General: UN Human Rights Council side events call for release of detained rights defenders and enhanced protection of journalists in MENA region


The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and partners carried out advocacy at the 41st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva in June and July 2019 that was designed to get support from UN member states to help free detained human rights defenders and enhance the protection of journalists across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). They also highlighted the need to end impunity for the  murder.

The first event on 27 June came on the heels of extensive media attention for a highly critical report by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Dr. Agnes Callamard, who investigated the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 at the Saudi embassy in Turkey. The packed event, “Justice for Khashoggi: Enhancing the UN’s Impact in Ending Impunity”, was organised by ARTICLE 19, and co-sponsored by GCHR, the Committee to Protect Journalists, ALQST, Right Livelihood Award Foundation, MENA Rights Group, and the International Commission of Jurists. (see photo above.)

Event partners addressed steps the UN and states must take to enhance efforts to end impunity. The moderator, Barbora Bukovska of ARTICLE, began by asking how the UN should respond to extrajudicial killings of human rights defenders, activists and journalists. Dr. Callamard called on the HRC or the Security Council to pass a resolution to establish a standing mechanism to respond to targeted killings in order to establish the facts of the murder of Khashoggi and other journalists and rights defenders. Meanwhile, she recommended the Secretary General appoint criminal experts to further investigate Khashoggi’s, and other journalists’ murders. While many states expressed support for her report, none have yet stepped up to lead an effort to hold Saudi Arabia accountable. Callamard stated that if the international community does not take action to hold perpetrators accountable for crimes such as murdering journalists, then states’ silence may render them participants in a crime by failing to address impunity and call for accountability.

David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, noted that states are often hesitant to condemn Saudi Arabia for diplomatic or agenda-related reasons. As a result, they rely upon citizens and activists to bring pressure. What makes Khashoggi’s murder important is that it not about one man’s murder, but about the world’s ability to act and end impunity and demand accountability. At the event, Yahya Assiri, the founder and Director of ALQST, called attention to the level of repression in Saudi Arabia, noting that Khashoggi’s murder is an example of the steps the government will take to silence its critics. Detained women human rights defenders Samar Badawi and Nassima Al-Sadah were in court in Saudi Arabia the day of the event, having been in prison since July 2018.

Drawing on his experience with the Council of Europe, Special Rapporteur Pieter Omtzigt focused on the significance of killing journalists and drew a parallel with Malta and the killing of anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. He stressed that the international community cannot let these killings fade into oblivion. In order to keep the focus on such terrifying crimes an effective mechanism must be established that would, among other things, investigate the killings of journalists. Ongoing investigations have the dual purpose of not only ideally revealing the truth, but of keeping the issue in the public eye.

In another side event on 3 July focused on the United Arab Emirates (UAE), partners focused on “Silencing Dissent: The Systematic Persecution of HRDs in the UAE: What Role for the UN Mechanisms?” The event was moderated by GCHR’s Khalid Ibrahim and featured Gerald Staberock of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), Susan Wilding of CIVICUS, Michael Khambatta, formerly of the Martin Ennals Award, Rawda Ahmed of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and Antoine Madelin of FIDH.

Speakers talked about the well-documented reports of attacks, threats, intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders by the State Security Apparatus (SSA). They have suffered for their peaceful and legitimate human rights activities in addition to their engagement and co-operation with international human rights systems. This constitutes in itself an attack on public freedom, UN human rights values and principles, the rule of law, and the international mechanisms themselves. The side event focused on those who have been targeted repeatedly since 2011, in particular prominent human rights defender and member of GCHR’s Advisory Board, Ahmed Mansoor, among many other human rights defenders who remain in prison such as Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith, Dr. Mohammed Al-Roken, Dr. Mohammed Al-Mansori and Osama Al-Najjar.

The event ended with a united call to free Mansoor, who is serving a ten-year sentence for his human rights work, in addition to all detained Emirati human rights defenders. The panelists also recommended creating some guidelines on preventing reprisals and enhancing protection of at-risk human rights defenders; and secondly, they reminded the UAE of its responsibility to end the pattern of human rights violations, such as reprisals, and to prevent, protect against, investigate and ensure accountability for all these illegal acts committed by various parties, including the security services.

Finally, GCHR and partners made a call to action at a side event on 4 July 2019: Challenges Faced by Journalists in MENA region: Act Now!” Speakers were Rawda Ahmed of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Nada Awad of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), Mousa Rimawi of MADA Center for Development and Media Freedoms, Tony Mikhael of Maharat Foundation and Ma’aly Hazzaz of UNESCO. The event was moderated by GCHR’s Khalid Ibrahim.

Speakers explored the current situation of journalists in the MENA region and particularly in seven countries, namely Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen. Some of the threats to journalists include working under occupation in Palestine, trying to survive the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen, and witnessing fierce battles with Da’esh which is not over as yet in Iraq. In addition, these imminent dangers are compounded by the severe shrinking of civic space available for free and independent journalism in the other countries.

In light of increased pressures on journalists in the MENA region and their high-risk vulnerability, the partner NGOs proposed concrete recommendations directed to the international community, including UNESCO, for actions to improve media freedom and scaling up successes during this year, the next year and beyond.  Watch a short video (in Arabic) about the event prepared by Maharat Foundation at

Finally, GCHR Executive Director Khalid Ibrahim also participated in a meeting entitled “Towards a common civil society approach to the 2020 review of UN treaty bodies” which was held between 1 and 2 July 2019. The meeting was organised by the Centre for Civil and Political Rights (CCPR) and the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR). Participants discussed UN resolution 68/268 on “Strengthening and enhancing the effective functioning of the human rights treaty body system” and its implementation, current political climate, updates from New York and Geneva and review of the current options of the Treaty Bodies’ strengthening process. Adopted in 2014, Resolution 68/268 comprises two review mechanisms:

  • A biennial report by the UN Secretary-General on the state of the treaty body system;
  • An overall review of the effectiveness of the measures taken pursuant to resolution 68/268 no later than 2020.