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Human rights council begins interactive dialogue with the special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance

Human Rights Council

15 July 2020

Hears the Presentation of the Report of the Working Group on Human Rights and Transnational Corporations on the Eighth Session of the Forum on Business and Human Rights, Concludes Dialogue on Report on Venezuela

The Human Rights Council this afternoon started an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. It also heard the presentation of the report of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises on the eighth session of the Forum on Business and Human Rights, and concluded its interactive dialogue on the report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Venezuela.

Anita Ramasastry, Chairperson of the Working Group on business and human rights, speaking in video message, said the 2019 Forum on Business and Human Rights had focused on the theme “Time to act : Governments as catalysts for business respect for human rights”. Emphasis had been put on the need for all Governments to demonstrate progress, commitments and plans in implementing the State duty to protect and strengthen accountability. The comprehensive Forum programme had included more than 60 thematic and regional focused sessions over three days. Participants had actively taken part in multi-stakeholder discussions and addressed policy initiatives and case studies in both panel discussions and round tables.

E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, speaking in video message and presenting her reports, said that human rights analysis of digital technologies must first grapple with the social, economic and political forces that shaped their design and use, understanding the racial discrimination inherent to it. Emerging technologies reinforced existing inequities, many of them along racial lines. Misplaced faith in the neutrality of numbers and their power to overcome racism had led to discriminatory outcomes.

The Netherlands and Qatar spoke as concerned countries. The Netherlands Human Rights Institute and the National Human Rights Committee of Qatar also took the floor.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers emphasised that the digital age enabled racist and discriminatory ideologues, providing them with the space to communicate and promote their beliefs. As digital technologies became an even more integral part of people’s lives, they brought both opportunities and risks. During the design of these technologies, objectives must be explicitly anchored in the principles of racial equality, rather than implicitly reflecting existing discrimination in societies.

Speaking in the interactive dialogue were State of Palestine on behalf of the Arab Group, European Union, Burkina Faso on behalf of the African Group, China on behalf of a group of countries, Canada, Djibouti, Togo, Sierra Leone, Angola, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Libya, China, State of Palestine, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, Russian Federation, Pakistan, Montenegro, Senegal, Armenia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Tunisia, Cuba, India, Philippines (video message), Namibia, Australia, Iran, Bangladesh, Jordan, Luxembourg, Indonesia, Brazil, Botswana, South Africa, Bahrain, Iraq, Greece, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Nepal, Republic of Korea, Israel, Georgia, Algeria, Paraguay, United Kingdom, Norway, Malta, Chad, Zimbabwe and Ukraine.

The non-governmental organization World Jewish Congress also took the floor.

At the beginning of the meeting, the Council concluded an interactive dialogue on the report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the independence of the justice system and access to justice in Venezuela, including for violations of economic and social rights, and the situation of human rights in the Arco Minero del Orinoco region. The interactive dialogue started in a previous meeting and a summary can be found here.

Speakers expressed deep concern about the functioning of the judiciary in Venezuela, emphasising that it did not seem to work in an independent manner, and condemned the use of the military justice system to try civilians. The scale of the human rights challenges in the country meant that it was imperative to set up an office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Venezuela.

In concluding remarks, Venezuela deplored that countries in the region were servants to imperialism and as such sought to destabilize democratic institutions in Venezuela. They were supporting foreign powers seeking to undermine Venezuela, hoping to sow chaos to justify foreign intervention.

Nada Al-Nashif, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, in her concluding remarks, stated that previous recommendations remained relevant including those calling on authorities to dissolve special action forces of the Bolivarian Police. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights welcomed efforts by the Government to increase its cooperation with human right mechanisms, including the Special Procedures.

Speaking were Albania, Poland, Peru (video message), Eritrea, United Kingdom, Argentina, China, Belarus, Myanmar, Iran, Syrian Arab Republic, Nicaragua, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and Cambodia.

The following non-governmental organizations also took the floor : International Service for Human Rights, International Commission of Jurists, Asociacion HazteOir.org, Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Amnesty International, United Nations Watch, World Organisation Against Torture, Human Rights Watch, Ingenieurs du Monde, and the International Human Rights Association of American Minorities.

The Council will next meet on Thursday, 16 July at 9 a.m. to conclude the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. It will then consider the outcome of the Universal Periodic Review of a number of States.

Interactive Dialogue on the Report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Venezuela

The Human Rights Council started an interactive dialogue on the report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the independence of the justice system and access to justice in Venezuela, including for violations of economic and social rights, and the situation of human rights in the Arco Minero del Orinoco region, in a previous meeting, and a summary can be found here.

Discussion

Speakers expressed deep concern about the functioning of the judiciary in Venezuela, emphasising that it did not seem to work in an independent manner, and condemned the use of the military justice system to try civilians. The scale of the human rights challenges in Venezuela meant that it was imperative to set up an office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Venezuela. The Defence Minister’s declaration on 5 July that the military would never allow the opposition to take power in Venezuela was highlighted. The crisis in Venezuela had been exacerbated by the economic sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic, requiring Venezuela to lead the recovery out of this crisis, with the help, support and solidarity from the international community. Other speakers noted that they did not support actions against developing countries, urging the Council to respect the sovereignty of Venezuela and calling on the United States to lift its sanctions. Technical cooperation between the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Venezuela was ongoing, therefore it was counterproductive to continue this mandate, as it may hinder the progress that had already been achieved.

Confrontation and unilateral coercive measures did not solve challenges, but only worsened the situation and the suffering of Venezuela’s people as a whole. Dialogue and constructive engagement was the only path forward for the promotion and protection of human rights. The Universal Periodic Review was the right mechanism for ensuring that Venezuela maintained its human rights obligations to this Council. Civil society speakers decried attacks against human rights defenders, journalists and health workers in Venezuela, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and noted that the Government of Venezuela called returning refugees “chemical weapons”. Serious abuses of the rights of indigenous peoples, especially the rights of indigenous women and children, had been occurring for some time in Venezuela. Some speakers said that Venezuela desperately needed urgent humanitarian assistance and the international community had to act. At the same time, comprehensive unilateral measures were worsening access to medicine, threatening thousands of lives in Venezuela during the COVID-19 pandemic, and intensifying the suffering of people in the country. Reporting on and criticising the Government’s response to the pandemic inside the country left reporters, healthcare workers and civil society open to attacks from the Government.

Concluding Remarks

Venezuela, in concluding remarks, deplored that countries in the region were servants to imperialism and as such sought to destabilize democratic institutions in Venezuela. They were supporting foreign powers seeking to undermine Venezuela, hoping to sow chaos to justify foreign intervention. Venezuela denounced the aggressive intervention it was being subjected to, and those who supported unilateral coercive measures that had killed its people. Some were already at work trying to sabotage the legislative elections, which would take place in December. Venezuela reiterated its will to maintain constructive dialogue and cooperation with the United Nations.

NADA AL-NASHIF, Deputy United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in concluding remarks, stated that previous recommendations remained relevant, including those calling on the Venezuelan authorities to dissolve special action forces of the Bolivarian Police. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights welcomed efforts by the Government of Venezuela to increase its cooperation with human right mechanisms, including the Special Procedures. It also welcomed the establishment of a national mechanism for reporting and follow-up. The Government had increased access to detention centers and detainees, which was helpful and should serve as a catalyst for change. The Government had taken steps to address the COVID-19 pandemic and had requested assistance from the United Nations in that context. Regarding the role of international actors, the European Union and countries in the Americas could play a key role in fostering dialogue towards a political solution.

Presentation of Report of the Working Group on the Issue of Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises on the Eighth Session of the Forum on Business and Human Rights

Documentation

The Council has before it the Report of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises on the Eighth session of the Forum on Business and Human Rights (A/HRC/44/56).

Presentation of Report

ANITA RAMASASTRY, Chairperson of the Working Group on Business and Human Rights, speaking in video message, said the 2019 United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights had focused on the theme “Time to act : Governments as catalysts for business respect for human rights”. Emphasis had been put on the need for all Governments to demonstrate progress, commitments and plans in implementing the State duty to protect and strengthen accountability. The comprehensive Forum programme had included more than 60 thematic and regional focused sessions over three days. Participants had actively taken part in multi-stakeholder discussions and addressed policy initiatives and case studies in both panel discussions and round tables. Although some States were increasingly taking action to incentivize business respect for human rights through legal developments, policies, national action plans, multi-stakeholder platforms and economic incentives, much more still needed to be done. When acting as economic actors, for example, Governments should lead by example, including by integrating human rights due diligence into the operations of State-owned enterprises, trade and investment promotion efforts, and public procurement operations.

The Forum had once again emphasized that all business enterprises had an independent responsibility to respect human rights and that, in order to do so, they were required to exercise human rights due diligence to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for their impacts on human rights. Positive developments from different countries had been featured in regional Forum sessions. A key message delivered at the Forum was that rights holders must be at the centre of any measures by States, businesses, investors and other stakeholders. Several Forum sessions had reiterated the need to effectively protect and respect the rights of individuals and communities, especially individuals and groups that were discriminated against and marginalized. A spotlight had been shone on the alarming trend of increasing attacks on human rights defenders across the world, the need to provide protection to them, and effective remedies when abuse occurred. She informed that, due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Forum would be held virtually in 2020. The Working Group hoped that using virtual platforms would in fact extend the global reach of the Forum and allow even greater participation by all stakeholders.

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

Documentation

The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance on Racial discrimination and emerging digital technologies : a human rights analysis (A/HRC/44/57 – Advance Edited Version).

The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance on the Visit to Qatar (A/HRC/44/57/Add.1).

The Council has before it the Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance on the Visit to Netherlands (A/HRC/44/57/Add.2 – Advance Edited Version).

Presentation of the Reports

E. TENDAYI ACHIUME, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, speaking in video message, noted that she would limit her opening remarks to her thematic report on racial discrimination and emerging digital technologies due to time constraints. Human rights analysis of digital technologies must first grapple with the social, economic and political forces that shaped their design and use, understanding the racial discrimination inherent to it. Emerging technologies reinforced existing inequities, many of them along racial lines. Misplaced faith in the neutrality of numbers and their power to overcome racism had led to discriminatory outcomes. It was perceived as a purely technological problem, which was one of the biggest obstacles to combatting racial discrimination. Affected racial and ethnic minority communities had to play decision-making roles in the processes that aimed at eliminating racial discrimination in emerging digital technologies. Private corporations were making significant profits from promoting intolerance and wielded monumental influence in the design and use of digital technologies, sectors that were characterised by a diversity crisis along gender and racial lines. Market and economy forces also exerted an important influence on the design and use of technologies.

Where economies were structured along racial inequalities, which was the case all over the world, technologies would typically be consistent with existing inequalities. The report identified three specific categories of racial discrimination. Direct discrimination - explicitly motivated action aimed at enforcing racial discrimination in the design and use of digital technologies. Indirect discrimination - design and use that had the effect of undercutting access to human rights even when intent to discriminate was absent. Finally, racially discriminatory structures - design and use of different digital technologies that could be combined intentionally and unintentionally to produce racially discriminatory structures that systematically undermined human rights for certain groups. International human rights law by no means was a panacea but should play an important role to identify and address technological harms, and ensure accountability. Ethical approaches must be pursued in line with international law. The report also outlined obligations imposed on States where digital technologies were concerned, as well as on non-State actors such as technology corporations, which in some respects were even more powerful.

Statements by Concerned Countries

Netherlands, speaking as a concerned country, emphasised that it valued and supported the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism. The Netherlands was self-reflective and continued to improve its human rights situation. It thanked the Special Rapporteur for her visit. Her report had raised serious questions, reminding the Netherlands of the need to keep up and enhance its efforts to combat racism and to evaluate the impact of its policies. The Netherlands had a history of cooperation with civil society. The Government provided training courses and established guidelines on anti-discrimination policy at municipal levels : It was also rolling out a comprehensive anti-discrimination action plan. Yet, the work was far from complete ; more work should and would be done to ensure the equal protection of the enjoyment of human rights by all individuals. New initiatives to tackle discrimination in employment and housing were underway, and the Government was investigating discrimination in the rental market. The extent to which education in the Netherlands devoted sufficient attention to the country’s colonial past had also been reviewed. In the revision of the Dutch curriculum now underway, proposals put forward devoted more attention to the subjects of colonialism, wars of independence, slavery and the historical role that the Netherlands played in that respect.

Netherlands Human Rights Institute thanked the Special Rapporteur for the report. Racial discrimination was in the spotlight worldwide. The Netherlands was no exception, and with good reason. The Government needed to step up initiatives to address racism. Racial discrimination was a persistent problem at all levels of society. In many areas of life, members of racial and ethnic groups were not considered “really Dutch”. The Institute urged the Human Rights Council to encourage the Government of the Netherlands to develop an inclusive vision of national identity. The Government must play a leading role in stepping up efforts to address racial discrimination, including outside of the gambit of criminal law. The Government should invest more in eradicating stereotypes and prejudice, and encourage the training of professionals in the private sector. There had been recent signs that the Government's attitude on this matter was changing, which bode well for its consideration of the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations.

Qatar, speaking as a concerned country, said it had taken note of the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations contained in her report, and was pleased to note that a number of these recommendations were already being implemented. Concerning the updating of the domestic legislative system in the area of promoting and protecting workers' rights, Qatar had abolished the 'kafala' system (sponsorship law) and fundamentally reformed the legal structure of labour relations since 2015 under Law No. (21) regulating the entry and exit of expatriates and their residence. The State of Qatar had reservations about certain interpretations contained in the report which referred to the existence of discrimination based on racial and ethnic stereotypes. It affirmed that these assumptions contradicted the provisions of the Constitution, laws and procedures in force in the State of Qatar that promoted a spirit of equality, solidarity and brotherhood, and prevented the stirring up of sectarian or racial or other strife among the population. Qatar hoped that the Special Rapporteur would continue in her future reports to address human rights violations caused by coercive and discriminatory measures imposed by the blockading countries, especially as these violations clearly fell within the Special Rapporteur's mandate, since they targeted those affected on the basis of their Qatari nationality.

National Human Rights Committee of Qatar welcomed the visit of the Special Rapporteur to Qatar and her recommendations, notably calling for a greater role in combatting racism for the national human rights committee of Qatar. She had identified issues regarding discrimination, including the need to achieve equality between all citizens with regard to civil and political rights, and to grant Qatari women the right to confer their nationality to their children, as well as the need to enhance access to justice, especially for non-citizens. It underlined the importance of awareness-raising and education on racism, and indicated that it would make further efforts to that end.

Discussion

Speakers agreed that the digital age enabled racist and discriminatory ideologues, providing them with the space to communicate and promote their beliefs. As digital technologies became an even more integral part of peoples’ lives, they brought both opportunities and risks. During the design of these technologies, objectives must be explicitly anchored in the principles of racial equality rather than implicitly reflecting existing discrimination in societies. The disproportionate mortality rate of racial and ethnic minorities from COVID-19, especially those of African descent, represented a serious point of concern and showed that systemic, structural and institutional racism still thrived across the world. Racism was like war - it was simply absurd, but just like war, it was not unavoidable, holding generation after generation hostage.

Speakers agreed with the report that education played a central role in the fight against racist stereotypes and for diversity. Speakers noted that while racial discrimination and neo-Nazism surged globally, it was encouraging that an international movement against racism and violence was also recently unleashed. Political leaders and political parties must condemn racist hate speech and combat extremist populist ideologies. The fight against racism needed a collaborative effort, internationally, regionally and nationally, speakers said. The report mentioned the role that large private corporations could play in addressing the phenomenon of racism, but it was necessary to remember that the vast majority of these mega-companies resided in the most developed countries, which coincidentally were the ones that opposed a binding regulatory framework for the accountability of transnational corporations regarding human rights violations.

Interim Remarks

E. TENDAYI ACHIUME, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, urged a greater use of the international anti-racism framework to address the racism issues related to emerging technologies. Anti-Semitism was a serious issue on which she regularly reported but it was disingenuous to conflate advocating for the rights of Palestinians with anti-Semitism. There was an urgent need for States to disrupt the dynamic whereby money was being made from discrimination. In the context of policing and criminal justice, emerging technologies were being used in a manner that reinforced the systemic manifestations of racism which the urgent debate held during the last session of the Human Rights Council had sought to address. Experts on social, economic and political discrimination must be included in conversations about discrimination related to emerging technologies, not only at the implementation phase but also while these technologies were being designed, the Special Rapporteur stated.

Discussion

Speakers underlined the role of the Council to call out racism wherever it occurred. They noted that the coding of algorithms designed to extract and make sense of big data was done in a small number of large corporations and universities that tended to be located in the West and were staffed by overwhelmingly white, affluent and male personnel. It was important to proactively prevent human rights violations by acting at the design stage. How did the Special Rapporteur recommend that all stakeholders involved, including corporations and States, take action in that regard? Some speakers underlined that emerging technologies played a critical role in accelerating the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Other speakers highlighted the Special Rapporteur’s view that marginalized racial and ethnic groups, mostly excluded from the benefits of emerging digital technologies, were at higher risk of human rights violations in the context of COVID-19.

The use of digital technologies for the purpose of spreading hate speech, violence and incitement to hatred, had contributed to the spread of, inter alia, neo-Nazism, national populism, Islamophobia and racism against people of African descent. Several speakers drew attention to the manner in which the matter under discussion affected people living in occupied territories. The importance of accepting and implementing the principles of the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, as well as acceding to its Optional Protocol, was underlined by many speakers as an integral part of the broader strategy to combat racism worldwide. Some speakers noted that at the International Telecommunication Union, issues related to the universalization of access to telecommunications focused on access without discrimination to emerging digital technologies, an approach that lacked a human rights perspective and did not address the direct or indirect discrimination that emerging technologies may generate.

Interim Remarks

E. TENDAYI ACHIUME, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, urged States to remove reservations to article 14 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. In terms of States’ priorities in taking an intersectional approach to regulating the design of technology, they must ensure that anti-racism and human rights standards were relied upon to define the parameters. Regarding COVID-19, what the world was seeing was that racism and xenophobia came in two forms : attacks against certain ethnic and racial groups online and in person, many of which were gendered, as well as structural forms of discrimination and exclusion. The pandemic had exposed the fact that most countries did not have sufficiently strong anti-racism frameworks at all levels. The Special Rapporteur joined the call of others for an immediate moratorium on the sale, transfer and use of surveillance technologies until robust human rights safeguards were in place to regulate such practices. Transitions to technological systems were often motivated by efficiency or fairness. She cautioned Governments against deferring to technological solutions unless they could absolutely be certain that those solutions were not reinforcing or exacerbating racial discrimination once deployed. She said the discussion was resuming the next day but she would not be able to join it because of the time difference. She would however re-listen to all statements made.

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