Responsibility to end impunity rests with UN member states

Today marked an important step in efforts to protect journalists, with the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva unanimously adopting a new resolution on the safety of journalists. Resolution 27/L7 reiterates, and strengthens the 2012 resolution (A/HRC/RES/21/12) agreed on by the same body.

Among other key aspects, the resolution elaborates on the need and, notably the means, to have full investigations and prosecutions in the hundreds of cases of murdered journalists. In the resolution, the Human Rights Council calls on member states to consider the creation of special investigative units or independent commissions, appoint special prosecutors, and adopt specific protocols for investigation, as well as establish an early warning and rapid response mechanism to give journalists access to protective measures.

It strongly suggests that the pursuit of justice extends not only to those who pull the trigger, but to those “who command, conspire to commit, aid and abet, or cover up,” violent acts against journalists, a distinction not made in the previous resolution. It is an important point, given that those who order the crimes remain free in more than 88 percent of cases of journalists targeted and killed for their work since 1992. It also echoes comments made by CPJ Senior Adviser for Journalist Security Frank Smyth at a panel in June, when he described impunity as the greatest danger to journalists.

The resolution is the latest in a series of moves by the U.N. to address widespread impunity and the immense risks journalists routinely face. The U.N. has, on several occasions, acknowledged that unpunished attacks against journalists are a major threat not only to press freedom, but to all major areas of its work. In addition to the two Human Rights Council resolutions, last year the General Assembly adopted a resolution on the safety of journalists, which established November 2 as the International Day to End Impunity in Crimes against Journalists. The UNESCO-led U.N. Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity has also started to be implemented, and the Security Council held two related debates in 2013. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is due to present a report at the current General Assembly that highlights the importance of the International Day to End Impunity as an opportunity for states to “launch concrete initiatives aimed at combating impunity for attacks against journalists and media workers.”

This level of international attention is welcome–the efforts of countries including Austria, Brazil, and Greece, among others, that have sponsored these resolutions, and of UNESCO in introducing the plan of action, should be recognized–and it is by no means unwarranted. CPJ has long raised concerns over the high numbers of cases in which journalists are murdered and their killers face no consequences, and the chilling impact this has on press freedom. We have waged a dedicated global campaign against impunity since 2007. We will mark the first official International Day to End Impunity–a day less officially observed in the past three years by freedom of expression groups–with a comprehensive report, The Road to Justice: Breaking the Cycle of Impunity in the Killing of Journalists, which examines where the efforts to bring justice in journalist killings really stand.

The report notes that the escalation in international attention on impunity and steps to address it–not only by the U.N. but also by regional forums and states that, in the past, have engendered it–is a step forward. The report also looks at the disparity between what states are willing to commit to on the international stage, and how far they will go to advance justice.

The reality is that impunity rates have risen steadily over the past decade in most countries that CPJ has identified as places where journalists are repeatedly murdered and their killers go free. In nine–Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, India, Iraq, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, and Somalia–new murders were recorded in 2013, a chilling reminder that where there is impunity, journalists will remain targets year after year. Lack of political will is often the main impediment to justice. This is apparent in the high number of cases in which suspects are political or military officials, or other figures who wield economic or political power.

Resolutions like the one passed today are important tools to remind member states not only of the rights but also the importance to society of a free press, and the grave threat that failure to investigate and prosecute in cases of anti-press violence poses to the free flow of information. They serve to encourage stronger action against impunity, but resolutions alone do not bring justice–that is a government’s own responsibility to its citizens.