In the thick of it: a UN resolution to protect and promote civil society space

By Sam Dipnall

I’ve just returned from a wonderful experience contributing to the brilliant team at the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) in Geneva, Switzerland.

The 32nd session of the UN Human Rights Council in June proved a fantastically engaging and challenging crescendo to my internship, with ample scope to really get into the thick of human rights advocacy.

Last year’s Global Intern here, Joel Lazar, provided a great insight into the vastness, scale, and intensity demanded by the Council’s incredibly dense programme of work when it convenes in March, June and September each year. This, my final piece, tries to complement that perspective and shed some light on a single, but significant, aspect of ISHR’s advocacy I was involved in – the new UN resolution on civil society space.


Just a few starting point concepts

When the UN Human Rights Council adopts a ‘resolution’ it issues a strong pronouncement on the human rights matter contained within it. It is also a statement expressing of the political will of its constituent 47 Member States. Resolutions can range in type, be they procedural: concerning appointing or renewing of special procedures mandate holders; country-specific: responding to reports of grave human rights violations, or even; thematic: to protect and develop human rights and freedoms – as is the case with the civil society space resolution, just one of many considered as part of the 32nd session I attended.

Resolutions are normally adopted by the Council through consensus. However, if contentious, a State can call for the Council to take a vote on its adoption. States voting ‘yes’, endorse the content of that resolution, whereas States who vote ‘no’ clearly do not. Its also open to States to elect not take a position and vote ‘abstention.’ States are not bound to incorporate Council resolutions into their domestic law, and retain their sovereignty to choose their own policy direction. That said, resolutions remain a very significant international statement by the peak UN human rights institution, directing States attention towards current human rights issues of global concern, as well as the core values, issues and problems for States to address.

This practical guide is a great resource to learn more about UN resolutions.

Civil society space: towards a new UN resolution

Earlier this year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report containing practical recommendations on the essential ingredients for the creation of a safe and enabling environment for the healthy contribution of civil society. It said,

“Civil society engagement can be viewed as a threshold issue: if space exists for civil society to engage, there is a greater likelihood that all rights will be better protected. Conversely, the closing of civil society space, and threats and reprisals against civil society activists, are early warning signs of instability. Over time, policies that delegitimize, isolate and repress people calling for different approaches or legitimately claiming their rights can exacerbate frustrations and lead to instability or even conflict.”

The report laid the groundwork for a revitalised resolution at the upcoming Council session to internationally promulgate better practices to protect and enhance civil society space. In June, a cross regional core group of five States took up that call. Chile, Ireland, Japan, Sierra Leone and Tunisia proposed a draft resolution building on the previous 2014 resolution. This draft offered high-level principles as well as detailed operative elements, to drive home the importance of States taking steps to better protect civil society space, not shut it down.

To give you a better feel for what I’m talking about, take a look at this paragraph below taken from the text of the resolution. It reads,

“5.         Emphasizes the importance of civil society space for empowering persons belonging to minorities and vulnerable groups, as well as persons espousing minority or dissenting views or beliefs, and in that regard calls upon States to ensure that legislation, policies and practices do not undermine the enjoyment by such persons of their human rights or the activities of civil society in defending their rights;”

When I first read this passage, it reminded me of Michael Kirby’s comments about dissent, albeit in a judicial context. He observed that ‘[a] dissent, expressing disagreement over the outcome of a case, is an appeal to the future.’ He also later reflected on the wider nature and utility of judicial dissent in our legal system,

“… amongst its greatest strengths is the role it gives to judges to state their honest opinions. As citizens, we can agree or disagree with those opinions. But we must vigilantly protect, and cherish, these open procedures. And that includes the expression of disagreement, where it exists.”

In that moment, a contextualising spark linking the resolution to our own Australian legal landscape really drove home for me the cascading long-term effect that this international instrument could contribute towards ensuring that all people across the globe, can take up civil society space to voice disagreement, and to legitimately ask for changes and improvement from their governments.

Above: Calm before and after. Some informal negotiation spaces at the UN.

Getting involved: successful UN advocacy in action

Before States would decide on the fate of this resolution in Room XX of the Council chamber, its text would be honed via what is known as the ‘informal negotiation’ process. Like some UN nomenclature, this term probably belies its true nature. Chaired by the core group of States, the informal process is in facts a highly formalised, and rigorous diplomatic event. It involves States delegations publicly discussing issue-by-issue, and at times, line-by-line the resolution’s content. Here, civil society organisations can also advance their perspectives and ideas as well.

Over five consecutive working days, many States and several civil society organisations, including ISHR, contributed to this informal negotiation of the civil society space resolution. This was a heavily contested arena at times, with the debate drilling down into the precise terminology and substance of the text. This led to some States voicing their disapproval for the text as a whole, and later signaling an intention to table amendments and call for a vote.

Concerned that any proposed amendments could remove key components and substantially weaken the text’s substance, ISHR prepared an open letter to the 47 Member States of the Council. The letter explained the strengths of the text as tabled, and spelt out diminishing effect the proposed amendments could have, if supported. With much outreach and effort, a diverse coalition of 246 civil society organisations from over 90 countries spanning all global regions, co-signed this letter in solidarity.

In the final days (and nights) of the 32nd session of the Council, the resolution on civil society space was indeed challenged and a vote was called on. After much debate and comment, the resolution … passed with 31 States voting ‘yes’, 7 States voting ‘no’, and 9 ‘abstentions.’ Importantly, the majority of States also rejected all of the 13 amendments tabled and individually voted on.

The result of the vote is below, and if you want to know more about the impact of this achievement, ISHR explains it best.

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Conclusion: the next journey awaits

Advocating for human rights abroad will grant you new perspectives and ideas. That was the message my friends, family and colleagues imparted on me when I left Melbourne back in February this year. They were right. What I didn’t anticipate was the profound amplifying effect that interacting with the UN Human Rights Council can have. For me, it proved to be a deeply enriching insight what’s actually going on in the world of human rights, almost everywhere across the globe, with first hand accounts, reports and information from the widest range of participants.

More significantly my internship unveiled for me the potential of the Council to be a highly effective learning institution for States and civil society alike, to both contribute and draw from, and ultimately, improve their own human rights future. But for this for happen, the oft-stated clarion call to international action rings true. That is, all participants, regardless of status, role or title cannot simply just show up at the Palais des Nations and expect good things to happen. It does take meaningful and long-term commitment to engagement, demonstrated implementation at home, and reporting back to share human rights achievements with the global community.

I’d like to express my gratitude towards the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, its supporters and funders of the Global Internship Program, and ISHR for this great experience. I also want to extend special thanks to former Global Intern, and long lost cousin, Kylie Pearce for her kindness and support she offered during my time in Geneva. Finally, my thanks my family for their endless support and belief in my ability.

Best wishes everyone.

Human rights advocacy: enhanced vision and newfound optics

By Sam Dipnall

One of the first French terms I learnt in my travels abroad is avocat. Its one of the translations available for “a lawyer.” Despite my command of French growing slowly, like my front lawn in the heat of summer, a newfound love for this language has also brought with it some new thoughts as well. I’ve recently wondered whether, casting those entry, professional and regulatory differences aside, is there any practical distinction between the role of a lawyer and that of an advocate when it comes to taking up the challenge of human rights work? After some reflection, I think there is, but there is also nothing stopping someone furthering their desire to be both.

This piece then is about identifying some of the hallmarks of effective human rights advocacy I’ve learnt, seen and applied in my time so far at International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) here in Geneva, Switzerland.

Human rights lawyer. Human rights advocate. Is there space to be both?

For me, the position of a lawyer connotes a distinguished set of technical competencies finely applied to utilise the law to give practical and useful legal advice for clients. As students of the law, we spend many hours at university taking in, and learning the principles underpinning this knowledge. Even then, honing the practise of the law to reach a level of great effectiveness remains an ongoing and long-term commitment. Surely, this is a great set of skills to have – but developing the craft of effectively advocating for reform or change on issues impacting human rights is also similarly worthy of close attention as well.

I’m increasingly of the view that through human rights advocacy there is a wider band of opportunity to advance the case and cause of those who cannot do it alone. Yes, lawyers can, for example, be a legal advocate for a client in a negotiation, a tribunal or a court, but thinking beyond the bounds of the traditional lawyer/client relationship, if matched with an inner desire to protect and promote the underpinning principles such as those contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a lawyer can also potentially transcend from helping their individual clients, into also finding ways to help groups of people who collectively encounter difficulties fulfilling their own potential for want of the thoughtless or unnecessary exercise of authority in ways other than class action litigation. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights touches on the nature of this dual idea in discussing the work of human rights defenders, where it says that:

Many professional activities do not involve human rights work all of the time but can have occasional links with human rights. For example, lawyers working on commercial law issues may not often address human rights concerns and cannot automatically be described as human rights defenders. They can nevertheless act as defenders on some occasions by working on cases through which they contribute to the promotion or protection of human rights.

Engaging in human rights advocacy then, opens up the spectrum to drive wider long-term legal, social, economic and cultural reform and change now, and for years to come, because in doing so, the chance to apply human rights norms and approaches can more likely be mainstreamed into everyday work and community life.

In truth, it’s likely that the two roles, both the lawyer, and the advocate, actually benefit and reinforce each other, particularly in the human rights field. We see this through intelligent mixed leveraging of these skill sets in some Australian specialist community legal centres, as well as the increasing development of sophisticated pro bono practices in Australian and international law firms who often have great lawyers and significant resources available. Allied to a genuine collective desire to advance human rights and access to justice, when lawyers and advocates come together the gains can be multiplied and significant. I’m a great believer in pro bono; it ignited my desire to shape my career towards human rights advocacy.

However, what about the practice of effective human rights advocacy? The remainder of this piece will try to offer some useful thought on this.


Providing an enhanced vision through human rights advocacy

The soon approaching 32nd session of the UN Human Rights Council in June will mark its 10th anniversary, and also provide a timely moment for pause and consideration of what can be done to improve its significant capacity to set the standard of human rights worldwide. Because it is a primary international forum to pursue the top-down implementation of international human rights law to advance and benefit future generations to come, it means that developing the Council into a more effective, protective and accessible venue is critical if the Council is to remain a viable and approachable human rights platform for advocates, human rights defenders and representative NGOs to engage with it. This is what a group of twenty NGOs, including ISHR, have called for in the recently published joint civil society paper Strengthening the Human Rights Council at 10 which I’ve been assisting with last month.

I want to profile this paper because it presents an excellent series of ideas for reform, both short and medium term, that are both achievable and could have noticeable impact and benefit. Many of the reforms proposed in this paper could enhance the efficiency and output of this key UN human rights pillar. Although there is no perfect template for framing reform submissions or proposals, I found the method adopted in this paper a source of inspiration for taking a practical and usable approach to advancing structural and institutional reforms in human rights advocacy work.

Opportunities to knock, but on which human rights advocacy door?

At first sight, the UN human rights system might not appear to be all that accessible to local, rural or remote humanitarian fieldwork advocates or human rights defenders to advance their ideas for systemic changes that could benefit vulnerable groups they represent. Approaching the UN system for the first time could well be daunting for someone without access to training, experience, guidance or support. After all, we all can relate to our own desire to knock on the right advocacy door the first time to pursue the best outcome.

In spite of this need however, there may well be a scarcity of specific training, similar to a law degree course, in the vital area of international human rights advocacy work. ISHR’s Human Rights Defenders Advocacy Programme is one great example which I’m now helping prepare for 20 human rights defenders to commence next month, however it increasingly seems to me that many key aspects of human rights advocacy skills are developed primarily through time and experience. Some of these experiences could include consistent engagement and volunteering with an NGO or a local community based group, seeking out the widest variety of project-based experience, getting involved in campaigns and initiatives across the widest spectrum of affected individuals and groups whose human rights are under threat. Actively pursuing this, the door of potential learning about the tools and practise of human rights advocacy comes ajar.

Open letters addressed to states and UN human rights mechanisms, producing discussion papers with ideas for reform and development, writing opinion pieces, offering media statements and comment, using social media, drafting written statements, preparing discussion or talking points, hosting information events, briefings and information events, seeking out opportunities for bilateral informal discussions, assisting the delivery of training sessions – are just a snapshot of the wide range of human rights advocacy projects I’ve contributed to recently.

More importantly, my internship at ISHR has provided me with a rich and diverse range of insights about the practice of planning and carrying out strategic human rights advocacy work, including:

  • Planning and collaboration. Open and free-flowing internal debate about the best approach to advocate for change that will deliver the maximum impact for the concerned or affected group.
  • Time, timing and timeliness. Consideration of the best moment to activate advocacy efforts aligning with various UN institutional timelines is crucial, together with working ahead of known external deadlines.
  • Clarity and precision. The written or spoken message conveyed must have a logical narrative, be correctly legally founded, and propose a workable roadmap towards the desired outcome.
  • Adaptation and reflexes. Human rights advocacy is a dynamic and fluid working environment, things change fast, necessitating an ability to adapt your strategy to the given needs of the moment.
  • Follow-up and reflection. Fostering great working relationships with stakeholders, especially after a push for change is made, is key, as is making the space for reflection on what occurred, why, and how a strategy can be improved.


I visited the wonderful European Court of Human Rights and European Parliament in Strasbourg, France

Human rights advocacy viewed with newfound optics

Kate Gilmore is the current UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights. She recently pointed out in an NGO briefing session I attended that as human rights advocates we can collectively achieve an awful lot without a lot of resources. Her point is unfortunately correct. Unfortunate – in that states funding commitment to making human rights progress is sadly not often reflected with the needs on the ground, but also correct – in that we all need to take an optimistic view that acting as human rights advocates, and defenders, we can all make significant inroads into challenging bad practices and laying out a pathway for improvement. Please take a look at the just released ISHR 2016 Annual Report and see what this great organisation can do with few staff, time and resources, but by fully leveraging the sum of its collective knowledge, skills and abilities in a deliberate, progressive and strategic way.

In trying to answer my own question, this blog has probably rather illustrated that doing human rights advocacy is no simple thing, but that by investing and learning about new methods and approaches, it is one valuable way to contribute to advancing both international and national human rights law and policy. Perhaps, this is actually the key lesson that I will take away from my most recent month at ISHR, it certainly has been a very productive time recently indeed.

Wishing everyone all the very best back home.


Posted by: Castan Centre | May 10, 2016

Third Month at CCR

By Sarah Sacher

One of the most interesting experiences I had at CCR was my visit to the UN NGO committee. Since 2013 CCR has attempted to gain consultative status with the Economic and Social Council. This would allow CCR to have greater participation with ECOSOC and have a platform with the UN to express their views, provide expert reports, and updates to the UN. Attending the NGO committee sessions appears to have become something of a rite of passage for interns, with the previous Castan Intern Katherine Brown attending in 2015, and perhaps the 2017 intern attending next year. This is because every time CCR has applied for consultative status, the application has been deferred.

The process of applying for consultative status requires the NGO committee to ‘recommend’ the application to ECOSOC. When the committee is in session (for a period of two weeks twice a year) it considers new applications for a one hour period each day. Organisations are informed on the day if there application is being looked at on that particular day. A representative of the NGO is required to be there to answer questions by member states before the committee. If no questions are posed about the organisation during that session, the application will be approved by the committee. If questions are posed and answered adequately during the short time frame, the application will be approved by the committee.  However, if there are multiple questions asked, and the questions are not all answered by the end of time period, the application will be deferred. On the times that CCR has been given the opportunity to come before the committee, the latter scenario has occurred.


Now CCR is an NGO that is 50 years old with a stalwart reputation in the United States, so what is the reason for its continued inability to gain observer status on the committee? The answer, unfortunately, is due to the politics at play within the committee, combined with clumsy procedure. When I sat in on the session I was taken aback by the nature of the questions asked of the organisations. Member States continuously asked questions with thinly veiled political undercurrents – when a particular State has an issue with the work of an organisation, it is able to derail that organisation’s application virtually single-handedly, by asking multiple, often irrelevant questions until the time limit is up and the application invariably deferred. The question and answer sessions also often devolve into debate between member-states over the nature of the questions themselves. At the session I attended, I watched my supervisor answer increasingly inane questions on behalf of CCR, until the time on the clock ran out and the application was yet again rolled over.  Unfortunately, the experience of CCR is not unique, and the NGO committee has been criticised on multiple occasions for its politicised approach to NGO gate-keeping.

While the particular experience I had at the NGO session was tainted by the frustrating application process, my overall impression while visiting the UN was one of awe.  I was given a UN pass which made me feel pretty legit and is probably my favourite souvenir from my time in New York (despite the terrible photo of me on the front).  I was able to wonder around the halls, take a look at the General Assembly and the various exhibitions in the building. I sat alongside the diplomats chilling in the cafes, speaking every language imaginable and soaked up the atmosphere. The grandeur of the building itself imbues everything with a sense of gravitas and inspiration. The experience overall was an absolute highlight of the internship.

Before I wrap up, I want to say a few things about the day-to-day environment at CCR. My home throughout the three months was the Ella Baker room, a spacious area filled with computers that housed the interns. My first couple weeks at the organisation coincided with college winter break, after which I was joined by other interns from various parts of the country. The interns and I spent many a day psychoanalysing Donald Trump, breaking down Seinfeld episodes and sharing in the interesting aspects of each other’s work. Beyond the office we spent weekends visiting museums and brunching together in Manhattan. Some of my best memories of my time at CCR involve laughing with the other interns in the Ella Baker room, and I am grateful for the friends I was able to make in addition to all the wonderful work I was a part of.

* These are my own views and not the views of the Center for Constitutional Rights

Posted by: Castan Centre | April 26, 2016

Second Month at CCR

By Sarah Sacher – posted at Centre for Constitutional Rights, NY

The most memorable event of my second month in New York was the East Coast blizzard that came down like a reckoning over the course of a weekend. Trapped in the apartment where I was living with my cousin, we could do nothing but stare out the window as snow blanketed every surface, stopping the city and plunging it into a surreal silence. We had stocked up on supplies (read: chocolate) and spent the two days watching the West Wing on Netflix. I ventured outside for approximately 0.001 seconds which was enough to get the gist:

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Two experiences I had in my second month at CCR illustrate the combination of hope and despair that often colours international human rights work.

The first involves the release of a man called Fahd Ghazy from his detention at Guantanamo bay. Fahd was 17 years old when he was captured along with his father in February 2002. He was one of the many detainees captured by locals who received a cash reward in exchange for handing people over to the U.S military. Fahd spent 14 years at Guantanamo.  In all that time he was never charged.

In 2007, the Bush administration finally cleared Fahd for transfer; he was again cleared for transfer in 2009 under Obama. Yet it was only on January 13 2016 that he was finally moved out of Guantanamo to Oman.  The short film Waiting for Fahd provides an insight into the experience of detention for Fahd and the impact on Fahd’s family.

I was privileged to be at CCR at the time of Fahd’s release. The attorneys held a small, somewhat muted celebration in the office kitchen. As an observer, I was struck by the combination of anger and relief that accompanied this long overdue event. Fahd’s release was facilitated by the intense investment of the CCR staff on the Guantanamo docket, who got to know him and his family on a close basis over many years. His transfer was the culmination of years of litigation and advocacy work. This was a victory no doubt, but the horrible reality and frustration over the length of time it took to rectify Fahd’s wrongful detention was not lost on anyone. In the face of wide spread government mandated and institutionalised human rights abuses, human rights lawyers face a continuous uphill battle. The transfer of Fahd served as an injection of hope and a reminder of the importance and necessity of the work.

Although the number of prisoners at Guantanamo continues to shrink, indefinite detention practises have been replaced by equally unsettling policies aimed at fighting terror overseas. I am speaking of the unmanned drone program that has grown exponentially under the Obama administration. This is an excellent article outlining the nature of the program in Pakistan. Of course it is shrouded in secrecy, but what information is available is highly disturbing. One of the members of the Guantanamo docket at CCR visited Pakistan to view the effects of targeted drone strikes overseas. He was interviewed for a documentary that set for release later this year, and I was able to sit in on the conversation. One of the most alarming facts that came out of the interview is the US policy of targeting lower level individuals believed to be in terror groups, so they can then follow up by targeting their funerals – which are attended by the primary high-level targets. The lack of transparency and accountability regarding the drone program is alarming to say the least, and it is the new frontier in the fight against humanitarian violations by the United States.

The other event that stood out to me in my second month was CCR’s screening of the film Spotlight. During my internship I was able to be part of some of the work CCR does for the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP). CCR was responsible for bringing a complaint against Vatican Officials before the ICC charging Crimes against Humanity, in addition to bringing claims before the UN Committee against Torture and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.  The Spotlight screening is part of CCR’s broader advocacy on this topic – information about CCR’s ongoing work can be found here.

Spotlight follows the investigative team at the Boston Globe that exposed the widespread child sex abuse scandal and cover up within Catholic Archdiocese in Boston. Focusing largely on the nature of the journalistic investigation and the conspiracy to conceal by the Catholic Church, the film also shines a light on the survivors that contributed to the investigation, including the role played by SNAP.

In attendance at the screening of Spotlight was both the founder of the New England chapter of SNAP Phil Saviano and the actor who portrays him in the film, Neal Huff. They both participated in a Q and A after the screening. In addition to talking about their involvement with making the film, they discussed the many international abuse scandals that were exposed after the Boston Globe’s initial story on the Boston community. Phil Saviano said that the movie, despite its grim revelations regarding the continuing impunity of perpetrators, has a “happy ending.” This is because the Boston Globe story was successful in exposing the rampant and institutional nature of the sexual abuse. Both the initial newspaper story and the movie itself set the ball rolling for survivors to speak out and for stronger calls for accountability. The fact that the film went on to win the Oscar in February goes a long way towards the advocacy component of the work directed towards holding the Catholic Church accountable.  The act of drawing attention to the events through the film and validating the experiences of those impacted helps to encourage survivors to speak out, and be better understood. It pushes the message that there is a mountain to climb when it comes to dealing with the repercussions of institutional sexual abuse, and helps to chip away at cultures of silence and denial.  At the end of the Q and A session multiple survivors in attendance spontaneously shared their stories with the audience. That in itself was a profound and intense experience that helped to inform my SNAP related work.







Fresh beginnings: It’s remarkable what you can achieve in just 28 days.

Within the right context, place and time, in an enabling and encouraging working environment, with real leadership and helpful support, through friendly and caring work colleagues, and within the heartland of the global human rights community – it’s true to say that a young professional can, with irresistible fervor and force, engage, grow and flourish. These highly desirable elements I have experienced to the fullest since arriving at International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) in Geneva, Switzerland.

I truly feel a new confidence that I am on a path to reach my potential as a future human rights leader.

In such a short time I have …

  • Played a key supporting role in lobbying and producing reports and analysis on the consultation process and (marathon) final vote on the last available sitting day of the 31st UN Human Rights Council of the adoption of a new and historic UN resolution on protecting human rights defenders working in economic, social and cultural rights. Read about the significance of this international achievement here.
  • Successfully delivered an oral statement on behalf of the National Association of Community Legal Centers (NACLC) at Australia’s Universal Periodic Review at the 31st session of the UN Human Rights Council. Watch me here (my thanks to the Castan Centre for posting this).
  • Taken up a leading role organising the 2016 ISHR Human Rights Defender Advocacy Programme: a two week intensive training for defenders to develop their advocacy skills engaging with the UN human rights mechanisms in June at the 32nd session of the Human Rights Council. Learn more about this here.
  • Drafted new online advocacy publications on current human rights defender issues, like this one, covering all aspects of reportage and internal updates and communications concerning developments at interactive dialogue and panel discussion segments at the 31st session of the Human Rights Council.
  • Learnt how to use and took on the responsibility for updating ISHR’s Twitter account as an effective media platform and real-time advocacy tool to report on live developments.
  • and even met Gillian Triggs, President of the Australian Human Rights Commission!

… and I’ve only just begun.


Above: Just after a successful morning at Australia’s Universal Periodic Review outcomes session. (Left to Right) Tess McEvoy – ISHR Advocate, Gillian Triggs – President, Australian Human Rights Commission, Juli Dugdale – YWCA Global Program Manager, Sam Dipnall – Castan Centre and ISHR Intern, Phil Lynch – ISHR Director


Where am I working, and what do they do?

ISHR is a leading not-for-profit focused on protecting and advancing the rights of human rights defenders – passionate advocates who form a vital component of vibrant and effective democracies and civil society. ISHR forms the pre-eminent global focal point for human rights defenders interacting with the UN human rights system.

It supports human rights defenders by: advocating for them through the vast array of UN mechanisms and procedures; calling out instances of reprisals against them; providing training services and outreach to increase their suite of fieldwork and advocacy skills; leading influential coalitions, working groups and facilitating human rights defender professional networks, as well as facilitating knowledge and news sharing.

What a wonderful organisation it is to be a part of and contribute to every single day.

Leading ISHR is an Australian human rights advocate, Phil Lynch. He’s also former director of the Human Rights Law Centre – and I really enjoy being able to say “g’day” to him without getting a quizzical faced response that I tend to get over here when using that quintessentially Australian introductory turn of phrase.

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Can you define what a ‘human rights defender’ is for me?

It’s certainly not a legal term of art I’ve heard used back home, so what does ‘human rights defender’ mean in the wider international human rights community?

The starting point is the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1998 by consensus, the Declaration confirms that States have a duty to protect, promote and implement all human rights and freedoms and to create the conditions and environment to allows this to be achieved. Many of these human rights States previously have agreed to protect, such as those contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – freedoms of speech, association, opinion and expression etc.

But, the Declaration does more – it confirms the paramount importance of these human rights, and that States must protect and secure these types of human rights through creating a safe and enabling environment for human rights advocates to carry out their important work defending and advancing human rights.

The Declaration does not provide us an itemised list of who is a ‘human rights defender,’ but trying to could actually undercut the durability of this key instrument. Rather, the text provides ample latitude for human rights defenders to be defined by the special effort they make to advance, protect and eliminate violations of human rights – such as by discussing, publishing and disseminating ideas about the observance of all aspects of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to draw public attention to human rights issues: see Article 6.

To this end, Article 18(2) of the Declaration confirms that:

“Individuals, groups, institutions and non-governmental organizations have an important role to play and a responsibility in safeguarding democracy, promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms and contributing to the promotion and advancement of democratic societies, institutions and processes.”

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights puts it well:

“Clearly, it is impossible to catalogue the huge variety of contexts in which human rights defenders are active. However, common to most defenders are a commitment to helping others, a commitment to international human rights standards, a belief in equality and in non-discrimination, determination and, in many instances, tremendous courage.”

More of us are human rights defenders then we think – we just don’t realise it. “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it,” my father use to say to me when I was a young lad. For me, that phrase is a useful prism to understand what it means to be a human rights defender. That is – to have a care for the value or human right lying beyond the subject matter, the actor or the even the message. What matters is protecting the space to say it, such as rights to freedom of opinion, expression and speech – that are reasonably and justifiably limited, of course.

We can all be human rights defenders in some small way, but only if we choose to take up the challenge.

Violent reprisals. Killed in the name of …

Unfortunately, for all those who would step forward and bravely defend fundamental human rights and freedoms, the price paid for their tremendous courage being outspoken is far too high, far too often. In some places around the world, human rights defenders are killed or disappear in deadly acts of reprisals. These reprisals often go without effective investigation or sanction, and are carried out with impunity beyond the rule of law.

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Above: The current UN Special Rapporteur (Independent Expert) on Human Rights Defenders is Mr Michel Forst. Pictured here at an ISHR hosted side-event I assisted at. (Photo courtesy of ISHR)

The problem is worse then what you might first think.

Berta Caceres, an environmental and land rights defender, was murdered at her home in Honduras during this session of the 31st Human Rights Council that I worked at. Please watch and read ISHR’s statement made during the annual interactive dialogue session with the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders (the UN expert who reports back to the Council). Violent reprisals such as this underscore the critical need for States to ensure that human rights defenders operate in safe and enabling environments.

There is no logical explanation for any form of reprisals. They must stop.

Be a human rights defender.

I think that we take the civil space to stand up and advocate for our human rights for granted in Australia. It really is something we ought to cherish and protect.

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Above: I spotted the Dalai Lama providing a free public lecture near the ISHR office. Just a normal lunchtime in Geneva I suppose …

Without a bill of rights, few constitutional protections (remember, your freedom of political communication is only an implied right), limited statutory protections, such as the Charter – in the main, Australians’ right to stand up and engage in human rights defender advocacy exists, and deadly reprisals thankfully do not occur.

Definitely, more work certainly needs to be done to safeguard our democracy, and protect against legal encroachments on our human rights, with some other trends, such as Commonwealth government funding cuts preventing community legal centres undertaking advocacy and law reform work illustrative of this. But speaking very generally, human rights defenders actions are only limited only in justifiable ways we understand, such as laws preventing incitement to hate or discrimination, for example.

I’ll expand on the role of human rights defenders within a functioning civil society more over the coming weeks. But for now, do please take a look at the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and if you’re more interested, the authoritative international commentary containing case studies and examples. Then, think for a moment about who in your community, or close to you, is a ‘human rights defender’ and what role they have to play in your local economic, social or cultural space. Go on, be a human rights defender.

Take care back there in Australie.

Sam Dipnall

Posted by: Castan Centre | April 7, 2016

First Month at CCR

By Sarah Sacher

From the instant I walked into the CCR lobby, my expectations were pleasantly confounded. Posters hung all over the walls, loudly advocating various causes from Black Lives Matter to Palestinian rights. Every office door was similarly adorned with colourful protest signs and radical calls to action. The staff were dressed casually and the there was a documentary crew setting up in one of the rooms to interview an attorney about the impact of drone warfare. The effect left no doubt in my mind that the Center for Constitutional Rights is an activist organisation first and foremost.

As I settled into the internship I learned about the “movement lawyering” philosophy that underlines CCR’s approach. The CCR mission statement advocates “the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.” The achievement of social justice is the primary driver of CCR activities in and out of the courts, and the organisation is always looking at the law from different angles, devising strategies that push it in new and progressive directions. For example, CCR pioneered the use of the Alien Tort Statute as a tool to sue human rights abusers domestically in the late 70’s, effectively starting a new legal accountability movement. Every case CCR takes on is motivated not necessarily by “winning”, but by drawing attention to human rights issues in the service of broader social change.

I was placed on the International Human Rights docket, which does not do anything by halves, taking on projects with goals that range from indicting George Bush to suing the Pope. In my first week I read through material on the use of torture by the CIA so that I could be up to date with the work CCR does on US torture accountability in the international arena. My reading included the 525 page “executive summary” of the 2014 Senate Torture Report which became a kind of dark bible for me as I delved into writing memos on the detention and rendition program. One of CCR’s strategies is to use universal jurisdiction legislation in a range of countries to hold US torturers accountable for their actions. Lengthy cases in Spain, Canada, Italy and France have been opened with the aim of targeting key members of the Bush administration. Because the US is not a member of the International Criminal Court and has not prosecuted anyone for torture abuses, these cases are a final mechanism for criminal prosecutions to be held. Even as these cases become mired in procedural or logistical problems, they are still a powerful advocacy tool that can draw attention to US human rights abuses and the continuing impunity of key perpetrators.

While the subject matter of my first project was highly disturbing it felt incredible to be working on such an important matter. Especially as the opportunity to actively work on torture accountability is one I would likely not come across in Australia. The one year anniversary of the torture report rolled around on December 9th providing some depressing momentum to the task at hand, as little concrete change has resulted since it was first declassified.

In my first month I also participated in a range of different matters outside of torture, each providing me with an education and insight into human rights issues and the unique litigation strategy of the human rights docket. This included less ‘traditional’ legal work, for example I learned all about alternative transitional justice models while contributing to the work CCR does for the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP). I also picked up fascinating insights via osmosis, by sitting in on staff meetings where topics such as strategies for Guantanamo and the work CCR does for the NGO SMUG (“Sexual Minorities Uganda”) were discussed.

One highlight was attending CCR’s public screening of Citizenfour, an Oscar winning documentary on Edward Snowden and the breaking of the NSA story by Glenn Greenwald and other journalists. The film had special significance to me as I wrote my thesis in 2015 on metadata surveillance in Australia and the US. One of the things that struck me about the film was the calculated, calm and non-self-aggrandising approach Edward Snowden took to making the decision to release NSA information. He repeatedly stated in the film “I’m not the story” and insisted the focus remain on NSA practices. Of course, that statement took on some irony in the context of a film that largely focused on him and his personality, but it nonetheless provided insight into the make-up of an individual by turn lauded as a hero and derided as a traitor. After the movie one of the attorneys participated in a Q and A session where he gave very practical advice on how to cover your tracks on the internet. Writing my thesis had already filled me with intense paranoia about being watched by shady government agencies, and this session absolutely cemented that paranoia. Though I suppose it is not paranoia if it is definitely happening at all times.

Living in New York while working at CCR was a dream come true. Undeterred by the wintry weather I spent my first few weeks exploring Manhattan on foot, top to bottom, usually on the lookout for drinkable coffee. I knew I had blended in with the locals the first time I angrily yelled at a bike rider for almost running me over at an intersection and got cheered by my fellow pedestrians. Next time I will write about living in New York and some of the unique opportunities that arose from being part of an NGO in the city, including my day attending sessions at the UN.

Posted by: estellepetrie1 | March 29, 2016

Why a dialogue?

I arrived back from Europe two weeks ago, and have started the next phase of my internship back in the office at KL. First task, analysing the Concluding Observations of the CEDAW Committee which were coincidentally released around International Women’s Day, perfectly timed with my return to Malaysia.


Stop Diskriminasi mug at work


You know you are becoming a real UN nerd when you see the CEDAW Committee recommend to Japan that they ratify ‘the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children’ and you note it down as ‘Palermo Protocol on trafficking’.

I remember when I first arrived in Kuala Lumpur all the acronyms flying around the IWRAW-AP office were overwhelming. On top of this the UN experience added a healthy serving of Frameworks, Conventions, Protocols, Optional Protocols, Concluding Observations, Standards and General Recommendations. Welcome to the constellation of international human rights law instruments. Luckily, as a budding international law nerd I am becoming increasingly familiar with this language.

Now, concerning the Concluding Observations themselves, normally this type of document might make for fairly dry reading, or can get miserably repetitive. In Iceland’s Concluding Observations for example the Committee ‘is concerned about the continuing existence of stereotypes concerning the roles of men and women in the family and society’. A sad reality in most if not all countries.

However, the devil is in the detail. Or rather, the thrill for UN and human rights nerds is in the background context to such statements from a UN treaty body.

At this point I refer to my copious rapporteur notes from the dialogue with Iceland. In discussing Article 5 of the CEDAW the issues facing Iceland were a cut in funding to civil society organisations after the global financial crisis, limiting the capacity of such organisations to run programs that target the elimination of stereotypes. Stereotyping is also strongly related to violence against women, a persistent phenomenon in Iceland where problematic culture within the police force is an exacerbating factor. Recommendations can’t be understood in isolation.


Obligatory UN chamber shot, not the actual CEDAW room!

Further, experiencing the CEDAW session and analysing the outcomes for me underlined the importance of the process as a dialogue.

Firstly, sitting in front of the Committee forces states to engage with the issues of discrimination which are raised in a way that is both more nuanced and frank. As I described in a previous post, my preparatory work for the session involved reading state reports, the subsequent ‘List of Issues and Questions’ (LOIQ) from the Committee and the states’ replies to the LOIQ. It was incredibly frustrating to notice states failing (read: avoiding) addressing the specific concerns of the Committee.

Tanzania was an interesting example of how direct dialogue is more revealing than the submitting of reports. Throughout the dialogue with Tanzania the topic of persistent discrimination under customary law was raised, such as with widows’ inheritance rights (the subject of a Communication to the CEDAW Committee under the Optional Protocol ). Customary law is afforded special recognition by the ‘formal’ law of Tanzania and in the dialogue it was clear the state was concerned to strike a balance between communities’ traditional cultural practices and the principles of non-discrimination found in CEDAW, and in their own formal legislative instruments.

There were two Committee members from African Countries who almost counselled the state delegation on amending customary laws. I recall one member highlighting the possibility of using law as ‘a tool of social engineering’ which could lead the way in eliminating discrimination. These powerful conceptual statements about interactions between law and custom were likely only possible in that particular format of verbal engagement.

The second reason that the process of a physical dialogue is important is for the opportunity it provides to NGOs and civil society to engage with the Committee. That was the major object of my work in summarising and analysing the Concluding Observations.

My notes throughout the weeks documented the different elements of NGO lobbying and engagement including their oral statements to the Committee in the opening session and their informal lunch briefings. I compared the content of the Concluding Observations with the information and analyses which NGOs gave the Committee.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my impression after trawling all of these documents and notes was that NGOs can and do have an effect on the outcomes of the session, that is, substantive recommendations are made on issues they raise.

Sometimes, we might suppose glaring issues will be covered regardless of NGOs’ presence, such as lack of compensation for Roma women who were victims of forced sterilisation in the Czech Republic. However, it was apparent that hidden or “niche” issues highlight by NGOs were picked up by the Committee. An example includes the above mentioned Police culture issues in Iceland, or the Czech Republic’s lack of informed consent and choice around childbirth procedures provided to women.

In addition, even for those issues which are bound to be covered NGOs can influence the specific way in which the state is questioned or the concluding observation is targeted and phrased.

I could go on ad nauseam about the invaluable on the ground insight which NGOs can provide and elaborate further on their work, but this post is already far too long. Instead, I leave with a link to this article by Imogen Wall last week about Somali activist Degan Ali decrying the huge portion of humanitarian funding which goes to international organisations to the detriment of local groups working directly on the ground.

Posted by: Castan Centre | March 15, 2016

American ideals, universal values.

by Geerthana Narendren

It’s been almost six weeks since I packed my bags and left Melbourne for New York. Like most people, experiencing New York for the first time was surreal. It’s truly the capital city of the world.  Whether it be walking across the brooklyn bridge, enjoying one of the famous art galleries or taking in a broadway show (I’ve seen five so far!), there is never a dull moment.

After spending my first four days ticking places off my tourist ‘to do’ list and combatting jetlag, I arrived the day after Martin Luther King Day for my first day at Human Rights First.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of working at a dynamic and well-respected NGO in New York City.  Human Rights First is a nonprofit founded in 1978 to advocate ‘American ideals’ including America’s longstanding commitment to human rights and the rule of law.  HRF has several different teams including The Refugee Representation Program (‘RRP’) team, which is where I work. The RRP team is filled with people from all walks of life, who have a diverse range of experiences. Some are former commercial lawyers, lifelong human rights advocates and even one Pulitizer Prize winning journalist, all bound together by a commitment to help asylum seekers navigate the labrynth that is U.S legal system.

In terms of my work at HRF , undoubtedly the most challenging part has been getting my head around U.S asylum law. Similar to Australian asylum law, U.S asylum law is derived from international law, principally the Refugee Convention and Protocol.  The major difference in U.S asylum law is that the process of applying for asylum depends on whether you have anaffirmative or defensive asylum claim.

If an asylum seeker is detained while trying to cross the U.S-Mexico border or they are found by the Immigration Officials to be living in the U.S without authorization before making their asylum claim, the asylum seeker is placed in ‘removal proceedings’ and makes a defensive claim to stop their deportation. Their case is heard by an immigration judge at a merits hearing, who decides to accept or deny their asylum claim.

If an asylum seeker enters the U.S with a valid visa (i.e. a student visa) and applies for asylum before their visa expires or they are found by Immigration Officials to be living in the U.S without authorization, the asylum seeker goes through the affirmative process. In the affirmative process, asylum seekers are given an interview with an asylum officer who will decide to grant or deny their request . If the asylum officer does not grant the asylum claim based on the interview, the individual’s application becomes a defensive application.

If that sounds confusing – it’s because it is! The process is by no means ‘user friendly’ and changes constantly, especially due to the politicised nature of immigration policy in U.S politics at the moment.  Trying to become familiar with the naunces and idiosyncracies of U.S asylum law (such as the one year filing deadline) I can’t help but wonder how asylum seekers who aren’t fortunate enough to have legal assistance must feel trying to claim asylum. I can only imagine they would feel overwhelmed, scared and nervous about explaining to an asylum officer or immigration judge some of their most personal and traumatizing experiences.

Knowing this makes my time at HRF seem even more valuable and worthwhile. Through providing free legal assistance and mentoring lawyers from New York law firms to take on asylum cases pro bono, HRF is able to make a positive and tangible impact on the U.S asylum process.  This is extremely important as it’s been proven that with legal representation, asylum seekers are five times more likely to win relief.  In fact, HRF has had a favourable outcome in ninety percent of its representation cases. I’ve been lucky enough to work on some of these cases and see first hand the impact that HRF has on asylum seekers’ lives. It’s been an incredible experience to work alongside the RRP team and I can’t wait to see what challenges and new opportunities the next few weeks brings.


Posted by: estellepetrie1 | March 9, 2016

It’s International Women’s Day but let’s not get complacent

How very fitting that my internship with an international women’s rights organisation should fall in the same period we mark International Women’s Day. It has been celebrated since the early 1900s, with a theme selected for the day since the mid-90s. This year the theme is #pledgeforparity, although the hashtag that seems to be trending on twitter is actually #internationalwomensday (in three languages).

What better time for a little reflection on women’s rights than today. The IWD website about page notes that in 2016 greater presence of women in the workplace, politics, education and other areas of life might lead to the view that ‘all the battles have been won’. Add to this that many countries have enacted laws to prohibit discrimination against women and there is at least a seemingly greater awareness of issues such as violence against women or gender pay gaps, to give examples.

If I wasn’t already highly critical of this kind of complacency around women’s rights, the experience of attending the CEDAW session has reinforced my complete conviction that gender equality is a long way from being achieved, for both developed and developing countries.

Rights instead of Flowers, Tbilisi Georgia, photo David Mszinarishvili and Reuters

Rally to mark IWD in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photograph: David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

Consider Japan, with its developed economy, where 42.9% of women are ‘working poor’ (reported by Japan NGO Network for CEDAW) and the gender wage gap according to the OECD in 2013 was 26.6%, 10 percentage points higher than the OECD average. In Australia is was 18% in 2013, also above OECD average.

Japan also uses a management practice which creates categorises employees as either ‘main career track’ or ‘general track’. Main career track work longer hours, are expected not to refuse transfers but are also considered more for promotions. Women are overwhelmingly general track workers, the long hours and transfers impossible to balance with home and caring duties. In Japan and countries across the world labour segregation is a persistent issue, both horizontally and vertically. As Eva Cox writes in this piece on The Conversation, the wage gap is also a result of biases and irrational assumptions about the value of certain types of work, so that industries which are highly feminised are not generally well paid.

However, should we really be complaining, surely the fact that women can work today is a hard fought victory for women’s rights we must celebrate. I am reminded of a chapter in Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought which details the law against married women working in Australia, and its eventual dismantling.

Certainly, the gains give us hope, but improvement in women’s access to education, health, employment and political representation is perhaps both an asset and a hazard. As women’s rights “enters the mainstream” (ridiculously to think gender equality was ever a fringe idea) we must guard against both complacency and simplistic or reductionist approaches to women’s rights.

Harriet Minter wrote in The Guardian today bemoaning the IWD theme of ‘pledging for parity’. Instead of seeking to reach parity with men, we should be aim to ‘progress’ and improve the lot of men and women. Whilst arguments which counterbalance women’s disadvantage and discrimination with examples of men’s hardship can be irritating (ignoring that women are victims of centuries of structural subordination), I do agree with Minter insofar as ‘parity’ as a defining theme for IWD is a little simplistic.

Women are working more than ever today. However, issues such as horizontal and vertical labour market segregation, management practices which cause de facto discrimination and greater numbers of women in part time or low paid work cannot be cured with a swift pledge to ‘gender parity’. The IWD website encourages businesses to ‘help women and girls achieve their dreams’ or ‘challenge conscious and unconscious biases’ amongst other things. These are worthy initiatives to raise awareness and change cultures.

However, perhaps what is missing is a concurrent discussion of concrete actions and numbers, such as effective discrimination complaint mechanisms or legislated quotas to ensure more rapid advancement towards gender equality. Consider Iceland’s structured parental leave scheme which allots 3 months of non-transferable leave to each parent and has resulted in over 90% of fathers taking parental leave since 2007 (according to the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association and Icelandic Human rights Centre report to CEDAW). Such an uptake of parental leave was not achieved through PR campaigns and feel good posters, but government action.

So whilst I am excited we can celebrate International Women’s Day let’s make sure it is not just a celebration but a call for concrete measures and actions to advance gender equality.

Posted by: estellepetrie1 | February 24, 2016

In the midst of CEDAW

At the UN it sometimes seems like the most authoritative thing you can do is quote statistics. Allow me to provide some of my own as a quick summary of my time so far in Geneva, at the 63rd Session of the CEDAW Committee.

I have sat in on over 25 hours of ‘constructive dialogue’ between five states and the Committee with at least 10 more hours to go, I have witnessed 5 lunch briefings between NGOs and Committee members, smash typed approximately 130 pages of rapporteur notes as part of my intern role, consumed at least 20 cups of (terrible) UN coffee, got lost twice in the Palais des Nations (please observe the many winged labrynth here) and met some courageous, tenacious national NGO members from 8 countries. I also twice slipped and fell publicly in the snow in the space of about 20 minutes one day, but let’s not talk about that particular statistic.


So, three quarters of the way through IWRAW-AP’s Global to Local program, what have I learned? Apart from the importance of proper grip in shoes, I have also sharpened my interpretation skills for the language of bureaucratic-government-speak.

Jokes aside, the clearest development has been in my understanding of the role of UN treaty bodies, not only in assessing state compliance with international conventions but in setting international norms and nuancing the contents of international law. This is the ‘progressive interpretation’ I mentioned last time.

Last week, an example of such evolving interpretation included the question of whether states should regulate or criminalise sex work to prevent discrimination against women. The namesake of the ‘Swedish model’ on sex work was reviewed by the Committee and the state was asked to analyse and comment on the success or otherwise of their approach.

It was clear where the delegation for Sweden stood on the matter, hopeful to export their approach to Europe and the world. It will be interesting to see how the Committee deals with the matter in its Concluding Observations.

Another emerging area in which CEDAW might be applied is in considering the extra-territorial obligation of states to ensure non-discrimination. Again, the dialogue with Sweden provided the forum. The Committee posed questions to the state on the measures they had taken to ensure that their policy for their international arms trade considered the potential use of weapons in perpetrating gender based violence against women.

In addition, the state party were asked to explain how they ensured private companies based in Sweden but operating overseas (Ericsson and H&M to name some examples) did not discriminate against or exploit women in their manufacturing supply chain. Both extra-territorial obligation and state regulation of businesses to protect human rights are more recent progressions in the scope of the Committee’s questioning.

Again my head is bursting with ideas for future reading and research and my time in Geneva will serve as good blog fuel for some time to come. Unfortunately this is all I can write for now, as each day I dash from constructive dialogues with states, to gulped down soup for lunch to lunchtime briefings and back to dialogues. I can’t wait to write about the impact and activities of NGOs in the treaty body process, and then maybe sleep a little.

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