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Human Rights Council Informal Briefing on Burundi, Tunisia, Migration crises in Europe and South-East Asia, and South Sudan

Distinguished President,
Excellencies,

Thank you for inviting me to this informal briefing, which adds a new element to the Council's growing relevance to human rights around the world. It is very important and encouraging to the mandate of the High Commissioner to be able to bring promptly to your attention new developments or information. I hope that this new format will lead to greater and more timely action by regional and national actors, as well as by the Council, as you deem appropriate.

During my mission to Burundi last month I was alarmed by the violence of the Imbonerakure militia, which is a strong supporter of President Nkurunziza’s government, and by politically motivated harassment, threats, and hate speech. The attempted coup of 13 May, and the assassination of opposition leader Zedi Feruzi on Saturday, have further intensified tension. Opposition politicians, journalists, prominent human rights defenders, and indeed many ordinary people still fear for their lives. When I left Burundi, on 15 April, 6,000 Burundians had fled the country due to fear of political violence and intimidation.  Five weeks later, that number has swelled by a further 110,000 frightened people.

This is a country with deep and terrible knowledge of the potential consequences of outbreaks of violence. Following a decade of growing recovery, and prosperity, these recent events are a significant setback. But we can still avoid the path that could lead back to past tragedies. I am encouraged by the mobilisation of the African Union, the International Conference on the Great Lakes region, the East African Community, the European Union and the United Nations, and by the priority they have given to human rights concerns. The Special Envoy for the Great Lakes is making a tremendous effort to draw all actors to the negotiating table, and OHCHR's country office continues to work with the Government, civil society, the National Independent Human Rights Commission and the Ombudsman to protect human rights and the rule of law. I hope the Council can send a strong message to national actors and the international community to stop the wave of violence.

I also visited Tunisia last month, and the contrast with Burundi could hardly be more vivid. Tunisia deserves congratulation for turning its back on the oppression of the past, and for its resolute adoption of human rights goals. The evident respect for democratic institutions and the many important voices of civil society is very encouraging. The cooperation of the authorities with our Office and the UN human rights mechanisms has been exemplary.  The new Constitution is in line with international human rights standards; the Truth and Dignity Commission will begin hearings next month; and legislation has been adopted to combat the persistent issue of torture, with provision for the establishment of a national preventive mechanism. Four reservations to CEDAW were withdrawn last year, and a law on violence against women has been drafted. The authorities have also made significant efforts regarding the rights of persons with disabilities and the freedom of the media.

Continued commitment to human rights – and a stronger focus on the accountability of the security sector – will reinforce Tunisia’s stability and security, as well as its sustainable economic and social development. The entire Middle East and North Africa region would certainly look very different today if leaders of other countries had had the wisdom to take a similar approach. I look forward to supporting Tunisia's efforts to reform law enforcement practices, and to revive its economy by diminishing inequalities.

Excellencies,

I am alarmed by the current migration crises in Europe and South-East Asia, which will not be resolved unless a far more comprehensive approach is adopted. The paramount concern of all actors must be the human rights of the people who have embarked on their desperate voyage out of fear and need, and I welcome your ideas for how to ensure that this is the top priority.

I have repeatedly expressed my acute concern regarding the plight of migrants in the Mediterranean. Over 1,800 have died at sea so far this year, and 7,000 people were rescued in just the first three days of this month. Among them are Syrian nationals fleeing the relentless conflict that has devastated their country; Eritreans, fleeing wide-ranging oppression of their human rights; Libyans, seeking to escape turmoil and lawlessness; and many others, fleeing repression and persecution, deprivation, and the denial of their civil, economic, political and social rights.

The European Agenda on Migration, issued two weeks ago, sets out the EU’s response to this appalling human tragedy. The Agenda triples funding for the Triton and Poseidon programmes operated by the Frontex border agency, and expands their capability and geographical scope to “help to save the lives of migrants at sea”. The EU also seeks a Security Council resolution to authorise military action to capture and destroy boats used by smugglers off the coast of Libya.

This disproportionate focus on enforcement, and the militarization of that enforcement, raises a large number of concerns, beyond the urgent and absolute need to protect the lives of the people who seek passage on those boats. Any law enforcement response to migrant smuggling must respect international standards for human rights. The Office will hold an expert meeting on 17 June on the issue of human rights and migrant smuggling to discuss this vital issue at greater length.  We are also closely following related developments in the Security Council. We need to protect the human rights of migrants themselves at all times, above all other considerations.

The European Agenda also proposes quotas for the resettlement of 20,000 refugees within the EU. This small number of places is wholly inadequate to the magnitude of this crisis. I urge far greater emphasis on expanding channels for migration into Europe, including for low-skilled labour and family reunification.

Among these migrants are some of the most vulnerable people in the world. A more humane, less mean-spirited response to their plight would be more worthy of Member States of the United Nations. As we have seen with the recent constructions of heavily patrolled metal and barbed-wire fences, tighter control of international borders, increased border surveillance, and a reduction of channels for regular entry only force migrants to seek more precarious and dangerous avenues. All too often, this is when these men and women – and an appalling number of children – take fatal risks in their desperate search for safe haven, or fall prey to traffickers, violent criminals, kidnappers and extortionists, who exploit their vulnerability.

Clearly, as the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants has repeatedly and eloquently stated, we need a much more comprehensive approach: one that better addresses the very complex need for mobility, and the root causes of migration, which include multiple conflicts, persecution, discrimination, corruption, arbitrary governance and the denial of civil, economic, political and social rights.

This analysis is confirmed by the recent migration crisis in South-East Asia. In the first quarter of this year, 25,000 people have set out to sea from Myanmar and Bangladesh – some fleeing persecution in Myanmar, and others fleeing the poverty that besets both countries. At least 1,050 people have died at sea. A large proportion of them – perhaps even a majority – are stateless or refugees, and are in need of international protection. Many have been violently abused and robbed by the smugglers whom they paid to facilitate their voyage. Several boats were abandoned by captain and crew, to evade a crackdown on smuggling networks by the government of Thailand; this left their passengers – many of them children -- hungry, thirsty and adrift, in some cases for several weeks. A number of boats were pushed back as they reached the shores of neighbouring countries.  About 2000 people have managed to reach land; and thousands are said to be still at sea as we speak today.

After initially refusing permission to land, Indonesia and Malaysia have now officially agreed to take in these desperate families, until they can be sent home or resettled in a third country. Thailand has not offered shelter, and has said it will apply criminal sanctions to any migrants and asylum seekers who arrive. In addition, mass graves have been discovered, most recently on the Malaysian side of the Thai border, containing the bodies of presumed victims of human trafficking gangs.

Indonesia and Malaysia are providing a temporary lifesaver, and we welcome it as such, but it is not enough. ASEAN committed itself in its Charter to human rights and humanitarian principles, and ASEAN states need to fulfil their obligations to search and rescue all those in peril at sea, and to offer lasting protection to people who are fleeing persecution. The regional meeting that is scheduled to take place later this week must at last come to grips with the need for far stronger arrangements for the protection of both migrants and asylum seekers.

The offer of temporary shelter, while welcome, cannot hope to fix the deeper problems.  Thousands of these people are Rohingya fleeing Myanmar. The Government of Myanmar has accepted a number of returnees and has announced “serious efforts on the prevention of smuggling and illegal migration”. But a strong effort to revise policies that affect the human rights of the Rohingya will be essential. These people have a right to a future in freedom and dignity in Myanmar. Instead, they face widespread and systematic human rights violations, including ethnic and religious persecution, and the denial of both citizenship and the full range of civil, economic, political and social rights. Many Rohingya who have fled violent attacks are held in squalid and overcrowded camps, with severe and discriminatory restrictions placed on their freedom of movement.  As the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar told the Council in March, Rohingya people in IDP camps have told her that they had only two options: “stay and die” or “leave by boat”. Nobody should have to face such a choice.

Myanmar is accelerating in its development, and its policies of opening up to the outside world can bring the country massive dividends in terms of economic and social progress. The treatment of the Rohingya not only violates human rights norms; it complicates Myanmar’s relations with its neighbours and holds back this process of transformation. I hope the discrimination that targets this vulnerable minority will swiftly be reversed, and that the Rohingya will be able to take their rightful place in the country where they were born.

I am also dismayed that in Australia, people on boats intercepted at sea are sent to detention centres where conditions are inadequate.

Excellencies, there is a better way.  Expanded channels of safe and legal migration at places of destination.  Enhanced rescue operations at sea. Redoubled efforts to address root causes and push factors at places of origin. Protection of human rights at places of transit and at borders, in close cooperation with international and national humanitarian actors. A principled campaign against xenophobia and discrimination.  Scrupulous respect for human rights standards in all enforcement activities. In sum, a response that is grounded in our values and commitments—not in prejudice and fear.

I welcome your thoughts regarding more structured follow-up to this persistent and dramatic issue. The Human Rights Council may wish to consider a Special Session on migrants at sea, or a focused, high-level interactive dialogue during the June session, with the participation of relevant Special Rapporteurs and concerned parties.

Finally, a few words to express my deep concern about the situation in South Sudan. Despite the best efforts of the African Union, IGAD and the United Nations, fighting has resumed. In the past two weeks, more people have sought refuge at the UNMISS Protection Sites; some had to trek hundreds of kilometres by foot, and braved attacks by armed groups along the way. Armed attacks also directly threaten some UNMISS Protection Sites, and 7 people were recently killed at one of the sites in Upper Nile state. Humanitarian access has been severely constrained, and aid agencies have pulled out of several locations in Unity state due to fighting, further jeopardizing the situation of civilians.

It has been almost 18 months since this senseless conflict erupted, with virtually no accountability for the numerous violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law that have been committed. The conflict itself is, at least in part, a direct consequence of unresolved issues from the past. Previous cycles of violent attacks and killings, committed with absolute impunity, have left many people with unresolved grievances, easily mobilized for renewed violence and revenge attacks. It is therefore of the utmost importance that accountability remains a priority in seeking a resolution to the conflict.

For the sake of justice, deterrence and a better future for the people of the country, I hope that the Council will give high priority to the situation in South Sudan, especially on the question of accountability for past and present violations.