UN rapporteur voices concern over global increase in killing of rights defenders

12 Feb 2020


Michel Forst listens to one of the presentations at the seminar on Tuesday.
—White Star
Michel Forst listens to one of the presentations at the seminar on Tuesday. —White Star

KARACHI: UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michel Forst said on Tuesday that it was a worrying trend that the killings of human rights defenders were on the rise and, therefore, they had to devise long-term strategies.

He said this while speaking at a seminar titled ‘Rights in the era of globalisation — celebrating the work of human rights defenders’ at the Arts Council here.

Mr Forst said he was not on an official visit to Pakistan but on an academic visit. The difference was when a rapporteur was on an official trip he’s invited by the state to spend a couple of weeks in the country to meet with all stakeholders; and after two to three weeks he presented his report to the government. When there’s no invitation then the travel took place because he’s invited by a group of [human rights] defenders. He would share his views with them, listen to their testimonies and bring them back to the UN. “When not on an official visit, I don’t publically comment on the situation in the country that I’m visiting.”

Speakers at a seminar discuss human rights in age of globalisation

Mr Forst said he was appointed to the mandate in March 2014. He was able to visit more than 60 countries to assess situations globally. The most worrying element that he observed during those trips was the killings of defenders.

The killings were increasing in many countries and regions around the world –– in Africa, Asia and Latin America. While in the past there were random killings, now there were targeted killings to instil fear in defenders. The increasing number of physical attacks was happening with impunity.

He was recently in Latin America where he saw that the impunity was alarming. Those that were responsible for the attacks, the perpetrators, weren’t brought to justice. There were almost zero investigations into the killings in many parts of the world because their justice system was corrupt.

Mr Forst said the other increasing element was the use of campaigns of vilification and defamation of defenders. They were accused of spreading Western values and accused of being against progress, development etc. Restriction on the freedom of movement was on the rise as well.

Another matter of concern, he said, was the use of law against defenders. This was something he saw in many countries where defenders were brought to court by the state and security forces on trumped up charges. Targeting defenders on social media, through their mobile phones and by hacking their Facebook and Twitter accounts was also taking place.

Then there was the element of reprisals. Describing that he said it was like when a defender went to Geneva or New York, returned and was called by the police or intelligence to be questioned.

Mr Forst said defenders had to devise long-term strategies. Two concepts were the key in that regard. First, human rights were universal and indivisible. Second, the best way to deal with [human rights] violations was to prevent them from occurring.

Finally, he gave a four-point checklist to the network of defenders. One, all rights were properly addressed and no group of victims was left out. Two, to look for new legislation; look at how the state implements legislation etc. Third, call all perpetrators to account. Four, you have to be the change that you want to see in the world.

Before Mr Forst’s address, a decent number of human rights activists and social workers narrated their stories and problems to him.

One of them was by a young man called Kamran Mangi from Khairpur. He said his father was a barber. Usually barbers’ sons became barbers. But his father chose to educate his children, because of which one of his brothers grew up to be a neurosurgeon and he himself obtained a master’s degree. This didn’t go down well with the feudal of the area he belongs to. His family became a target of constant abuse and vilification campaign. As a result, his brother became bipolar and one of his other brothers, a doctor, was found dead. He lamented that to date his family couldn’t attend local gatherings.

Karamat Ali, Anis Haroon, Asad Butt, Aquila Ismail, Sandra Petersen and others also spoke. A one-minute silence was also observed in honour of distinguished human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir’s memory whose second death anniversary fell on the same day.

Zulfiqar Shah and Zeenia Shaukat anchored the seminar.

Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2020