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Press briefing notes on Gaza and Democratic Republic of Congo

Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Rupert Colville
Location: Geneva
Date: 20 November 2012
Subject: 1) Gaza and 2) Democratic Republic of the Congo

1) Gaza

The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, is acutely concerned about Palestinian and Israeli civilians caught up in the ongoing crisis in Gaza and southern Israel.

She is dismayed by the marked surge in the number of Palestinian civilians, including women and children, killed and injured over the past 48 hours as a result of Israeli military action. According to information gathered by OHCHR monitors on the ground, the civilian death toll has more than doubled during this period. As of this morning, at least 57 civilians, including 18 children, have been killed and hundreds have been injured since 14 November.

The High Commissioner deplores attacks such as the bombing of a house in Gaza which killed at least eight members of the Al-Dalou family, including 4 young children on 18 November.

The High Commissioner appreciates statements made by Israeli officials about the precautions taken to avoid harm to civilians. However, attacks affecting schools and religious sites, as well as the reported targeting of homes and media outlets during the past 48 hours raise serious concerns about Israel's commitment to its obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law. The High Commissioner therefore calls on Israel to scrupulously meet its legal obligations to distinguish at all times between civilians and combatants, and to take precautions and all possible measures to avoid the loss of civilian life and damage to civilian property.

The High Commissioner reiterates her condemnation of the continuing indiscriminate attacks and targeting of civilians in Israel by militants in Gaza which have killed three civilians as well as causing civilian injuries and damage to civilian property.

High Commissioner Pillay strongly supports the Secretary-General's efforts toward a cease fire agreement, and hopes that any such agreement contains commitments by both sides to respect international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

The High Commissioner recalls the need to ensure accountability for any violations of international law, including through prompt, impartial, independent and effective investigations into credible allegations of violations.

In response to a follow-up question on attacks on homes, schools and religious sites:  the spokesperson said that UN human rights staff had received reports that 31 residences had been hit directly as well as two buildings housing media.  They had also received reports of damage to some 30 schools, but no direct hits that they were aware of, and reports of damage to ten religious sites, but again with no direct hits.

In response to a question as to whether any of these attacks constituted war crimes:  the spokesperson said that would depend on the specific circumstances in each incident, and that the information to make that type of assessment was not yet available. He noted that in this type of situation, under international humanitarian law, three key principles apply: these are 'distinction' (making every effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians); 'precaution' (taking all possible precautions to avoid civilian casualties); and 'proportionality' (refraining from launching an attack when it is expected to cause excessive loss of civilian life in relation to the anticipated military advantage).

2) Democratic Republic of the Congo

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, is deeply concerned by the deteriorating situation of civilians in eastern DRC.

The advances made by the M23 rebel group over the past few days have been accompanied by a significant number of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed against civilians, particularly those fleeing the combat zones. These violations include the wounding and abduction of civilians (including women and children), the looting and destruction of properties, and threats to journalists. In several cases recently documented by UN Human Rights teams, civilians have been targeted by the M23 for resisting recruitment, opposing looting or because of their perceived collaboration with Government forces. In some cases, civilians were injured during crossfire or while trying to flee the conflict zones. In the past few months, the UN Joint Human Rights Office in the DRC had also documented killings of civilians by M23 combatants, mostly in Rutshuru territory.

On 19 November, the Human Rights staff reported shooting by members of the M23 in densely populated areas near Goma airport close to UN assets and personnel. Later on the same day, the Human Rights teams had to stop their investigative work and seek refuge in one of MONUSCO’s military bases in the nearby town of Sake due to rising insecurity. The fighting has also complicated the delivery of humanitarian aid to some 60,000 people displaced by the recent fighting. The High Commissioner salutes the courage of UN human rights and humanitarian workers and demands that they be given full and secure access to populations in need.

The High Commissioner is also concerned about the reported looting and destruction of houses by the retreating Congolese army (FARDC). In several cases, civilians were reportedly injured by FARDC during looting incidents. She is stressing that all human rights violations by all sides, including the FARDC, must be investigated and those found responsible held to account. All parties to the conflict must take all possible precautions to protect the civilian population and civilian objects under their control against the effects of attacks.

The High Commissioner is again drawing attention to the record of serious human rights violations committed by some of the M23 senior commanders, three of whom are listed by the UN Sanctions Committee. These are Sultani Makenga, added to the list on 12 November 2012, Bosco Ntaganda, who is also an ICC indictee, and Innocent Zimurinda.

ENDS

For more information or media requests, please contact Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 9767 / rcolville@ohchr.org) or Cécile Pouilly (+ 41 22 917 9310 /cpouilly@ohchr.org)

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