New UN Human Rights Council member states urged to implement promises 

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Members of the Ladies in White group shout anti-communism slogans during a protest on International Human Rights Day, in Havana, 10 December 2013. The group is made up of female family members of imprisoned dissidents
Members of the Ladies in White group shout anti-communism slogans during a protest on International Human Rights Day, in Havana, 10 December 2013. The group is made up of female family members of imprisoned dissidents

 REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa

As PEN International and PEN Centres around the world today [10 December] mark Human Rights Day – the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – we are deeply concerned that freedom of expression remains under attack in many parts of the World, even by the very countries who have been elected to uphold human rights at the United Nations. In November 2013, China, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam were elected unopposed to the Human Rights Council, the United Nations’ top rights body, despite serious concerns about abuses and restrictions on freedoms in all five states.Responding to the elections, Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee said, “These elections were deeply troubling, not only because of the atrocious human rights record of these states, but also because these states can now exert pressure from within the council to reject initiatives that promote human rights and in particular freedom of expression. While it is still possible to achieve human rights advances at the council, PEN will have our work cut out over the coming years to promote freedom of expression, in particular through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism.” On Human Rights Day, PEN International calls for China, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam to implement the pledges they made to win their election campaigns at the UN Human Rights Council. PEN calls for restrictions on freedom of expression in these countries to be lifted and for the immediate release of Liu Xiaobo, José Antonio Torres, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Wajeha al-Huwaider and Nguyen Van Hai.

Below PEN International contrasts the pledges that these countries have made to secure their election to the UN Human Rights Council with the current reality of freedom of expression in these States.


“The Chinese Government is committed to the promotion and protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the Chinese people, and has worked unremittingly towards this goal…The past few years have witnessed new achievements in the promotion and protection of human rights…”

In the run up to the Human Rights Council, China detained a large number of human rights activists, tightened internet censorship, and orchestrated security crackdowns in Tibet. At the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of China‘s human rights’ record in October 2013, PEN International noted with concern the escalation of restrictions on freedom of expression – restrictions which have escalated, not improved, since China‘s last review in 2009. PEN is particularly concerned about the ill-treatment of writers in China. This week marks the fifth anniversary of the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo, prominent dissident writer, former President and Board member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre and recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.


Cuba attaches the greatest importance to international cooperation for the promotion and protection of human rights within the United Nations…In Cuba, equality and non-discrimination are fully guaranteed…Institutional racism has been eradicated.”

Cuba remains the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent. All media outlets are controlled and access to outside information is tightly controlled. Journalists and bloggers critical of the government are subject to arbitrary arrests, abuse and smear campaigns. PEN case José Antonio Torres, correspondent for the government newspaper Granma, was reportedly convicted of espionage and sentenced to 14 years in prison and the withdrawal of his university degree in journalism in June 2012. Arrested in February 2011, Torres’ conviction followed the publication of articles addressing project mismanagement: the first of which, on the alleged mismanagement of an aqueduct project in Santiago de Cuba was published in July 2010; the second, published in November 2010, addressed the installation of fibre-optic cable between Venezuela and Cuba. In both articles, Torres had noted that the vice president was responsible for the oversight of the projects. Cuba‘s state-run media has made only a few brief references to Torres’ case and little is known about the espionage charge, although there are rumours that he may have offered or given confidential information to the US diplomatic mission in Havana.


“In international forums and in its domestic policy, the Russian Federation places a particular focus on countering racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance…Russian law prohibits any form of restriction on the rights of citizens on social, racial, gender, ethnic, linguistic, religious or any other grounds, which precludes the emergence of discriminatory policies against particular groups of citizens…”

The situation for freedom of expression in Russia has deteriorated since the re-election of Vladimir Putin in March 2012. Repression against Russian NGOs, strict anti-blasphemy laws, increasing limits on digital freedom, the banning of “homosexual propaganda” and the re-criminalisation of libel are major concerns. In August 2012, three members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot were convicted of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ for a forty second political stunt in a Moscow cathedral that criticised Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church’s close relationship with the Kremlin. They were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. PEN is particularly concerned about band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova who is currently hospitalised following a hunger strike that brought international attention to the state of Russia‘s prison system. In October, Tolokonnikova’s whereabouts were kept secret by the Russian authorities as they transferred her 4,000 kilometres away from Mordovia prison where she had been held to a hospital in the central Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk.

Saudi Arabia

“Should Saudi Arabia be selected as a member for the period 2014-2016, it pledges to continue to support tirelessly the work of the Human Rights Council…”

Throughout 2013 the crackdown on human rights intensified in Saudi Arabia with the country failing on every count to live up to its promises to address the dire human rights situation in the country. Wajeha al-Huwaider, a leading novelist, journalist and women’s rights activist, has been the subject of a sustained harassment campaign since May 2003, when she was banned from publishing in Saudi Arabia. al-Huwaider, along with activist Fawzia al-Oyouni, was sentenced to 10 months in prison and a two year travel ban on 15 June 2013 for helping an allegedly abused woman in distress. Their sentence was reportedly upheld on appeal in September 2013. The case dates back to 6 June 2011, when the pair were contacted by a Canadian woman, Nathalie Morin, who had been locked in her home in the city of Dammam with her three young children by her Saudi husband without sufficient provisions. al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni arrived with food and water, and were immediately arrested. They were initially charged with kidnapping because Morin’s husband alleged they intended to take Morin and the children to the Canadian Embassy in Riyadh. On 15 June 2013 they were found not guilty of kidnapping, but convicted of ‘Takhbib’, inciting a woman against her husband.

Viet Nam

“All economic, cultural, social, political and civil rights of the person are fully provided for in the Viet Nam Constitution… Viet Nam has implemented, in a uniform manner, socioeconomic development strategies, legal, judiciary and administrative reforms, and has strengthened the grass-roots democracy regime in order to better meet the rights and fundamental freedoms of the people.”

Rather than improving, PEN’s research has found that the human rights situation in Viet Nam has continued to deteriorate in recent years. We are particularly concerned about the state of freedom of expression, and the continued crackdown on writers, journalists, human rights defenders and activists. Nguyen Van Hai (Pen name Hoang Hai, aka blogger Dieu Cay), an independent blogger and journalist was initially arrested in April 2008 on tax fraud charges. Following the completion of his sentence, Nguyen was transferred to a public security detention camp in Ho Chi Minh City and, on 24 September 2012, was tried and sentenced to 12 years in prison and five years of house arrest for “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam,” under Article 88 of the Criminal Code. His recent sentence relates to writings which he published online prior to his arrest in 2008 both on his personal blog and for the banned website Free Journalist Club (Cau Lac Bo Nha Bao Tu Do). Nguyen is widely believed to be targeted for his criticism of Vietnamese government policy and calling for greater democracy and human rights. Nguyen is the recipient of the 2009 Hellman/Hammett award.

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