Doing the two-step on uneven platforms: Successes and setbacks of human rights advocacy

First published by, Canada’s online legal magazine, on 30 December 2020

Human rights advocates are sometimes asked whether human rights advocacy works. Most human rights defenders answer in the form of anecdotes, because empirical research on effectiveness is scarce in a world where human rights advocates have limited resources and are increasingly in danger. This report reviews some 2020 successes and setbacks experienced by the pro bono advocates of Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (LRWC). The year 2021 will require renewed energy and resources for visionary and persistent human rights advocacy that makes a positive difference to people at risk.

The gap between international law and reality

It is undeniable that human rights advocacy has achieved remarkable transformations in international human rights law over decades and centuries as evidenced by the very existence of international law abolishing slavery and prohibiting genocide, torture, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and discrimination. Such achievements would not have occurred without tenacious human rights advocacy.

Since the birth of the United Nations (UN) 75 years ago this year, the world has seen dramatic development of international human rights norms and treaties, many of which have been ratified by the majority of countries. Yet, there are widening chasms between legal norms and on-the-ground realities experienced by those whose fundamental rights are being violated.

In 2020, global shrinkage of civic space was dramatically marked by crackdowns on peaceful assembly, criminalization of dissent, and judicial harassment of human rights defenders. Those who advocate or report on environmental or land rights issues are at particular risk, especially Indigenous and women defenders. The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated risks faced by defenders, particularly those who are unjustly detained in crowded or unsanitary prisons.

Human rights advocates, including those in Canada, work on uneven platforms as they encourage governments or corporations to comply with international law and standards. Successes are marked by slow, up-and-down steps forward. Too often there are steps backward.

Iran’s Nasrin Sotoudeh: To and from prison and back again

The situation of Iranian women’s rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, and other jailed defenders in Iran illustrates the gap between law and practice. Iran ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1975. This means Iran has internationally binding legal obligations to guarantee equal rights of women and men to life, liberty and fair trials; freedom from torture and ill-treatment; and freedoms of thought, expression, and assembly. The realities of human rights defenders in Iran belie these commitments.

Nasrin Sotoudeh has defended women facing criminal charges for removing their head coverings in public to protest Iran’s compulsory hijab laws. As a result of her advocacy, Nasrin Sotoudeh was herself arrested and imprisoned in June 2018. LRWC has written a number of letters on her behalf and for other imprisoned Iranian advocates. On 13 March 2019, LRWC wrote a letter objecting to her imprisonment after two unfair trials in absentia on 30 December 2018 and 9 March 2019. She is now serving a sentence of 38 years and 148 lashes based on spurious charges including “assembly and collusion against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” “encouraging corruption and prostitution,” and “appearing at the judiciary without Islamic hijab.” UN bodies have confirmed that lashing constitutes torture and is prohibited under all circumstances. The sentence resulted in international outcries for her release including several oral statements by LRWC at the UN Human Rights Council.

In early 2020, Iran granted temporary releases to thousands of prisoners to reduce risks of COVID-19. However, many human rights defenders and lawyers in Iran, including Nasrin Sotoudeh, were excluded from release and remain in detention, facing increased risk of contracting the virus due to crowded, unsanitary prison conditions.

On 11 August 2020, Nasrin Sotoudeh began a hunger strike in Evin prison to call for the release of political prisoners at risk of contracting COVID-19. She ended her hunger strike on 25 September 2020 after 46 days, because her health deteriorated.

On 7 November 2020, human rights advocates around the world were relieved when Nasrin Sotoudeh was released temporarily on medical grounds. After her release, it was confirmed that she had contracted COVID-19 in prison. Even so, she was sent back to prison on 1 December 2020. Worldwide advocacy now involves dozens of human rights lawyers’ organizations around the world seeking her release along with the release of other defenders and urging Iran’s compliance with the multilateral treaty obligations it has undertaken.

Saudi Arabia tortures women who successfully advocated to end the ban on women driving

In June 2018, the world celebrated when Saudi Arabia granted women the right to drive. Yet, the very women who advocated to end the driving ban are in prison, including Loujain Al-Hathloul, who has been reportedly been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual harassment. Loujain Al-Hathloul has also been among the women defenders seeking an end to Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system. In December 2020 she was sent before Saudi Arabia’s Special Criminal Court, which was designed for terrorism cases but used to try human rights defenders under an overbroad definition of “terrorism.” She and several other defenders are charged with “conspiring with foreign organisations hostile to the kingdom.” On 28 December 2020, Ms. Al-Hathloul was convicted and sentenced to five years and eight months imprisonment. The charges against her included speaking with foreign diplomats, journalists and international human rights groups about her case.  The Court suspended of a portion of her sentence, and she could be released in March 2021. However, the sentence also includes a five-year travel ban.

Saudi Arabia’s actions against defenders contradict its treaty obligations. Saudi Arabia became a party to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) in 1997 and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2000. Saudi Arabia’s acceptance of these multilateral international treaty obligations has not stopped the country from egregiously violating them.

Other defenders in jail in Saudi Arabia include Samar Badawi, her brother Raif Badawi, and Raif Badawi’s lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair. Raif Badawi is a blogger sentenced in 2014 to 10 years in prison, a travel ban, and 1,000 lashes, 50 of which were meted out on 9 January 2015. After years of advocacy by international human rights organizations, in April 2020 Saudi Arabia announced the abolition of flogging as a form of punishment.

In November 2018, during the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, Saudi Arabia supported recommendations to ensure women’s equality; prevent torture in prisons; take steps to guarantee freedom of expression; and amend the legal definition of terrorism to ensure that it does not lead to the prosecution of women’s rights defenders, non-violent human rights activists, political dissenters, and other persons merely exercising their human rights. To date, advocacy has resulted in few substantial changes to Saudi Arabia’s severe and systematic human rights violations.

There is a Canadian connection with some of Saudi Arabia’s defenders. Loujain Al-Hathloul was a student at the University of British Columbia. Raif Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, fled to Canada with their two children in 2015. Waleed Abu al-Khair was sentenced to 15 years in prison for registering a human rights organization in Ontario and is a recipient of the Law Society of Ontario Human Rights Award. In 2018, Chrystia Freeland, then Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, advocated for the release of Raif and Samar Badawi. LRWC’s advocacy has sought Canada’s further intervention.

Canada: Defenders at risk for protesting violations of Indigenous and environmental rights

Canada has maintained a reputation for strong human rights protection, but a closer look reveals abysses between legal norms and realities that appear unbridgeable to those who suffer violations of their fundamental rights. Canada is a party to seven of the UN’s nine core human rights treaties. Canada is proud of its human rights record internationally but has failed or refused to ensure remedies for many human rights abuses, particularly violations of the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Canada has failed to address chronic concerns about discrimination against Indigenous women and children. For years, Canada has used the courts to resist implementing the 2016 decision of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal requiring Canada to remedy its discriminatory underfunding of child welfare services for children living on reserves. In 2020, the Native Women’s Association of Canada awarded the government a “total fail” in providing remedies for human rights violations as recommended by the 2019 report of the three-year National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women and Girls launched in 2016.

Canada has also failed to implement UN human rights bodies’ recommendations to address concerns about continuation of large-scale projects on Indigenous lands without free, prior and informed consent. Arrests and threats of violence have been used against Indigenous land rights defenders in contradiction to the urgings of the UN Committee on Elimination of Discrimination.

Between 2015 and 2019, Canada failed to fulfil its promises to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). While it is encouraging to see Canada’s federal government take a step forward in 2020 by tabling Bill C-15 to implement UNDRIP, it remains to be seen whether the Declaration’s requirement of free, prior and informed consent will be incorporated into Bill C-15 in the form of concrete action plans that respect, protect and fulfil the rights of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples to protect their lands.

Bridging the gaps and levelling the platforms of action

These examples are among the numerous situations on which LRWC volunteers have conducted research, education, and advocacy during 2020. LRWC has advocated for defenders and the rule of law in numerous countries this year, including more than a dozen interventions at the UN Human Rights Council.

Successful human rights work requires more than good will and dogged persistence. Bridges across the gaps between law and practice require resources for research to reveal the nature and impacts of violations around the world. Like many human rights organizations, LRWC ensures its independence from governments and corporations by relying exclusively on private donations.

Exposing the truth of human rights abuses requires a cadre of knowledgeable researchers equipped to investigate both facts and law. Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada’s 2012 research among BC jurists found “an alarming lack of knowledge about international human rights treaties ratified by Canada…” Relatively few Canadian law students take courses in international human rights. There are comparatively few continuing professional development (CPD) options for affordable training in international human rights law. In December 2020 LRWC stepped by launching a series of CPD webinars on the UN and regional human rights systems, free of charge.

Human rights advocates also work to level the platforms of action by building local and international coalitions of independent advocates. Solidarity among human rights organizations strengthens advocacy and negotiation power to persuade governments to fulfil their international human rights obligations for the benefit of people and peoples’ around the world.