A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. The man, calling for an end to the recent violence and bloodshed against pro-democracy demonstrators, was pulled away by bystanders, and the tanks continued on their way. The Chinese government crushed a student-led demonstration for democratic reform and against government corruption, killing hundreds, or perhaps thousands of demonstrators in the strongest anti-government protest since the 1949 revolution. Ironically, the name Tiananmen means "Gate of Heavenly Peace". (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)
China sent in tanks to Tiananmen square in 1989 to brutally suppress pro-democracy protests © AP

Human rights are under attack. Within the global movement, it’s widely accepted that the onslaught on the human rights agenda is more ferocious now than ever before.

This is reflected in many ways. The brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrators; new laws to restrict the activities and funding of non-governmental organisations; greater difficulties in raising human rights issues at UN meetings; and harsh retaliation against those who dare to speak out.

Whether murdering journalists in embassies or consulates, provoking violence against dissidents by calling them “enemies of the people” or arresting them in record numbers, the goal is the same: to silence those who have called out governments, or shared information with the UN, on human rights violations.

Two months ago, I met a group of Nicaraguan activists, some of them forced into exile and all of them victims of reprisal by their government for sharing such information with the UN. Listening to their stories, as so often in such cases, it’s hard not to feel both shocked by their suffering and awestruck by their bravery. In Egypt, the savagery of persecution of human rights activists is even more intense.

We estimate that, around the world, several hundred people have been punished for co-operating with the UN since 2016 when I was assigned responsibility for dealing with this issue. Reprisals can take many forms — I’ve been presented with countless stories of travel restriction, threats from security agents, internet abuse, arrest, imprisonment and even torture, rape, disappearance and killing.

The aim is punishment and/or deterrence. And it often works. Despite the staggering courage of many human rights defenders, who persist in exposing violations notwithstanding their knowledge of the likely consequences, others understandably self-censor their actions and words.

Presenting a report on this topic to the UN Human Rights Council annually, I’ve said I find it abhorrent that year after year we are compelled to present before our member states copious examples of brutal and illegal actions taken by some of those countries against individuals whose “crime” was to have co-operated with UN entities set up by those same states to gather information on human rights.

Yet the number of cases we have reported on has increased each year since 2016, with environmental activists, indigenous peoples, women and LGBT+ activists particularly targeted.

States deny with outrage and “shock” having carried out the reprisals we have highlighted. Some — China and Cuba — have even publicly accused me of “violating the UN Charter” by carrying out this mandated task.

Other countries claim to recognise the importance of unmasking acts of reprisal, but deny that the action referred to was in retaliation for working with the UN. Rather, they protest that the individual punished is not a human rights defender but a “terrorist” or a sympathiser with terrorism. Turkey, Israel, the Philippines, Egypt, the Gulf countries, as well as Russia and the central Asian states, all like to argue that what we consider basic human rights work is somehow a major threat to their national security.

Even though reprisals appear to be on the rise, however, there are grounds for optimism. More countries now take the issue seriously. They condemn such acts and warn against the scope of the problem, which many recognise has an impact on the global discourse on any matter related to human rights — development, the environment, protection of civilians in conflict settings and even preventing terrorism.

When people are cowed into silence, governments and inter-governmental organisations are deprived of the full picture, and that makes their actions in any of these spheres less effective.

Increased awareness that there is a growing problem with intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders is vital. But so is the courage to speak out on behalf of the victims of such actions, even if the perpetrators are hugely powerful, such as the Chinese authorities, whose efforts to silence almost anyone from speaking out are often draconian and can extend even into UN headquarters.

There are many brave people who are ready to withstand the threats of their own governments and provide information to the UN, even when the price for doing so can be horrific. Surely everyone at the world body, starting with its member states, has a moral obligation to show at least a fraction of that courage and speak up in defence of those beleaguered front-line defenders.

Such is the nature of the governments that carry out most reprisals that only a firm international response of solidarity can have any chance of halting this ominous trend.

The writer is UN assistant secretary-general for human rights

Letter in response to this article:

UN’s human rights work was never more critical / From Madeleine Sinclair, New York, NY, US

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