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Caught in the conflict

The plight of non combatants caught in war zones globally has been high-lighted by the High Commissioner as an issue of central concern to her Office. Addressing the current meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Pillay said, “The condition of civilians in armed conflict continues to cause grave alarm. Their suffering has been a tragic feature of confrontations in many countries and regions of the world.”

The UN Human Rights Council’s 11th session. - UN Photo/Jean-Marc FERREPillay cited nine countries where ongoing conflicts were continuing to impact seriously on civilians, and two countries where post-conflict situations “warrant close scrutiny.”

In Afghanistan, she noted that “anti-government elements” are responsible for the majority of civilian casualties. However, pro-government forces were also responsible for civilian deaths, particularly as a result of air-strikes such as the 4 May bombing of a village in Farah Province. Pillay urged states involved in the conflict in Afghanistan to ensure independent investigations of incidents causing casualties, and to provide justice and remedies for the victims.

She also voiced concerns about neighbouring Pakistan, where 2.5 million people have fled their homes. Pillay noted that civilians have also been targeted and killed in insurgent attacks, including the recent spate of bombings in major cities.

Although Iraq has experienced a “marked decrease” in violent deaths compared to 2006 and 2007, Pillay said the situation there remained “precarious”, with 6,700 people killed and more than 20,000 injured during 2008, and the population “exposed to daily risks such as suicide attacks, abductions and other criminal activities.”

She urged full cooperation with the Independent Fact-Finding Mission, headed by Justice Richard Goldstone, into the recent conflict in Gaza, where, she said, “there are credible indications that grave breaches of international humanitarian law and human rights violations may have been committed by all parties.”

Pillay expressed continuing concern about the unresolved 40-year-old conflict in Colombia, and in particular its impact on Indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups, and on women, whom she said were being targeted for sexual violence “as a war tactic”.

In Africa, the High Commissioner noted four internal conflicts that were exacting a heavy toll among civilians, saying that impunity was a major contributing factor in the conflicts in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and eastern Chad.

“Countering impunity of perpetrators for their past and current atrocities must be a priority in order to achieve justice and deter further violations”, she said, adding that, in the case of the DRC in particular, “this lack of justice perpetuates violence, including horrific levels of sexual attacks.” She noted that women have also been subjected to sexual violence in Chad, and are “particularly at risk” in the conflict that is currently raging in Somalia, where many civilians have been killed and injured and thousands have been displaced by recent fighting, especially in Mogadishu.

Chad had experienced “widespread violations and abuses by both State and non-State actors,” she said, including “arbitrary killings, attacks on humanitarian workers, arbitrary arrests and detention, and the recruitment and use of child soldiers.”

The High Commissioner listed a range of similar abuses in Sudan including “ill-treatment and torture targeting human rights defenders, humanitarian workers, and UN national staff.” She said it appears that a number of recent executions “did not comply with international standards of fair trial,” and noted continuing attacks against civilians “by all parties” to the conflict in Darfur.

Turning to countries in a post-conflict transitional phase, the High Commissioner said that in Sri Lanka “a comprehensive process of accountability for human rights violations committed by all sides should be carried out,” and repeated her call for an independent international inquiry. She welcomed Sri Lanka’s statement to the Human Rights Council that it is committed to a reconciliation scheme. She stressed, however, that accountability is “a prerequisite for the attainment of justice and reconciliation…and, thus, a foundation for lasting peace.”

Recent political developments in Nepal are creating new challenges to the peace process that need to be addressed, Pillay said, adding that she was keen for her staff to continue to play a helpful role by monitoring and reporting on human rights conditions, as well as supporting the Nepalese government, national institutions, and civil society in their efforts to protect human rights.

During its current session, the Human Rights Council is also considering a report of an expert consultation on the issue of protecting the human rights of civilians in armed conflict. The expert meeting, organised in consultation with the International Committee of the Red Cross, was held by OHCHR in April 2009.

The consultation examined the legal framework applicable in the context of armed conflict, the relationship between international human rights law and international humanitarian law and mechanisms for the protection and monitoring of human rights and ways of ensuring accountability where there have been violations.

4 June 2009