[Joint Open Letter] Mongolia: Stop Reprisals Against Mongolian Human Rights Defender Sukhgerel Dugersuren
18 August 2022 4:38 pm
We, the undersigned civil society organizations, stand in solidarity with Mongolian human rights defender Sukhgerel Dugersuren and strongly condemn the criminalization and smear campaigns against her, which we identify as an attempt to prevent her from conducting her crucial work in defense of human rights and the environment.
We urge the Mongolian government to ensure Sukhgerel can safely defend human rights without fearing reprisals and that all charges against her are dismissed.
We call on all the international institutions and actors active in the country – including development banks, UN bodies and experts, EU member states and institutions, international embassies, international investors or private companies – to publicly speak out in support of Sukhgerel, use their leverage to strongly condemn reprisals, and take any action they can to ensure Sukhgerel can continue to safely carry out her work.
Who is Sukhgerel Dugersuren?
Sukhgerel Dugersuren is an internationally renowned human rights defender and the Executive Director of the Mongolian organizations Oyu Tolgoi Watch and Rivers without Boundaries Mongolia. She has a long trajectory of exposing human rights abuses and defending the rights of herder and rural communities in Mongolia. Her courageous and inspirational work is admired by scores of international and local civil society organizations, as well as UN Special Rapporteurs and experts, who have closely worked with her.
In the past decades, Sukhgerel has supported dozens of communities negatively affected by large-scale projects, such as mines and hydropower dams. She has helped these communities in denouncing the harmful impacts of these activities and bringing their grievances to the attention of the Mongolian government, development banks, and international organizations. For example, she supported complaints to the independent accountability mechanisms of the World Bank, International Finance Corporation, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Asian Development Bank.
What happened and why is she being criminalized?
According to Front Line Defenders, on 2 August 2022, Mongolia’s General Intelligence Agency informed Sukhgerel that she is under investigation for committing crimes under the Mongolian Criminal Code Article 19.4, which prohibits the “illegal cooperation with foreign intelligence agency, agent.” Although no other details around the investigations have been shared, we fear Sukhgerel might be at risk of imminent arrest and we are deeply concerned for her safety.
Sukhgerel is being subject to a clear criminalisation process, where the law is used to limit civic freedoms and punish human rights defenders. The undersigned human rights organizations consider these accusations false and baseless, as they appear to be related to Sukhgerel’s support to the communities impacted by the Erdeneburen hydropower plant, funded by China’s EXIM Bank, and her legitimate requests for access to environmental information, public participation in environmental decision-making and transparency.
On 3 August 2022, during a government briefing, Mongolia’s Minister of Justice and Internal Affairs, H. Nyambaatar, stated that the construction of the Erdeneburen hydro plant had been suspended for two years, as a result of a letter from the local communities to the Chinese authorities. He also said that when development projects are interrupted by a civil society organization or person, then a task force should be established to investigate these cases as ‘sabotage’ under Criminal Code Article 19.6 and that the government could claim compensation for the lost economic opportunity. This concerning statement was shared just a few days before the visit by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, to Ulan Bator on 7 and 8 August to discuss economic cooperation between the two countries and who specifically mentioned the Erdeneburen hydropower plant in his remarks.
The Mongolian Minister’s statement could be construed as a direct threat of reprisal against human rights defenders like Sukhgerel. It also sends a very chilling message to all individuals and communities peacefully raising concerns or opposing harmful projects, especially in a context where several environmental activists have already been threatened and criminalized.
Sukhgerel is also facing a worrying and orchestrated smear campaign in online media and social media. We are deeply worried about the criminalization and smear campaign against Sukhgerel, which puts her at additional risk and constitutes a threat to all human rights defenders and civil society groups in the country. We fear that as a result of these online actions other human rights defenders, and in particular the communities protesting against the harmful impacts of the Erdeneburen dam or other foreign-funded projects, might also be at risk of being criminalized.
We stand in solidarity with Sukhgerel and other human rights defenders in Mongolia, and we call on all the relevant international institutions and actors that defend international law and human rights to intervene promptly in support of their important and legitimate struggles. Sustainable development is not possible where civil society is repressed and criminalized.
What are we asking?
We call on the government and other relevant authorities in Mongolia to:
- Immediately investigate and unconditionally cease all attempts to target and criminalize Sukhgerel Dugersuren, as well as other human rights defenders and individuals expressing their opinion or raising concerns about development projects in the country;
- Guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in Mongolia are able to carry out their human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions, in line with Mongolia’s international human rights obligations and commitments, including its recently approved law on human rights defenders;
- Publicly recognise the importance of freedom of expression, meaningful participation, unimpeded access to information on development projects and environmental impacts, and a safe environment for human rights defenders, to help ensure development projects are truly sustainable for Mongolia.
We call on all the international institutions and actors active in the country – including development banks, UN bodies and experts, EU member states and institutions, international embassies, international investors and private companies – to:
- Urge Mongolian authorities to immediately halt and dismiss all the charges against Sukhgerel Dugersuren.
- Urge Mongolian authorities to investigate and stop all attempts to target, criminalize and stigmatize individuals expressing concerns or their views about development projects, including Sukhgerel Dugersuren.
- Express serious concern about the statements made by Mongolian government officials, who publicly remarked that those opposing the Erdeneburen hydropower plant will be investigated and criminalized, and denounce the smear campaign Sukhgerel Dugersuren is facing.
- Publicly recognise the importance of freedom of expression, meaningful participation, unimpeded access to information on development projects and environmental impacts, and the need to ensure a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders, by publicly stating that communities must be able to defend their right to a healthy environment and that human rights defenders are indispensable allies who should be supported.
 On 1st April 2021, the Mongolian parliament adopted a new law for human rights defenders, making it the first country in Asia to provide a framework of protection for people who speak out on human rights concerns and violations. This protection includes ensuring an environment in which human rights defenders are not persecuted for their work.
 In their policies, including the environmental and social safeguards, all the main development financial institutions (DFIs) are committed to ensure stakeholders engagement and participation. Some DFIs (including the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) have also adopted commitments of zero tolerance for reprisals against those who share their views about DFI-funded projects, while other banks – such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – have committed to address reprisals. DFIs should also comply with the recommendations of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
 The UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights, based on international law and human rights standards, affirm that States should ensure “that the legitimate and peaceful activities of human rights defenders are not obstructed”.
 The 2008 EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders state that HRDs are natural and indispensable “allies” in the promotion of human rights and democratization in their countries, and call on member States to take concrete actions to support human rights defenders.
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