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Address by Ms. Flavia Pansieri United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights at the 24th session of the Human Rights Council, Geneva, 25 September 2013

Introduction to country reports of the Secretary-General and of
the High Commissioner for Human Rights
under items 2 and 10

Mr. President,
Distinguished members of the Human Rights Council,
Excellences,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased to introduce to the present session of the Council the country reports of the Secretary-General and of the High Commissioner for Human Rights which have been prepared under items 2 and 10 of the agenda.

But before proceeding, and in order to respond to the Human Rights Council resolution 22/1 entitled “Promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka”, I should like to provide, on behalf of the High Commissioner, an oral update on the subject. A more detailed version of this update has been circulated as a conference room paper. The High Commissioner would very much have liked to provide this update in person and regrets being unable to do so.

At the outset, the High Commissioner would like to thank the Government of Sri Lanka for its invitation and its excellent cooperation during the planning and conduct of her visit from 25-31 August 2013. During the mission, she called on H.E. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and held discussions with senior members of the Government and other stakeholders. 

The High Commissioner observed at first hand the impressive achievements made by the Government, with the help of the international community, in resettlement, reconstruction and rehabilitation in the relatively short period since the armed conflict with the LTTE ended in 2009. 

The majority of people who were internally displaced at the end of the armed conflict have now returned or been resettled, although thousands of persons displaced before 2008-2009 are still awaiting return, and many of the returnees she met are facing difficulties resuming their livelihoods. We are pleased that the Government has invited the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons to further assess these issues.

The High Commissioner welcomes the elections to the Northern Provincial Council which were successfully held on 21st September, which she hopes will usher in an important new stage in the devolution of power.

Four years since the end of the war, the military presence in the north remains considerable. The communities that the High Commissioner met reported that there is a high level of surveillance of returnees, rehabilitees and detainees who have been released.  The High Commissioner was particularly concerned to hear about the vulnerability of women and girls, especially in women -headed households, to sexual harassment and abuse, including at the hands of military personnel, and called on the Government to formulate and rigorously enforce a zero tolerance policy for sexual abuse. 

The High Commissioner also received documentation on the compulsory acquisition of private land in Trincomalee, Mullaitivu, Jaffna and Kilinochchi. The role of the military is prominent in other areas of civilian administration and as well as in economic activities. The High Commissioner therefore encourages the Government to initiate a clear timeline for demobilisation, disarmament and disengagement from activities that are meant to be civilian.

During her visit, the High Commissioner had detailed discussions on the implementation of the LLRC report. She welcomes the Government’s move to accept an additional 53 recommendations of the LLRC to be implemented via the National Plan of Action. The Government would benefit from holding public consultations on the LLRC plan of action, involving national and international NGOs both in its implementation and independent monitoring on the ground.

One welcome step announced on the eve of the visit is the separation of the police from the Ministry of Defence under a new Ministry of Law and Order. The new Ministry however, like the Ministry of Defence, will be operationally headed by a former general reporting directly to the President.

A second welcome step announced at the time of the visit is the appointment by the President of a new Commission of Inquiry into disappearances. The new Commission will only cover disappearances in the Northern and Eastern Provinces between 1990 and 2009. This means that the many “white van” disappearances reported in Colombo and other parts of the country in recent years will not fall within its scope. The High Commissioner urged the Government to broaden the Commission’s mandate. 

In relation to detainees, the High Commissioner has always stressed the importance of the LTTE being held accountable for its crimes, and urged the Government to expedite such cases, either by bringing charges, releasing those detained, or sending them for rehabilitation.

Regrettably, the High Commissioner detected no new or comprehensive effort to independently or credibly investigate the allegations which have been of concern to the Human Rights Council. She encourages the Government to use the time between now and March 2014 to engage in a credible national process with tangible results, including the successful prosecution of individual perpetrators, in the absence of which she believes the international community will have a duty to establish its own inquiry mechanisms.

The High Commissioner also followed up on a number of other human rights concerns expressed by the Human Rights Council. She was particularly alarmed at the recent surge in incitement of hatred and violence against religious minorities, including attacks on churches and mosques, and the lack of swift action against the perpetrators. The Minister of National Languages and Social Integration has proposed new legislation on hate speech, and OHCHR stands ready to assist in this area. A visit by the Independent Expert on Minorities would also be helpful, and we hope that this can happen as soon as possible.

In relation to freedom of expression, the High Commissioner heard complaints about the continuing high levels of harassment and intimidation meted out to human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists. This concern was unfortunately borne out during her visit by reports that people in villages and settlements she visited in the Mullaitivu area were visited by police or military officers before and after her arrival.

Finally, the High Commissioner observed great disquiet among many commentators and stakeholders about the degree to which the rule of law and democratic institutions in Sri Lanka are being undermined and eroded. The 18th amendment to the Constitution has been a watershed in this respect, as it abolished the Constitutional Council which once recommended appointments to the independent bodies, such as the Elections Commission, Police Commission and Human Rights Commission, and has weakened these important checks and balances on the power of the Executive. The controversial impeachment of the Chief Justice earlier this year, and apparent politicization of senior judicial appointments, have shaken confidence in the independence of the judiciary, and separation of powers in general.

The High Commissioner is convinced that the continued attention of the Human Rights Council to the human rights situation in Sri Lanka remains critically important and will be making recommendations in March on appropriate ways it could continue that engagement.  She hopes the Government will take this opportunity to issue further invitations to Special Procedures mandate holders, particularly the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances and the Independent Expert on Minorities.  Finally, the Office, as offered by the High Commissioner a number of times, stands ready to provide any technical assistance the Government may require to implement the recommendations of the LLRC and its other obligations.

Mr. President,

Turning now to the report of the High Commissioner on the situation of human rights and the activities of her office in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (A/HRC/24/33):
The report, which covers the period between November 2011 and May 2013, highlights a dramatic increase in human rights violations, particularly in the East.

Since April 2012, the majority of the violations documented by the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office have been related to the activities of the Mouvement du 23 mars (M23). The M23 committed gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law. So did other armed groups, taking advantage of the security vacuum left since May 2012 following the redeployment of units of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) to combat the M23.

Sexual violence remains a major concern, both in terms of its scope and its systematic nature, particularly in the East. Between 15 November and 2 December 2012, appalling levels of sexual violence acts were registered. More than 194 women and girls were victims of rape or other acts of sexual violence perpetrated by FARDC soldiers and the M23 combatants in the context of combat in North and South Kivu. Impunity still prevails for sexual violence, including for cases of mass rapes.

Impunity generally remains widespread, especially for individuals in positions of power or influence, even if some progress was observed. Indeed, in 2012, the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office documented the conviction of more than 200 individuals for human rights violations committed by State agents and armed groups. However, the fight against impunity remains hampered by a structurally weak criminal justice system that generally lacks independence.

The fight against impunity also requires strengthening legislation on international crimes, including by adopting the law on specialized chambers and the law to implement the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. It is also critical to establish reliable vetting mechanisms to ensure that human rights abusers are not maintained within or integrated into the security forces. Furthermore, judicial and non-judicial mechanisms should be designed to address the legacy of atrocities that the country experienced. In that regard, we would like to reaffirm OHCHR’s readiness to assist the authorities in the organization of inclusive national consultations on the issue.

Ladies and gentlemen,

A few weeks ago, I returned from a seven-day visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where I witnessed renewed fighting around Goma, on 22 and 23 August, and its consequences on civilians. I was also particularly moved by civil society representatives whom I met in Goma, Kitchanga, Bunia and Kinshasa. They continue to be intimidated, subjected to death threats, arbitrary arrests and other violations, both by State agents and armed groups. They are expecting the swift enactment of the law to protect human rights defenders and the establishment of an effective mechanism to protect them.

Despite many outstanding challenges, we are encouraged by the Government’s efforts to fight impunity, to improve prison conditions, and to establish its National Human Rights Commission. At this crucial moment in the mobilization of efforts towards sustainable peace in Eastern DRC, OHCHR stands ready to continue providing technical support and engaging in a constructive dialogue with the authorities to contribute to the improvement of the human rights situation throughout the country.

Mr. President,

The report on the situation of human rights in Yemen (A/HRC/24/34) provides an updated assessment of the issue and is based on information gathered by the OHCHR Country Office between July 2012 and June 2013.

The report welcomes a number of positive developments which should allow addressing long-standing human rights issues: The National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which began in March 2013, includes working groups on rights and freedoms and on transitional justice, and is to mainstream the concerns of women, children and marginalized communities throughout its work; commissions on land issues and on forcibly dismissed employees have been established for Southern Yemen; and the Government has adopted important measures to prohibit child recruitment in armed groups. In addition, steps have been taken towards the establishment of an independent human rights institution, and the Cabinet decided to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and to accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. OHCHR encourages the Government to pursue these important efforts.

Nonetheless, other critical steps are necessary to ensure the sustainability of efforts to address past and chronic violations, including the adoption of the Law on Transitional Justice and National Reconciliation in conformity with international standards and good practices, and the appointment of commissioners for the national commission of inquiry into allegations of human rights violations that occurred in 2011.

Furthermore, OHCHR is concerned that peaceful protests are often suppressed, at times with force, particularly in Southern Yemen, with reported arrests, injuries or deaths. The situation of children also requires special attention, and OHCHR is particularly alarmed about their continued recruitment – both by the armed forces and armed groups - and by the subjection of minors to the death penalty. The situation of women and the marginalized communities across Yemen is also preoccupying. OHCHR is further concerned that individuals arrested in connection with the 2011 events remain in detention, despite formal commitments to their release.

With regard to the security situation, the report notes the frequent tribal road blockades and the persistent sabotage of electricity, oil and gas infrastructure, which contribute to the further deterioration of the humanitarian situation. The report also regrets the lack of investigations into the killing of individuals by drone strikes in different parts of Yemen.

The report welcomes the Government’s active cooperation with OHCHR and refers to some of the activities conducted by the OHCHR Office in Yemen. I am looking forward to visiting Yemen from 28 September to 4 October and to discuss human rights issues and cooperation with national counterparts and other stakeholders.
           
Excellences,

The report of the Secretary-General on the role and achievements of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in assisting the Government and People of Cambodia in the promotion and protection of human rights (A/HRC/24/32) describes the activities of OHCHR in Cambodia between July 2012 and May 2013. We continued to assist the Government and the people of Cambodia in promoting and protecting human rights in the following key areas: rule of law; prison reform; fundamental freedoms; land and housing rights. Work also expanded on the issue of business and human rights.
I wish to express satisfaction about the level of cooperation extended to OHCHR by the authorities. Cooperation has deepened with a number of key government counterparts, most notably the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Interior and various provincial governments.

While challenges remain, notable progress was achieved. With regard to the rule of law, the level of cooperation with the Ministry of Justice and with judges and prosecutors has markedly increased, particularly with the appeal courts. However, building a truly independent and functional justice system will require more attention. There has been considerable progress in prison reform, through OHCHR’s dedicated prison programme, including the professionalization of prison officials and physical improvements in detention facilities. We have also been actively strengthening the capacity of lawyers through joint activities with the Bar Association.

The period under review has again demonstrated the unique contribution that OHCHR is able to make in working closely with authorities, civil society, communities and individuals to avoid violence, prevent human rights violations or end continuing violations. OHCHR continued to provide assistance on individual cases related to land, limitations on freedom of expression, fair trial rights, arbitrary detention and conditions in detention, including ill-treatment. The office has played a critical monitoring and protection role with regard to demonstrations, protests, intimidations, detentions and court proceedings arising out of land and other disputes.

Since the National Assembly elections of 28 July, OHCHR has been working regularly with security forces and protestors to diffuse tensions and, wherever possible, to prevent violence from occurring or escalating. In the past weeks, our human rights officers were present in every large gathering organised in and around Phnom Penh and Battambang, maintaining a dialogue with the authorities to ensure a safe and peaceful environment for people to freely exercise their rights.

With OHCHR assistance, Cambodia’s interactions with the international human rights mechanisms have improved. It has ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and reduced the number of overdue reports to treaty bodies from 14 to 2. As the country prepares for the second review under the Universal Periodic Review, OHCHR stands ready to assist what will hopefully be another round of constructive engagement with the Government and the civil society. 

We are hopeful that Cambodia will embark, as promised, on an ambitious programme to reform key institutions that are fundamental for the promotion and protection of human rights, not least the judiciary and the National Assembly. OHCHR remains fully committed to supporting the Government and people of Cambodia in this important endeavour, and I look forward to the extension of the current Memorandum of Understanding between the Royal Government of Cambodia and OHCHR.

Mr President,

Lastly, I am pleased to present the interim report on the human rights situation in the Central African Republic (A/HRC/24/59). The report builds on the findings of a fact-finding mission which the High Commissioner deployed in the Central African Republic from 20 June to 11 July 2013, to collect information on human rights violations committed in Bangui and other localities between 10 December 2012 - when the Séléka offensive started - and 11 July 2013, when the mission left the country. 

The fact-finding mission conducted its work in an extremely volatile security situation, which significantly restricted its movement within the Capital and in other localities where human rights violations had been reported. Throughout its visit, the mission witnessed the palpable sense of fear experienced by the population, with many victims and witnesses being reluctant to talk about the ordeals they had been through.

Nonetheless, the mission was able to collect and verify credible information from various sources in Bangui and several localities, through 235 interviews, including with victims and witnesses. On this basis, the report describes violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed by the former Bozizé regime and the non-state armed group, the Séléka coalition, during the armed conflict that took place from December 2012 to 23 March 2013. The report also reviews allegations of human rights violations committed after the Séléka seized power on 24 March 2013 and thereby assumed civil and military responsibilities throughout the country.

During the conflict, both parties committed serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including summary executions and extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and looting of private and public properties. The Séléka also engaged in sexual violence and in grave violations against children. Those acts constitute gross human rights violations and may amount to war crimes. At the end of the armed conflict, after 24 March 2013, gross violations of international human rights law such as summary executions, sexual violence, recruitment of child soldiers, and the looting of properties, including hospitals, schools and churches, committed by the Séléka have continued unabated, and engage the responsibility of the State.

From 29 July to 2 August 2013, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Simonovic, visited the Central African Republic to discuss with the transitional authorities the preliminary findings of the OHCHR fact-finding mission and identify ways to address human rights challenges and prevent further violations. Along with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the Central African Republic, the Assistant Secretary-General visited Bambari, one of the cities most affected by the crisis, which the OHCHR fact finding mission had not been able to visit due to security constraints. There, he was able to gauge the scale of human rights violations when interviewing victims and visiting places where grave violations were committed, including the site of a possible mass grave.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The current crisis in the Central African Republic began long before the Séléka rebellion seized power. It is rooted in long-standing gaps and tensions, including weak State institutions, fragile social cohesion, and deep-seated feelings of marginalization among some communities, notably in the northern part of the country.

These conditions were exacerbated by corruption, nepotism, abuse of power, cyclical conflicts, and the deteriorating capacity of the national security forces. Many issues, such as the weak justice system and poor access to health and education, are not new. However, the conflict was marked by an unprecedented level of violence, looting and destruction which have further exacerbated these gaps.

Today, insecurity prevails throughout the country and the state institutions have collapsed, with a consequent breakdown of law and order. This situation fosters criminality and human rights violations, engendering a climate of fear and impunity. The high number of cases of sexual and gender-based violence committed in the Central African Republic is appalling.

The political landscape is deeply fractured, with 53 political parties, while non-governmental organisations are, at best, extremely weak.

It is of the utmost importance that the Transitional Government takes urgent measures to restore security, constitutional order and democratic governance throughout the country, including by ensuring the effective functioning of accountable security and judicial institutions. The Transitional Government should also engage in fighting impunity by ensuring that exhaustive, impartial and transparent investigations into all abuses and violations of both domestic and international law committed by any group or individuals, including Séléka soldiers, are conducted and that perpetrators are brought to justice.

While this report is being presented, the security situation remains very fragile and people in the Central Africa continue to be subjected to human rights violations, as shown by the attacks of 7 to 9 September, in the town of Bossangoa and surrounding villages, reportedly perpetrated by armed persons loyal to the former regime against Muslim communities and the retaliation from Seleka troops against Christian communities. These incidents raise serious concerns about the instrumentalisation of ethnico-religious dimensions, which could lead to a further deterioration of the crisis. 

As you know, on 14 August 2013, the Security Council issued a press statement indicating its “willingness to consider the mandate of the United Nations Integrated Office in Central African Republic (BINUCA) in light of the alarming political, humanitarian and human rights crisis.”

Thank you for your attention.