In the words of Nahla Haidar: “States have a due diligence responsibility on the protection of women human rights defenders”

Date: Wednesday, December 9, 2020

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Nahla Haidar is a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and a Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). Photo: Courtesy of Nahla Haidar

Nahla Haidar is a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and a Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). She has over 30 years of professional experience mainly within the United Nations System, ranging from social development, to relief coordination, to peace-building and human rights. Ms. Haidar is CEDAW’s rapporteur on reprisals and covers cases on women human rights defenders.

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Women human rights defenders are a big concern to the Committee [CEDAW]. Two years ago, the former Special Rapporteur [on the situation of human rights defenders] with whom we work very closely made a specific report on women human rights defenders and the magnitude of the problem is much larger than we seem to know.

One area is definitely sexual and reproductive health and rights of women. We see this conservative tendency coming up in countries which were supposed to be advanced in this field, so there is a regression. We cannot be blind. There is a regression in women's rights overall, we've seen that in many cases. We have to continue to address it in every way we can as a Committee, as other mechanisms, and partner more with civil society and other institutions.

Since we appointed a designated reprisal rapporteur, we received cases that were clear cut cases of reprisals and intimidation by government officials and we received cases that were by non-state actors, including harassment and intimidation of members of civil society and women human rights defenders.

Due diligence is very important. The state needs to understand that no matter who commits the violation, they have a due diligence responsibility on the protection of women human rights defenders. When we dialogue with state party and we have information about deprivation of liberty, we always raise it in our concluding observation. We don't have any enforcing machine. It's only our concluding observations, our general recommendations that describe to the state what can be done, giving them the way forward to address these issues.

We need to work very closely with the team of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) who deal with reprisals. We had one case [of a woman human rights defender] in your region [Europe and Central Asia], who felt so unsecure that she couldn't go back to her country. We don't have a mechanism for real physical protection. We raise the issue to ensure that these people do not receive more harm, but we need to be there for them. So how can we make this happen if there was no team of reprisals in OHCHR who regularly checks with these cases?

For all advocacy and activism work, there is a big challenge and the pandemic has added to the already complicated situation of the narrowing civic space. The pandemic is used and abused to reduce this right. We used to have this ability to meet physically with NGOs, confidentially, to brief the Committee about the challenges and help us with the shadow reporting. We are missing this very much.

The past two sessions of CEDAW happened online, and of course the interpreter cannot work more than a few hours in a row, so they were very much condensed. What we have usually in our session is a specific, confidential, closed meeting with the NGOs. This we have lost. They can give you three, four or five minutes online, but there is no interaction, no bilateral talk.

I think what is important is to keep up the dialogue and participate in webinars with the civil society. We found that these webinars are useful for advocacy, but for decision making and for really giving the chance to civil society to impact our work, online is difficult.

We have to find a way to maintain our interaction with women human rights defenders and civil society alive because, unfortunately, at one point because of little funding they are receiving, because of lack of presence, they may shrink and fade. We don't want this to happen.”