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Opening Statement by Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the 23rd Special Session of the Human Rights Council

1 April 2015

Mr President,
Distinguished Members of the Council,

I would like to take a moment to honour Ambassador Yusuf Bari-Bari, the Somali Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, who was killed in Mogadishu on Friday. He was a good and wise man, a strong defender of human rights, who cared deeply about violence against women and the protection of people with albinism. His life was senselessly cut short by a vicious terrorist attack, and I think it is fitting that we lead this discussion by recalling what he stood for.

I extend my condolences to the victims and family members who have suffered from attacks, whether by Al-Shabaab or Boko Haram, and all whose lives have been torn apart by terrorism everywhere.

Mr President,

The appalling atrocities committed by the Boko Haram insurgency have created a critical human rights situation in northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. I commend the Member States who have initiated this Special Session of the Council to examine the crisis in depth. I also welcome the active involvement of the Africa Union Commission, Member States of the Lake Chad Basin Commission, as well as ECCAS and ECOWAS in seeking a solution to this crisis.

Since 2009, when the Boko Haram group turned massively to violence, at least 15,000 individuals have been killed. Countless more children, women and men have been abducted, abused and forcibly recruited, and women and girls have been targeted for particularly horrific abuse, including sexual enslavement. Villages and towns have been looted and destroyed. Boko Haram has a specific animus against schools – particularly the education of girls – and its attacks have destroyed or severely damaged at least 300 schools, killed numerous students, and ended with the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls.

This despicable and wanton carnage, which constitutes a clear and urgent menace for development, peace and security, must be stopped. Boko Haram's leaders must know that they will be held accountable in a court of law for these appalling violations of human rights.

Over a million people have been displaced by the conflict within Nigeria, and at least 168,000 have fled to neighbouring countries. More continue to flee the fighting every day, and it is essential that the authorities and the international community step up their efforts to respond adequately to the needs of these victims. Many of these people have endured unspeakable trauma, and now face severe food shortages, because the dramatic security situation has sharply reduced agricultural activity in numerous localities. Because the farms of northern Nigeria provide produce across the Sahel, this also means that the price of several basic foods has risen sharply across the region.

What was initially a localized crisis is fast growing to very disturbing regional dimensions. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has been operating across broad swathes of territory in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states. The current dry season has also intensified its incursions into neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger, spreading bloodshed and desolation even more widely.

In recent weeks, military offensives by Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger have led to the recapture of several towns in northeast Nigeria. This has brought to light gruesome scenes of mass graves and further evident signs of slaughter by Boko Haram. My Office has also received multiple reports that Boko Haram fighters who were retreating from the advance of the joint forces murdered their so-called “wives” – in fact, women and girls held in slavery – and other captives as Government troops advanced.

Responses to these massive violations must be strong, coordinated and principled.

Last month, in my statement to this Council, I emphasized how vital it is that strategies to combat violent extremism uphold the values of democracy and human rights. This is not only a matter of principle, and of law: it is also far more effective. Strategies that are not fully grounded in human rights norms feed the grievances that often motivate extremist movements, and undermine the very purpose that they purport to serve. All military and counter-terrorist operations must be proportionate, targeted to the threat, adequately supervised and fully accountable.

I have also repeatedly urged thorough and clear-sighted consideration of the possible root causes of conflict. Solutions can never be found if the real dimensions of the problem at hand are denied. It is the experience of my Office that deep-seated discrimination and sharply etched inequalities almost always underlie internal armed conflict. The effects of these two factors – discrimination and deprivation – are amplified by poor governance; inadequate services; the denial of economic and social rights and opportunities; the failure to enable participation at all levels, including repression of civil society; and the perception of corruption, which confiscates the public good for private gain. Entrenched gender stereotypes are also instrumental in cases of conflict in which specific attacks target women and girls.

Nigeria is Africa's most populous country, an economic and cultural power-house – rich not only in its natural resources but, more especially, in the remarkable drive and creativity of its people. In the past few days, I have been inspired by images from the north-eastern region showing long lines of dignified voters exercising their right to participate in the political life of the nation. This vision of the people standing courageously against terror – despite reports of several attacks by Boko Haram – is an immense sign of hope, and in this context I would like to congratulate Nigeria for its successful conduct of the election.

Mr President,

In order to provide reliable and timely human rights information to the UN system, I have deployed a number of additional staff in the region. Their reports strongly suggest that Boko Haram has committed numerous and grave violations of human rights, including in Cameroon and Niger, among them massacres, attacks on protected sites, and abductions of both children and adults on a massive scale. Witnesses and survivors confirmed that many women and girls have been enslaved and subjected to sexual violence, forced labour and compulsory conversion. Credible reports indicate that Boko Haram frequently uses children as its first line of attack, as expendable cannon fodder. Bodies of children around 12 years old have been found strewn across such battlefields. The group has also repeatedly used young children as human bombs, including a case of a 14 year old girl carrying a baby on her back who detonated a bomb in a marketplace. These reports, if confirmed by a court of law, would constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.


Every mission by my Office, to any region in the world, must record all credible allegations of human rights violations that come to its attention, regardless of who the alleged perpetrator may be. My teams have repeatedly received information suggesting that the perpetration of human rights violations has not been limited to Boko Haram. As we have reported to this Council, there have also been persistent and credible reports of serious violations by the security forces of Nigeria and other countries in their response to Boko Haram activities.

I must insist that these alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by security forces must be the subject of thorough and fully transparent investigations by the relevant authorities. If indeed acts prohibited under international law are confirmed, the perpetrators should be held accountable.

As the great Nigerian author Chinua Achebe once wrote, "We cannot trample upon the humanity of others without devaluing our own." Any such heavy-handed approach to counter-insurgency is dishonourable, and it contrasts sharply with the courage and efficiency displayed by forces responsible for recent successes in the field. Moreover, the UN's Human Rights Due Diligence policy means that such conduct may severely limit international support for the military effort against this insurgency. And above all, such violations intensify the suffering of the people – and as this Council has frequently noted, this can only create resentment, facilitate recruitment of new insurgents, and foster a vicious cycle of greater extremism.

I am also profoundly concerned about the growing ethnic and sectarian dimensions of the conflict. Boko Haram is clearly driven by an extremist and totalitarian ideology. There is no doubt that Christian communities have been targeted, but to date, the majority of its victims appear to have been Muslims.

However, Boko Haram's original leader was from the Kanuri ethnic group, and my Office has received reports indicating that Kanuris are now considered suspect by some military personnel. This suspicion, which results in arbitrary arrests and abuse, in turn creates fear and animosity among the Kanuri people. Boko Haram, for its part, has begun targeting Nigerians of Shuwa Arab origin, apparently in retaliation for their perceived support to the Nigerian armed forces.

There is thus a high risk of escalating ethnic and religious violence. This can only be halted by principled leadership and clear instructions to military personnel, with appropriate accountability.


Profound inequalities, corruption, and resulting marginalization, naturally generate discontent. And the more marginalized and desperate the people, the more likely they are to turn to radical and violent movements. I strongly recommend wide-ranging and action-oriented dialogue regarding the right to development of the people of this region, including greater participation in decision making, improved services, and broader economic, social and political opportunities.

Regarding the conduct of counter-insurgency operations, I have repeatedly called on all States to take appropriate measures to ensure that there is respect for human rights and accountability for any violation. It is also essential that security forces take measures to protect civilians. These should include developing rules of engagement in accordance with human rights and humanitarian law; training of security forces; and strong internal oversight, including investigations of every allegation of unlawful conduct. I also encourage all States to commit to allowing human rights monitors to access places of detention.

In Nigeria, my Office is already assisting UN training efforts for law enforcement officials regarding human rights-compliant counter-terrorism measures. We have also agreed to conduct a programme of training in international human rights, humanitarian and refugee law for the Cameroonian security forces. We stand ready to assist other States in the region, within the limits of our capacity.

We must also reflect on some of the possible root causes of this insurgency. I strongly encourage a concerted effort to redress the imbalances so evident in this region, with particular efforts in the territory that has fortunately been recovered from Boko Haram's grasp. In this regard, I welcome Nigeria's recent Presidential Initiative for the Northeast, which aims to address longstanding social and economic issues, and to create the context necessary for sustainable recovery and economic development.

Vanquishing this threat to peace will require sustained attention that extends beyond the use of military force. Strengthening the rule of law, repealing discriminatory legislation, and implementing inclusive and non-discriminatory policies must be part of the response to the horrific violations being committed by Boko Haram.