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Press briefing note on Gaza and Guatemala

Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Liz Throssell
Location: Geneva
Location: 6 April 2018
Subject: (1) Gaza and (2) Guatemala

(1) Gaza

Given the deplorable killing of 16 people and the injuring of reportedly more than 1,000 others during protests in Gaza, mostly on 30 March, we are gravely concerned that further violence could occur during demonstrations today and in the coming weeks.

The 16 people were killed by live fire during protests, with reports indicating that of the more than 1,000 others injured, hundreds were also hit by live ammunition. Given the large number of injuries and deaths, the ominous statements made by Israeli authorities in the days leading up to the protest, as well as indications that the individuals killed or wounded were unarmed or did not pose a serious threat to well-protected security forces – and in some cases were actually running away from the fence – there are strong indications that security forces used excessive force.

In policing the green-line fence, Israeli security forces are required by international human rights law to respect the rights to peaceful assembly and expression and to use, to the extent possible, non-violent means to discharge their duties. In accordance with international human rights law, firearms may be used only in cases of extreme necessity, as a last resort, and in response to an imminent threat of death or risk of serious injury.* While a minority of protestors reportedly used means that could be dangerous, the use of protective gear and defensive positions by law enforcement officials would have mitigated the risk and should not have led to recourse to lethal force. An attempt to approach or cross the green-line fence by itself certainly does not amount to a threat to life or serious injury that would justify the use of live ammunition.

We remind Israel of its obligations to ensure that excessive force is not employed against protestors and that in the context of a military occupation, as is the case in Gaza, the unjustified and unlawful recourse to firearms by law enforcement resulting in death may amount to a wilful killing, a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

We echo the call by the UN Secretary-General for an independent and transparent investigation into these incidents, with a view to holding accountable those responsible. We also call on leaders on both sides to do all in their power to prevent further injuries and loss of life.

(2) Guatemala

The parallel trials of Guatemala’s former military leader, General Efraín Ríos Montt, and the former intelligence chief, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, on charges of genocide against the indigenous Ixil people and crimes against humanity were due to resume today after the Easter break. 

Obviously given Rios Montt’s death on 1 April, only the trial of Rodríguez Sánchez is set to resume. We urge the Guatemalan authorities to ensure that the trials of those accused of violations committed during the country’s 36-year internal conflict  proceed without undue delay. Ríos Montt’s death should not prevent the authorities from fulfilling their obligations regarding the rights to truth and justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-repetition. 

Despite the valiant efforts of the victims and Guatemalan civil society, to date, very few of the prosecutions for grave human rights violations - especially of high-level officials -- have resulted in convictions. 

Ríos Montt himself was found guilty in May 2013 of genocide and crimes against humanity, only for his conviction to be annulled days later on procedural grounds. It took four years for him to be tried again. 

Such delays increase the risk of depriving people of their right to justice, especially given the advanced age of many of the victims and defendants, as demonstrated by the death of Rios Montt at the age of 91. Delaying justice can also amount to a violation of the obligation of the State to investigate and prosecute serious crimes under international law. To this end, we call on the authorities to enact a legal framework that effectively prevents and punishes the malicious use of injunctions (amparo) and other delaying tactics employed by defendants.

We also urge the Guatemalan Government to ensure the protection of independent judicial authorities and others involved in the prosecution of cases, given the threats made against them. 

It is important that the new Attorney General due to be elected next month demonstrates a strong commitment to continue the fight against impunity for crimes of the past. 

ENDS

* UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, especially paras 5 and 9:

5. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall:

(a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved;

(b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life;

9. Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting their authority, or to prevent his or her escape, and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives. In any event, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.

For media requests, please contact Liz Throssell (+41 22 917 9466/ ethrossell@ohchr.org) or Ravina Shamdasani (+41 22 917 9169 / rshamdasani@ohchr.org)

This year, 2018, is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN on 10 December 1948. The Universal Declaration – translated into a world record 500 languages – is rooted in the principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It remains relevant to everyone, every day. In honour of the 70thanniversary of this extraordinarily influential document, and to prevent its vital principles from being eroded, we are urging people everywhere to Stand Up for Human Rights: www.standup4humanrights.org.

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