Brussels, 9 December 2011 18424/1/11 REV 1 PRESSE 487 – On Human Rights Day, the European Union pays tribute to human rights defenders who dedicate their lives to promoting and protecting people’s fundamental rights around the world. This year, Human Rights Day focuses on the work of human rights defenders, and on how social media can be used to promote and underpin change.

The Arab spring vividly reminds us that human rights are universal and that people everywhere aspire to live in dignity and freedom. In 2011, thousands of people decided that the time had come to claim their rights. Social media carried their message, and allowed activists and individuals to break free from their isolation, to disseminate ideas and to denounce oppression.

Use of social media to promote human rights should not be restricted by governments. The EU has repeatedly and publicly condemned restrictions on freedom of expression and on access to the internet, as well as the arrest of bloggers, witnessed in many countries around the world.

GENEVA (24 November 2011) – Three United Nations independent experts warned that the new legislative amendments recently adopted by the National Assembly of Belarus may severely and arbitrarily restrict the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression, and breach international law.

“These amendments could constitute a direct affront to the exercise of fundamental civil and political rights which are at the core of any democratic society, such as the rights to assembly and to associate freely,” said the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Mr. Maina Kiai.

Mr. Kiai recalled that the National Assembly of Belarus introduced changes to the Laws on Public Associations, Political Parties, Public Gatherings and Administrative Violations, as well as the Criminal and the Election Codes, “in a legislative process that lacked proper consultation with civil society.”

According to the new legislation, organizing assemblies without the prior and explicit consent of the incumbent authorities is now considered a criminal offense, and new reporting liabilities are imposed on organisers concerning the financial resources used for such assemblies. Disseminating information, including through the social media, without any permission for assembly is also strictly prohibited, as well as any public call for initiating assemblies. (more…)

NEW YORK (24 October 2011) – United Nations Special Rapporteur Margaret Sekaggya today presented to the UN General Assembly her fourth report and her essential guide to the right to defend human rights*, a key document aimed at supporting those who stand for our rights by increasing understanding of the 1998 UN Declaration on human rights defenders and awareness on the dangers they face.

“Implementing the Declaration is an essential precondition for creating an environment that allows human rights defenders to carry out their work,” Ms. Sekaggya said recalling that it sets out the rights and responsibilities crucial to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. “However, more than 12 years after its adoption by the General Assembly, the Declaration is not sufficiently known either by Governments or by human rights defenders themselves.”

“The aim of the report is twofold: to increase the awareness of States of the rights provided for in the Declaration and to serve as a practical tool to defenders working to ensure respect for the rights to which they are entitled under this instrument,” she said.

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GENEVA, 27 July 2011 – “It is not easy being a human rights defender; in too many countries it is dangerous, plain dangerous,” said United Nations Special Rapporteur Margaret Sekaggya launching her essential guide to the right to defend human rights*, a key document aimed at supporting those who stand for our rights by increasing understanding of the UN Declaration on human rights defenders and awareness on the dangers they face.

“Despite the efforts to implement the Declaration, human rights defenders continue to face numerous violations,” Ms. Sekaggya said. “I hope that this essential guide, the new ‘Commentary to the Declaration on human rights defenders’, will contribute to the development of a safer and more conducive environment for defenders to be able to carry out their work.”

The ‘Commentary to the Declaration on human rights defenders’ is a 100-page downloadable document which maps out the rights provided for in the Declaration, based mostly on information received and reports produced by the two Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders, Hina Jilani (2000-2008) and Margaret Sekaggya (since 2008), during the past eleven years. (more…)

25/05/2011 08:03 – Thomas Hammarberg´s latest Human Rights Comment – In Belarus, the crackdown on opposition politicians, civil society groups, human rights defenders and media continues. While no less than seven hundred demonstrators were arrested in the evening after the elections of 19 December, several of them have now been brought to court, have faced unsubstantiated charges and received extreme sentences.

The presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, who was badly ill-treated, has now been sentenced to five years of hard labour for having protested against election fraud. Others who stood trial with him got between three and three and a half years in prison.

The charge was “organising mass disturbance”. The court held the well-known activists among the 30 000 peaceful demonstrators at Independence Square responsible for the broken windows on the House of Government caused by a small number of hooligans some distance from the main and orderly demonstration.

False charges against peaceful demonstrators

No proof has been shown for such a link between the peaceful mass demonstration and the violent actions by a few at the doors of the government site. The connection was rather that the police – after having failed to protect this building – responded by attacking the peaceful demonstrators with brutal, excessive force.

The politicised court procedures have been accompanied by stigmatising statements by government officials. Human rights defenders have been accused of being traitors and a fifth column. These attacks acquired a particularly senseless and menacing dimension after the terrorist attack at Minsk metro station on 11 April – as if there was any connection between this awful crime and human rights defence. One of those targeted was Ales Bialiatski, the head of the Human Rights Centre “Viasna”.

Human rights defenders targeted

There have been numerous reported cases of intensified restrictions of general activities of human rights defenders and activists. They have been harassed and repeatedly questioned by law-enforcement officers. Private homes of leading members have been searched, warnings issued against individuals and organisations, and computers and data storage devices confiscated. The offices of major human rights defence organisations, such as Belarusian Helsinki Committee and Human Rights Centre “Viasna”, and of independent media have been searched. (more…)