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Press briefing note on Iraq, Al Jazeera, Venezuela and Guatemala

Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Rupert Colville
Location:  Geneva
Date: 30 June 2017
Subject:    (1) Iraq, (2) Al Jazeera, (3) Venezuela and (4) Guatemala

(1) Iraq

We are extremely concerned at the situation of civilians in Mosul where fighting is becoming ever more intense and concentrated as Iraqi Security Forces, supported by the international coalition, push to retake the whole of the city from ISIL. We remind all parties to the conflict that they must abide by the principles of humanity, distinction, proportionality and precaution in carrying out military operations.

As Mosul is increasingly liberated from ISIL, we are seeing an alarming rise in threats, specifically of forced evictions, against those suspected of being ISIL members or whose relatives are alleged to be involved with ISIL – threats that have also been made in other areas.

We have received reports of so-called night letters left at families’ houses or distributed in neighbourhoods, including in Sharqat in Salahadin Governorate, Al Heet City in Al Anbar and Al-Qayyarah in Ninewa Governorate, as well as in Mosul City. These letters typically warn people to leave by a particular date or face forced expulsion. Many of these threats are the result of tribal agreements that explicitly demand that families of affiliated ISIL members be excluded from the area.

Hundreds of families have been threatened with forced displacement and such developments are extremely worrying. People are at real risk of forced eviction from their homes and losing access to basic necessities, including adequate housing, food, access to health services and education.

Illegal forced evictions and forcible displacement may amount to collective punishment and are in clear contravention of the Iraqi Constitution, international human rights and international humanitarian law. Criminal liability is strictly personal to the individual involved in the commission of the crime for which she or he has been convicted by a court of law, according to the facts.  In no way can responsibility for crimes be transferred to any another innocent person.

We urge the Iraqi Government to take action to halt such imminent evictions or any type of collective punishment, and to reinforce the formal justice system to bring perpetrators to justice. Illegal forced evictions are acts of vengeance that are detrimental to national reconciliation and social cohesion.

(2) Al Jazeera

Over the past three weeks, the High Commissioner has been raising concerns, both publicly and directly with States, about the various human rights issues arising out of the dispute between Qatar and four other countries in the region.

This alarming dispute has been taken to a new level with the inclusion of some fundamental rights and freedoms in the list of demands imposed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, with a 10-day deadline for implementation ending on 4 July. In addition to the issues we have already raised about the impact on ordinary people in the region, the High Commissioner is extremely concerned by the demand that Qatar close down the Al Jazeera network, as well as other affiliated media outlets.

Whether or not you watch it, like it, or agree with its editorial standpoints, Al Jazeera’s Arabic and English channels are legitimate, and have many millions of viewers. The demand that they be summarily closed down is, in our view, an unacceptable attack on the right to freedom of expression and opinion.

If States have an issue with items broadcast on other countries’ television channels, they are at liberty to publicly debate and dispute them. To insist that such channels be shut down is extraordinary, unprecedented and clearly unreasonable.
If it were to actually happen, it would open a Pandora’s Box of powerful individual States or groups of States seriously undermining the right to freedom of expression and opinion in other states, as well as in their own. The High Commissioner therefore once again urges all five States to take measures to solve this dispute in a calm, reasonable and lawful manner, and to ensure that any actions they take do not impact on the human rights of their own and other countries’ citizens and residents.

(3) Venezuela

The decision by the Venezuelan Supreme Court on 28 June to begin removal proceedings against the Attorney General, freeze her assets and ban her from leaving the country is deeply worrying, as is the ongoing violence in the country.

We are also disturbed by the decision on 27 June by the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber to declare her appointment of a deputy attorney general to be null and void, and to appoint instead a temporary deputy, in violation of the appointment procedure under Venezuelan law. The Chamber also granted some of the Attorney General’s, until now, exclusive functions to the Ombudsperson.

Since March, the Attorney General has taken important steps to defend human rights, documenting deaths during the wave of demonstrations, insisting on the need for due process and the importance of the separation of powers, and calling for people who have been arbitrarily detained to be immediately released.

We are concerned that the Supreme Court’s decisions appear to seek to strip her Office of its mandate and responsibilities as enshrined in the Venezuelan Constitution, and undermine the Office’s independence.

The dismissal of judicial officials should be subject to strict criteria that do not undermine the independent and impartial performance of their functions. According to the UN Guidelines on the Role of Prosecutors, States should ensure that prosecutors are able to perform their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment, improper interference or unjustified exposure to civil, partial or other liabilities.

We note that up to 22 June, according to the Attorney General’s Office, 75 people had died and some 1,419 had been injured in the continuing protests. Most recently, three young demonstrators were reportedly killed by members of the security forces – two by firearms and one who died when a tear gas canister was reportedly shot directly at him by a police officer. In addition, there are increasing reports that security forces have raided residential buildings, conducted searches without warrants and detained people, allegedly with the intention of deterring people from participating in the demonstrations and searching for opposition supporters.

We urge all powers of the Venezuelan State to respect the Constitution and the rule of law, and call on the Government to ensure that the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of opinion and expression are guaranteed.

We also call on all people in Venezuela to only use peaceful means to make themselves heard and urge all parties to renounce violence and harassment of opponents.

(4) Guatemala

The situation of some 100 families who have been displaced from their homes in the Laguna Larga community in the Petén region of Guatemala is extremely worrying. These families, who are currently living on the border with the Mexican state of Campeche, fled in anticipation of a forced eviction scheduled for 2 June ordered by a court. 

Since then, the families have been living in extremely precarious conditions -  in tents and   dependent on short-term humanitarian assistance, including food, water, medicine and hygiene items provided by the government of Guatemala, as well as by some non-governmental organizations. Supplies are reported to be running low, according to official sources.

We are very concerned that the evictions were ordered without ensuring that firm resettlement and protection plans for the affected families were in place, as required by international human rights standards – leaving the families quite literally with no place to go. The displaced families must be given adequate humanitarian assistance until appropriate relocation measures are in place.

We understand that further evictions from the area, which lies within the Laguna del Tigre National Park, are scheduled for the coming weeks, potentially leading to a crisis situation and potential violence. This situation is heightened by the weak presence of the State, and the operation of illicit activities, including drug trafficking, in the region.

Given the widespread problem of land tenure insecurity in Guatemala, forced evictions are common. Such evictions should only be carried out as a last resort, after exhausting all other alternatives, and in accordance with adequate measures before, during and following the eviction, with special protection provided for women, children and indigenous peoples, among others.

It Is essential that the Guatemalan Government takes urgent steps to establish a dialogue in good faith with the displaced families from Laguna Large, as well as other communities at risk of forced evictions, in order to find adequate and acceptable alternative solutions.

ENDS

For more information and media requests, please contact Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 97 67 / rcolville@ohchr.org) or Liz Throssell (+41 22 917 9466/ ethrossell@ohchr.org)

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