defenders, focusing particularly on Russia, where authorities systematically weaponise laws and courts to repress these voices.
Alongside Article 19 and other civil society organisations, the IBAHRI made a joint statement on freedom of expression, highlighting that those on the frontlines of sustainable development who are exposing corruption and other illegal activities – including journalists, media workers, human rights defenders and lawyers – are facing attacks, censorship and even killings, often with impunity, around the world.
With the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, the IBAHRI co-organised a side event on breaking the cycle of repression against protesters through accountability. The event was moderated by IBAHRI Programme Lawyer Zara Iqbal. Ms Restifo presented the IBA-founded eyeWitness to Atrocities app as a useful tool for securing potential evidence that could be admissible in court. The event was co-sponsored by Costa Rica, Lithuania, Luxembourg, and the United States. Among the panellists were Mr Voule, ambassadors of Costa Rica, Luxembourg and the US, and human rights defenders from Chile, Myanmar and Sudan.
Women’s and girls’ rights
The IBAHRI participated in the annual discussion on women’s rights and delivered an oral statement about the dire situation for girls and women globally, with a particular focus on Afghanistan and Iran, where women and girls are subjected to severe restrictions that ultimately prevent their existence outside their homes. IBAHRI Programme Lawyer Dr Ewelina U Ochab further raised the issue of conflict-related sexual violence as a weapon of war, most recently in Ethiopia and Sudan.
The IBAHRI joined the Law Council of Australia in an oral statement during the ID with the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Morris Tidball-Binz. The statement voiced concerns regarding the incarceration rate – with cases of deaths whilst in detention – of First Nations adults and urged Australia to fully implement the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture by ensuring an effective, adequately resourced preventative mechanism is in place across all places of detention in Australia.
The IBAHRI welcomed the adoption of the resolution on Belarus, which re-mandates the UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus for another year. The UN Special Rapporteur remains critical to civil society, whose options for seeking redress for human rights violations at an international level were further reduced when Belarus withdrew from the first Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The IBAHRI participated in the informal negotiations around the resolution and made an intervention addressing the situation of lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders, including the lack of an independent judiciary in Belarus. All IBAHRI inputs were included in the draft resolution.
During the ID with the UN Special Rapporteur, Anaïs Marin, the IBAHRI delivered a joint statement with the ICJ deploring the widespread and systematic human rights violations in Belarus and condemning the incessant attacks on lawyers and the failure to provide for judicial independence and fair trial guarantees. The IBAHRI recalled that the number of independent lawyers in Belarus has decreased considerably in recent years because of prosecution and harassment. Since 2020, more than 100 lawyers in the country have been disbarred, arbitrarily detained or forced to flee.
The IBAHRI also made a statement with Lawyers for Lawyers and The Law Society of England and Wales focusing on Belarusian lawyers that have been persecuted by means including arbitrary disbarment, arbitrary arrests and detentions, illegitimate prosecutions, or even being listed as terrorists, merely for performing their legitimate professional duties.
Following the presentation of Ms Marin’s report, the IBAHRI co-sponsored a side event addressing the human rights situation in Belarus. The event was organised by Human Rights House Foundation and featured Ms Marin alongside representatives of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, PEN Belarus, and the Belarusian Human Rights House.
With Lawyers for Lawyers and The Law Society of England and Wales, the IBAHRI issued a joint statement on the UPR adoption of Guatemala. The organisations denounced the deplorable situation and stressed that in Guatemala, lawyers are facing improper interference by the authorities and are subjected to or threatened with prosecution when working on politically sensitive cases. Various lawyers or their family members have had to leave the country in response to the threats they have received. The IBAHRI and Lawyers for Lawyers further expressed concerns at reports that around 40 judges and prosecutors have been forced to go into exile to avoid being arbitrarily arrested following unfair trials. The IBAHRI also co-sponsored a press conference on the UPR outcome of Guatemala, with Guatemalan partners presenting their concerns to the press.
During the ID with Ms Satterthwaite, the IBAHRI made a joint statement with The Law Society of England and Wales, Lawyers for Lawyers, LRWC and The Law Council of Australia noting that since 2021, there has been a 70 per cent increase in the number of justice officials facing intimidation and criminal charges for their work on corruption or human rights violations in Guatemala.
The IBAHRI met with two women judges who were in Geneva from Guatemala to raise awareness of the deterioration of the situation in Guatemala for legal professionals, including judges, prosecutors, and lawyers. The IBAHRI organised targeted meetings for the judges in coordination with the International and InterAmerican Platforms Against Impunity including with the UN Special Rapporteur on Judges and Lawyers, Ms Satterthwaite and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
The IBAHRI and The Law Society of England and Wales delivered a joint statement on the situation in Iran during the ID with the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers. The statement denounced lawyers facing arbitrary arrest, detention and ill-treatment and highlighted that at least 129 lawyers have faced arrest since September 2022.
The IBAHRI welcomed the resolution on Myanmar and the Rohingya people as an important step to keep the plight of the Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar high on the agenda of the UNHRC. The IBAHRI regrets that the resolution failed to reflect the atrocity crimes reportedly carried out in Myanmar following the 2021 military coup. The IBAHRI also deplored that the resolution calls for the immediate commencement of repatriation of Rohingya refugees in direct contrast to the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, the UN High Commissioner and the Rohingya people themselves. Conditions for safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return for the Rohingya do not exist in Myanmar, and their return under the current circumstances could lead to the recurrence of the violence that led to their displacement.
The IBAHRI participated in the panel discussion on human rights violations against the Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar, delivering an oral statement about the dire situation of the Rohingya and other religious minorities that continue to be targeted.
Together with the Law Council of Australia, the Law Society of England and Wales and Lawyers for Lawyers, the IBAHRI delivered a joint statement during the ID with the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, condemning the ongoing atrocity crimes by the junta in Myanmar. The military has completely captured the judiciary and lawyers face not only closed courts and a lack of due process, but harassment, intimidation, threats and arbitrary arrest, particularly when defending political cases. The statement urged the international community to call for a moratorium on the death penalty and to use all possible avenues to hold the junta accountable for human rights violations.
The IBAHRI issued an oral statement that welcomed the decision of Peru to accept recommendations regarding, inter alia, the use of force, investigation of complaints in contexts of social protests, persons deprived of liberty, and the independence and autonomy of state entities. In the context of the recommendation to ‘respect the autonomy and independence of the institutions, as well as the prevalence of their areas of competence, to guarantee the full observance of the rule of law’, the IBAHRI called on the country’s government to ensure the autonomy and functional independence of the Peruvian National Preventive Mechanism against Torture and to make available the necessary resources for its functioning.
With Lawyers for Lawyers, the IBAHRI made a joint statement on the UPR adoption of Sri Lanka, highlighting the situation for lawyers, who are increasingly subjected to harassment and intimidation, particularly if they take on politically sensitive cases involving protesters’ rights or minority rights.
The IBAHRI welcomed the adoption of the Item 10 Resolution on Ukraine, maintaining the UNHRC's regular dialogue with the UN High Commissioner on the human rights situation in Ukraine. The work of the OHCHR in Ukraine is critical, complementary to the work of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, and it is important that the UNHRC remains aware of this work.
During the ID on oral presentation of the High Commissioner on Ukraine, the IBAHRI and the ICJ delivered a joint statement condemning the ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity occurring in Ukraine and expressing concerns about the massive disruption to Ukraine’s civilian administration caused by the conflict. The IBAHRI urged UN institutions and Member States to provide robust support to Ukraine’s justice reform process and assist in the effective investigation and prosecution of international crimes in accordance with international fair trial guarantees.
The IBAHRI and Lawyers for Lawyers delivered a joint statement on Venezuela during the ID with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, denouncing that the executive branch is using the judiciary as an instrument of repression and control, which significantly restricts lawyers’ ability to perform their professional duties and enforce clients’ rights. The statement further condemned the fact that prosecutors and judges in Venezuela are failing to investigate human rights violations against opponents of the state and, in some cases, are actively participating in violations against them.
The IBAHRI joined other NGOs in an end of session statement summarising the resolutions from the 53rd session of the UNHRC. Lastly, the IBAHRI regrets that the UNHRC failed to adequately respond to the situations in China, Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Tunisia.
Notes to the Editor
- The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), established in 1995 under Founding Honorary President Nelson Mandela, is an autonomous and financially independent entity, working to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law, and to preserve the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession worldwide.
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The International Bar Association (IBA), the global voice of the legal profession, is the foremost organisation for international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Established in 1947, shortly after the creation of the United Nations, it was born out of the conviction that an organisation made up of the world's bar associations could contribute to global stability and peace through the administration of justice.
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