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Press briefing note on Syria, Kenya, Iraq and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights:  Rupert Colville
Location:  Geneva
Date: 24 May 2016
Subjects: (1) Syria,  (2) Kenya, (3) Iraq and (4) Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

(1)  Syria

We condemn the series of suicide and car bombings which took place yesterday morning in the two Syrian coastal cities of Jableh and Tartous.

There were four explosions in Jableh, including one at the National Hospital, one at the electricity directorate, and two in a bus station. In Tartous there were two explosions in a bus station, and a third in a nearby residential area. We have received reports of scores of people killed, with Government sources citing 78 casualties and other estimates rising as high as 145. ISIL has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Most of those killed or injured are believed to be civilians and the timing and choice of locations suggest the attacks were deliberately intended to inflict the maximum number of civilian casualties. OHCHR continues to investigate these incidents, as well as separate reports of attacks on internally displaced people which allegedly took place later in the day.

These horrific incidents are the most recent in what appears to be swiftly-escalating violence across the country in which civilians, along with structures indispensable to their survival, appear to have been specifically targeted.  Medical facilities have been particularly affected, with another incident occurring last week when a field hospital in Khan al-Shih, in Rural Damascus Governorate, was allegedly hit by an air strike, as well as the series of attacks on hospitals in Aleppo in April.

Those responsible for these attacks must be held accountable. International law imposes an obligation on parties to an armed conflict to take constant care to spare the civilian population. While we are still investigating the circumstances, initial reports suggest these attacks violated international humanitarian law which prohibits directing attacks against the civilian population as well as against hospitals. As a result, such attacks may well constitute war crimes. These events yet again underline the crucial point that the situation in Syria should be referred to the International Criminal Court.

(2)  Kenya

We are very concerned by the increasing violence surrounding the weekly protests taking place in Kenya. Yesterday, at least three people are believed to have been killed – two reportedly shot dead by police in the town of Siaya, in the western part of Kenya, near the border with Uganda, and another person was allegedly killed by the police in Kisumu, some 75 kilometres east of Siaya. Numerous other people, including some members of the security forces, are reported to have been injured in both places. Protests were also broken up in other towns across Kenya, including the capital, Nairobi.

We urge the authorities to ensure these acts of violence are not repeated, and to respect the right to assemble peacefully. We also call on demonstrators to protest peacefully and not resort to violence themselves, as has sometimes been the case during both last week’s and this week’s protests.

We urge both the authorities and the protest organisers to cooperate in ensuring that peaceful protesters are protected from violent elements joining the demonstrations -- and it is vital the authorities do not overreact to the presence of such elements, thereby placing many other innocent protestors at risk of physical harm. Organisers should not be held responsible for the unlawful behaviour of others.

Yesterday’s killings and injuries, coupled with extremely disturbing videos and photographs allegedly showing members of the security forces brutally beating and kicking protesters during the last round of protests on 16 May, raise serious questions about whether Kenya’s security services are abiding by national and international laws and standards governing legal, strictly necessary and proportionate use of force.

Conditions as to the use of force are provided under Kenya’s National Police Service Act (2011), which states that a police officer must always attempt to use non-violent means first, and that force may only be employed when non-violent means are ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.

In line with international standards, the Act further provides that any force used shall be proportionate to the objective to be achieved, the seriousness of the offence, and the resistance of the person against whom it is used, and only to the extent necessary while adhering to the provisions of the law and the Service Standing Orders.

We welcome the fact that the Government has said there will be an investigation into the incidents that took place on 16 May, and call for prompt, independent and effective investigations into yesterday’s killings and other violent incidents. Any member of the security services found to have committed excessive use of force should receive appropriate penalties in accordance with the law.

(3)  Iraq

We urge the Iraqi Government to immediately conduct an independent, transparent and effective investigation into the use of force by security forces against protestors outside the Green Zone in Baghdad last Friday. Four protestors were killed and up to 200 injured after security forces used tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and some live ammunition against the demonstrators for close to two hours. It has been reported that up to 200 people were subsequently arrested in connection with the protest, including a group of university students.

According to information we have gathered, the hundreds of protestors, including women and children, hailed mainly from different areas of Baghdad which have suffered terrorist attacks, such as Sadr city, and were calling on the Government to take immediate action to ensure greater accountability for these attacks and to protect their communities. The protestors were reportedly unarmed.

The Government has since accused Ba’athists and pro-ISIL elements of being behind the protests, and some media have referred to the protests as riots. This has, naturally, exacerbated tensions – as many eye-witnesses claimed that the protestors were waving Iraqi flags, seeking security for themselves and their families and accountability for killings of members of their communities due to acts of terrorism. Rather than placing blame on the protestors, we appeal to the Government to promptly announce an independent investigation to establish whether unnecessary or excessive force was used and to hold accountable by law any security officers who may have acted in violation of the strict standards required concerning the use of force by law enforcement officials.*

Additionally, we urge the Government to ensure that the protection of civilians is paramount in its military operations to retake Fallujah. We call on all parties to the conflict to adhere strictly to international humanitarian law, including the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution in the conduct of hostilities, and to ensure that civilians are permitted to leave areas where fighting may be taking place in dignity and safety, and that they can access humanitarian assistance.

On a separate matter, we are concerned at the announcement by the Ministry of Justice that 22 people have been executed in the past month. The statement did not provide any details as to the identities of those executed or for what crimes they had been convicted, nor where the executions were carried out. We have long called on the Iraqi Government to impose a moratorium on all death sentences and executions, particularly given the weaknesses of the Iraqi criminal justice system and the risk of non-compliance with international standards of fair trial and due process.

(4) Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

A series of worrying steps have been taken by the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo since January last year to shrink the democratic space in the country ahead of the elections. Just between January and April this year, the UN Human Rights Office has documented 216 human rights violations related to the exercise of the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, including arbitrary arrests and detention, disruption of civil society and opposition meetings, and ill-treatment of protestors. Last Friday, three civil society activists from LUCHA (Lutte pour le Changement) were convicted on charges of inciting civil disobedience, spreading false news and breaching State security. We are concerned about the pressure on the opposition and civil society, and we call on the judiciary to abide by the principles of fair trial and to resist any political interference.

On 21 March this year, the DRC Minister of Justice and Human Rights announced that of the 22,000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the country, only 63 have satisfied the necessary regulations and have legal capacity. He indicated that those NGOS, international and Congolese, who do not regularise their situation will not be authorised to operate in the DRC. Two opposition presidential candidates have also faced harassment, including through legal proceedings against one of them.

Members of the opposition have announced that they will organise demonstrations this Thursday, 26 May, to express their discontent. Given the worrying climate, we call on the Government to allow for peaceful demonstrations to take place and to ensure that law enforcement officials do not resort to the unnecessary or excessive use of force during these demonstrations.*

We urge the authorities to engage in a constructive dialogue with the opposition and to ensure that the rights of all Congolese to participate in the public affairs of their country are respected – rather than seeking to quash dissent. The Government must ensure that the freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, expression and the right to participate in public affairs of all actors, regardless of their political affiliation, are fully respected. We also urge the Democratic Republic of the Congo to ensure that it fully abides by international norms and standards relating to the work of human rights defenders, including the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

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* The conduct of law enforcement officials is addressed by a number of specific international standards and codes, including the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, and the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials. 
ENDS

For more information and media requests, please contact Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 97 67 / rcolville@ohchr.org) or Ravina Shamdasani (+41 22 917 9169 / rshamdasani@ohchr.org)

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