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Human Rights Council opens forty-first regular session, hears update by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

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24 June 2019

MORNING 

Presidents of Bulgaria and of the Marshall Islands, and Dignitaries from Armenia, Somalia, Netherlands, Republic of Moldova, and Norway Address the Council

GENEVA (24 June 2019) - The Human Rights Council this morning opened its forty-first regular session, hearing an update by Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The President of Bulgaria, Rumen Radev, and the President of the Marshall Islands, Hilda C. Heine, addressed the Council, as did dignitaries from Armenia, Somalia, Netherlands, Republic of Moldova, and Norway.

In her update to the Council, Ms. Bachelet said that during its June session, the Council would examine many human rights situations and themes, including topics crucial to women’s enjoyment of human rights in the context of work, old age and climate change; targeted surveillance and the private surveillance industry; mental health; and other essential areas of political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights.  There would also be interactive dialogues regarding the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Sudan and Venezuela, among many other issues.  She would review aspects of her mission last week to Venezuela during a dialogue on 5 July.

The High Commissioner raised concern about the situation in Syria, where air strikes by the Government and its allies and to a lesser extent, ground-based attacks by armed groups caused hundreds of civilian casualties, destruction to civilian infrastructure, and displacement of over 200,000 people.  She highlighted concerns about executions and the use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia and Iran and commended global progress with respect to the death penalty this year, including recent ratifications by Gambia and State of Palestine, removal of the death penalty from the penal codes of Benin and Burkina Faso, and declarations of moratoria in Malaysia and the state of California.  Concerned about violence and the incitement of violence on the basis of religion, as seen in the attacks on Muslim mosques, Jewish synagogues and Christian churches, the High Commissioner noted that the terrorist attacks two months ago had fuelled increasing tensions in Sri Lanka, where the priority must be to bringing political, religious and other community leaders together to address root causes of all forms of violence and discrimination.

Ms. Bachelet in her update addressed the situation in Tunisia, the crisis in Cameroon, the brutal crackdown by the security forces in Sudan, continuing persecution of the remaining Rohingya people in Myanmar, peaceful demonstrations in Hong Kong against the extradition bill, the bilateral dialogue with China, including on the issue of access to Xinjiang province, important steps towards truth-telling in Panama and Mexico and concerns about the passage of amnesty legislation in Nicaragua and attempts at passing de facto amnesty laws in Guatemala and El Salvador, her Office’s cooperation with the new Commission for Truth and Access to Justice in the Ayotzinapa Cases in Mexico to seek the truth and ensure justice for the disappearance of 43 students in 2014, the extraordinarily high number of deaths and persistent reports of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines in the context of campaigns against drug use, accountability for violations in Haiti, and the serious impact on civilians of the surge of conflict around Tripoli, Libya.

In her address, the High Commissioner also addressed the issue of migration policies and criminalization of basic human compassion for migrants, commending Portugal's open and forward-looking migrant policy and raising her voice against the deeply unfortunate trend towards the criminalization and prosecution of those offering assistance to migrants, including in Europe and in the United States.  Libya, she stressed, was not a port of safe return, and denounced the continued arbitrary detention of migrants in shocking and degrading conditions.  The High Commissioner discussed the situation of over 55,000 suspected Islamic State (ISIL) fighters and their families, who were detained in Syria and Iraq following the collapse of ISIL, and the application of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to digital technologies.  In the coming months, she said, the international community would come together for a series of crucial meetings on measures to stem climate change and boost sustainable development.  Only principled, multilateral action could adequately address those and other challenges, the High Commissioner stressed and urged Member States to support the work by all United Nations human rights bodies and to stand for a world which was based on hope and dignity – a world that was stronger and safer because it upheld the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of all.

The High Commissioner will hold an interactive dialogue with States and civil society on Tuesday, 25 June, on her update.

Rumen Radev, President of Bulgaria, said that climate change was deterring people in many countries from exercising the most basic human rights and that mitigating its negative effects was of the highest priority.  Bulgaria strongly supported the Human Rights Council’s efforts to address the impact of environmental degradation and climate change on human rights.

Hilda C. Heine, President of the Marshall Islands, placed emphasis on the importance of the upcoming interactive dialogue on the right to education regarding the challenges of private involvement in public education.  It was urgent that the Council strengthened accountability to prevent that the United Nations turn a blind eye to voices of vulnerable communities and populations, and abusive actors and governments should not use the Council as a cover to evade scrutiny.

Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Armenia, said the prevention of genocide remained a challenge and strongly condemned the “denialist” policies and the offence to the dignity and memory of the victims of the Armenian genocide manifested in the address by the President of Turkey on 24 April 2019.

Deqa Yasin, Minister for Women and the Promotion of Human Rights of Somalia, called for increased cooperation on human rights as the best way for the promotion of universal respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all in accordance with the United Nations Charter.  The Council should prioritize bringing an end to impunity for violations of human rights in conflict situations.

Yoka Brandt, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, said that the Council’s effectiveness and efficiency could be enhanced: its members had to live up to the standards laid down in the founding resolution, it must respond better to human rights violations in country situations that met the objective guiding principles, and it was crucial that the United Nations’ human rights work, including that of the human rights treaty bodies, was adequately funded.

Tatiana Molcean, State Secretary for Foreign Affairs and European Integration of the Republic of Moldova, said that since becoming a member of the United Nations, the Republic of Moldova had acceded to the majority of global and regional human rights treaties and conventions that had laid the basis for the extensive national human rights legislative framework.

Aksel Jakobsen, Deputy Minister for Development, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Norway, remarked that the overall message of the 2030 Agenda was to leave no one behind, and yet, across the world, people were left behind on a large scale.  The oppression and marginalization not only represented human rights abuses but also damaged societies, weakened the stability of countries and hampered development.

The Human Rights Council will hold a full day of meetings today.  Next, it will engage in a clustered interactive dialogue with the Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.

Statement by the President of the Human Rights Council

COLY SECK, President of the Human Rights Council, welcomed the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, and the Director-General of the United Office at Geneva, Michael Møller.  Mr. Seck thanked Mr. Møller, who since his appointment in 2013, had endeavoured to improve public awareness of the work of the United Nations Office at Geneva.  He also underscored the presence of the representatives of 15 least developed countries and small-island States, some of which were attending a regular session of the Human Rights Council for the first time.  Mr. Seck said that the Presidents of Bulgaria and of the Marshall Islands would address the Council this morning, as well as dignitaries from Armenia, Somalia, the Netherlands, the Republic of Moldova and Norway.

Statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in her update to the Council, said that the eyes of the world were on the Council as it opened its June session, during which it would examine many human rights situations and themes.  They included topics crucial to women’s enjoyment of human rights in the context of work, old age and climate change; targeted surveillance and the private surveillance industry; mental health; and other essential areas of political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights.  There would also be interactive dialogues regarding the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Sudan and Venezuela, among many other issues.  She would review aspects of her mission last week to Venezuela during a dialogue on 5 July.

Ms. Bachelet said she would start by discussing a question that was currently not being given adequate consideration by many actors.  Over 55,000 suspected Islamic State (ISIL) fighters and their families were detained in Syria and Iraq following the collapse of ISIL, including over 11,000 suspected family members of foreign ISIL fighters, held at the Al Hol camp in north-eastern Syria in deeply sub-standard conditions.  All individuals suspected of crimes must face investigation and prosecution with due process guarantees as accountability, stressed the High Commissioner, underlining that fair trials protected societies from future radicalisation and violence and that the continuing detention of individuals not suspected of crimes, in the absence of lawful basis and regular independent judicial review, was not acceptable.  Well over 150 men and women had been sentenced to death in Iraq under the anti-terrorism law, following trials that had not afforded adequate due process guarantees.  High Commissioner Bachelet strongly encouraged Member States to act in line with the guidance note prepared by her Office regarding human rights-based responses to the situation of foreign fighters and their families and to assume responsibility for their nationals.

The recent and continuing military escalations in Syria - in Idlib and western Aleppo - were of extreme concern, Ms. Bachelet said, underlining the reports of hundreds of ongoing civilian casualties, destruction to civilian infrastructure, and displacement of over 200,000 people, mainly caused by air strikes by the Government of Syria and its allies, but also, to a lesser extent, ground-based attacks by armed groups.  In Saudi Arabia, the High Commissioner reiterated her strong condemnation of the mass execution of 37 men in April, including those who had been children when the alleged crimes had occurred, and she remained particularly concerned by the continued execution of children in Iran as well as the high number of child offenders on death row, possibly more than 85, with some at risk of imminent execution.  The High Commissioner commended global progress with respect to the death penalty this year, including recent ratifications by Gambia and State of Palestine, removal of the death penalty from the penal codes of Benin and Burkina Faso, and declarations of moratoria in Malaysia and the state of California.  In Tunisia earlier this month, she commended the Government’s commitment to enacting reforms that strengthened democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights, and stressed that this country could be an example for others striving to achieve constitutional and legislative reforms, as well as transitional justice.

Turning to digital technology, the High Commissioner stressed that the human rights framework was essential to ensuring that responses by technology companies and governments effectively addressed human rights challenges such as massive and arbitrary surveillance or the safety of human rights defenders, journalists and others who relied on encryption and anonymity.  Technological developments must drive progress and hope – not discrimination, repression and despair, Ms. Bachelet stressed and said that in the coming months her Office would be engaging with many voices across sectors and geographies to develop focused guidance on the application of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to digital technologies.  Concerned about violence and the incitement of violence on the basis of religion, as seen in the attacks on Muslim mosques, Jewish synagogues and Christian churches, the High Commissioner noted that the terrorist attacks two months ago had fuelled increasing tensions in Sri Lanka, where the priority must be to bringing political, religious and other community leaders together to address root causes of all forms of violence and discrimination.  All must be more vigilant in the face of the hatred and violent extremism which fed off each other, and act with great urgency and great care. 

In the context of the intensifying crisis in Cameroon, the High Commissioner called on the authorities to uphold the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, ensure due process, and view the opposition as partners in the broadly inclusive dialogues which were indispensable to laying the foundation for sustainable peace in Cameroon.  The inspiring and peaceful popular uprising in Sudan, with its call for democratic governance and justice, had been met with a brutal crackdown by the security forces this month.  Ms. Bachelet urged this country to grant access to her Office, put an end to the repression of the people's human rights, and immediately end the Internet shutdown.  In Myanmar, evidence indicated continuing persecution of the remaining Rohingya people in northern Rakhine state, with little or no effort by the authorities to create conditions for the voluntary, safe and sustainable return of refugees.  Ms. Bachelet encouraged the authorities in Hong Kong to consult broadly before passing or amending the extradition bill or any other legislation and said that she continued to raise issues related to Xinjiang and other matters bilaterally with the Government of China, while discussions on the unfettered access to the province by her Office were ongoing. 

The High Commissioner commended important steps towards truth-telling and acknowledgment of the bitter realities of human rights violations in Panama and Mexico and went on to raise her concern about the worrisome trend of denial of the facts, even extending to the passage of laws intended to undo the progress made in seeking justice across Latin America.  Amnesty legislation had been passed in Nicaragua earlier this month and attempts had been made to pass de facto amnesty laws in Guatemala and El Salvador.  In Mexico, Ms. Bachelet commended the President's acknowledgement of the need to take action regarding reports of torture, extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations which had taken place in an atmosphere of wide-ranging impunity, including the very large number of outstanding cases of enforced disappearance, and said that her Office would work with the new Commission for Truth and Access to Justice in the Ayotzinapa Cases, providing technical assistance to seek the truth and ensure justice for the disappearance of 43 students in 2014.  The extraordinarily high number of deaths and persistent reports of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines in the context of campaigns against drug use continued and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was following this human rights situation very closely. 

High Commissioner Bachelet commended Portugal's open and forward-looking migrant policy which aimed to offer migrants easy access to social and legal assistance and encouraged migrants to access the labour market.  All countries should learn from this example, she said as she noted with concern a deeply unfortunate trend towards the criminalisation of basic human compassion for migrants, including those in situations of great vulnerability.  Over 100 ordinary people in Europe had been arrested or prosecuted this year for assisting migrants; similar prosecutions of ordinary people seeking to help individuals in distress had also taken place in the United States and elsewhere, while in several countries, new legal measures aimed to penalise non-governmental organizations which rescued people drowning at sea.  Those who sought to help people in need should be honoured, not prosecuted and this criminalisation of acts of basic human decency must be resisted.  In Libya, the surge of conflict around Tripoli, which began in April, had a serious impact on civilians.  Migrants continued to be subjected to arbitrary detention in shocking and degrading conditions and many recent deaths in detention had been reported as well as torture, sexual violence, and the trafficking and sale of children, women and men.  Libya was not a port of safe return.  In Haiti, accountability for violations and measures to ensure the broadest possible participation in decisions were essential to building trust, preventing further human rights violations, and enabling a sustainable future.

Finally, the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that in the coming months, the international community would come together for a series of crucial meetings on measures to stem climate change and boost sustainable development, and stressed that only principled, multilateral action could adequately address those and other challenges.  In this context, she urged Member States to support the work by all United Nations human rights bodies and to stand for a world which was based on hope and dignity – a world that was stronger and safer because it upheld the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of all.

Statements by Dignitaries

Rumen Radev, President of Bulgaria, said that adequate and prompt action around the world to protect human rights were vitally important for the United Nations to reinforce its mandate, credibility and relevance.  The protection of human rights was not attainable without lasting peace and sustainable development and vice versa.  Bulgaria hailed the efforts of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the President of Human Rights Council in this regard.  As climate change was deterring people in many countries from exercising the most basic human rights, mitigating its negative effects was of the highest priority.  Bulgaria strongly supported the Human Rights Council’s efforts to address the impact of environmental degradation and climate change on human rights.  Bulgaria was a member of the Human Rights Council for the first time, and attached particular attention to its preventive efforts.  It recognized the success of the Universal Periodic Review, which had for the first time made the records of all United Nations Member States available for regular and comprehensive international scrutiny.  Tolerance and understanding were values which represented the very foundation of modern democracies.  Regrettably, anti-Semitism was again rearing its ugly face in various countries.  Bulgaria’s full membership to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance was a clear recognition of its clear response to growing anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism.  Mr. Radev reiterated his country’s commitment and resolve to further actively contribute to the respect, protection and promotion of human rights.

Hilda C. Heine, President of the Marshall Islands, placed emphasis on the importance of the upcoming interactive dialogue on the right to education regarding the challenges of private involvement in public education.  It was urgent that the Council strengthened accountability to prevent that the United Nations turn a blind eye to voices of vulnerable communities and populations.   Reaffirming the Special Rapporteur’s 2012 report on nuclear testing and human rights in the Marshall Islands, Ms. Heine said these impacts could have been avoided.  The Marshall Islands’ own national experience and contribution was brought to the Council on the basis of its own history to ensure that no one was left behind.  While all were working towards common and universal standards, more remained to be done to ensure that global diversity was an implementation opportunity rather than a barrier.  Abusive actors and governments should not use the Council as cover to evade scrutiny.  The international community must do more to live up to the reputation of the United Nations.  No country, no matter how powerful, was immune to scrutiny and improvement.  In a spirit of good faith and transparent engagement with the Council, the Marshall Islands had launched its candidacy to be elected to the Council in 2020.  Climate change impacts and future risk were clearly a violation of the core human rights, security and the basic dignity of the Marshall Islands, Ms. Heine stated.  A consistent presence here was vital, and the Marshall Islands had been pleased in opening its new mission in Geneva. 

Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Armenia, recalled that the people of Armenia had elected in a genuinely democratic process a new parliament in December 2018, through a process supported by the international community.  Today, the Government was empowered with the confidence of its people, and had been steadfast on delivery on its priorities, including the reform of the judiciary, which was driven by a strong political will.  The success of Armenia’s velvet revolution of love and solidarity had been secured to a considerable extent by the participation of women, and this reaffirmed their critical role in political and social life as well as the priority of pursing equal rights and opportunities for women and men.  In February, the Government had approved the first national action plan on the implementation of the United Nations Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.  The prevention of genocide remained a challenge.  Armenia strongly condemned the “denialist” policies and the offence to the dignity and memory of the victims of the Armenian genocide manifested in the address by the President of Turkey on 24 April 2019.  Human rights were universal; there could be no distinction of any kind.  Therefore, limitations imposed on the access of people living in conflict areas to international human rights mechanisms contradicted the spirit and letter of international human rights law.  Nagorno Karabakh’s people were entitled to freely enjoy their inalienable rights.  The key to lasting peace in the region was the recognition of the human security and rights of Nagorno Karabakh’s people.  Armenia was a candidate to the Human Rights Council for the term 2020-2022, and it was confident that it would deliver quality membership and contribute in a genuine, fair and effective manner to international cooperation in the Council.

DEQA YASIN, Minister for Women and the Promotion of Human Rights of Somalia, called for increased cooperation on human rights as the best way for the promotion of universal respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all in accordance with the United Nations Charter.  As a country emerging from prolonged conflict, Somalia strongly believed that the achievement of sustainable peace was linked with fostering the culture of respect for human rights, and it urged the Council to prioritize bringing an end to impunity for violations of human rights in conflict situations.  Somalia was willing to share its experience with addressing human rights in challenging conditions and was convinced that its contribution to the Council would be valuable.  The protracted conflict in Yemen had uprooted populations from the safety and comfort of their homes, she said, noting that Somalia had taken its human rights responsibilities seriously and had received over 6,000 Yemeni refugees.  Four days ago Somalia had ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, while the bill for the establishment of Somalia’s National Disability Agency had been signed into law in December 2018.  Somalia had developed the first ever Somali Women’s Charter, which had been unanimously adopted at the first National Women’s Convention in Mogadishu in March 2019.  The Charter was ground-breaking in its scope, inclusiveness and ambition, as it reflected a demand for 50 per cent representation of women at all levels of Government, greater protection of women’s rights, and prevention of sexual and gender-based violence and female genital mutilation. 

YOKA BRANDT, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, underlined that human rights were for everyone, no matter who they were, no matter where they were from, and no matter how much money they had.  Everyone must be able to claim their right to human dignity and that was what this Council, its members, and the Netherlands stood for.  The Netherlands was deeply committed to human rights and to the Council, and believed in the importance of multilateral cooperation and dialogue.  The Human Rights Council had significantly contributed to the promotion and protection of human rights and it also effectively acted on many country situations where the Security Council had failed.  More than ever in those difficult times, all must work harder to defend human rights and improve this Council, said the Deputy Minister, highlighting the need for smart multilateral engagement to solve the world’s biggest challenges.  The Netherlands was convinced that the effectiveness and the efficiency of the Council could be enhanced: first, there was room for improvement in the roles and responsibilities of its members who had to live up to the standards laid down in the founding resolution; second, the Council must respond better to human rights violations in those country situations that met the objective guiding principles; and third, it was crucial that the United Nations’ human rights work, including that of the human rights treaty bodies, was adequately funded.  The Netherlands wanted to contribute to the achievement and the strengthening of the Council, and that was why it was again a candidate for a seat.  Apart from political support, it wanted to contribute financially and had made more funds available to promote and protect human rights internationally.

TATIANA MOLCEAN, State Secretary for Foreign Affairs and European Integration of the Republic of Moldova, recalled that in 2014, the Republic of Moldova had signed an association agreement with the European Union and had declared European integration as its national long-term strategic objective.  Guided by the principles of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights, and on its strong belief in the power of collective action in addressing most pressing issues of our times, the Republic of Moldova had decided to present its candidature for the upcoming elections in the Human Rights Council.  At the beginning of June, the Republic of Moldova had submitted to the President of the General Assembly the voluntary pledges by which it committed to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.  Its strong adherence to multilateralism and human rights spoke for itself, the State Secretary noted: since becoming a member of the United Nations, the Republic of Moldova had acceded to the majority of global and regional human rights treaties and conventions that had laid the basis for the extensive national human rights legislative framework.  The country fully cooperated with the Council: it had a standing invitation for Special Procedures and had undergone the Universal Periodic Review twice.  The measures taken to improve the human rights situation at the national level included the adoption of the Law on Ensuring Equality in 2012 and the creation of the Council for Preventing and Eliminating Discrimination and Ensuring Equality; the re-accreditation in 2018 of the People’s Advocate as a national human rights institution with A Status according to the Paris Principles; and the adoption of the third national human rights plan 2018-2022 and the establishment of the National Human Rights Council.

Aksel Jakobsen, Deputy Minister for Development, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Norway, remarked that sustainable development for all depended on the realization of human rights.  The overall message of the 2030 Agenda was to leave no one behind.  “Our common task is to turn that message into reality,” Mr. Jakobsen stressed.  And yet, across the world, people were left behind on a large scale.  The oppression and marginalization not only represented human rights abuses but also damaged societies, weakened the stability of countries, and hampered development.  Over the past decade, Norway’s official development aid had stood at 1 per cent of its gross national product, which made it one of the world’s largest donors.  Norway had chosen to intensify its efforts to promote human rights, including a human rights based approach to development, as one could not be enjoyed without the other.  Norway was committed to combat violence against and repression of sexual and gender minorities, and urged all countries to support the renewal the mandate of the independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity during the current session.  Norway supported the important role played by environmental human rights defenders in promoting human rights and sustainable development, and welcomed the unanimous call in last session’s resolution to protect them and hold perpetrators accountable.  Gender equality was about unlocking the full potential of a country and also constituted a human right.  It was becoming increasingly clear that promoting human rights toward the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals was not only the right thing to do, it was also the smart thing to do.  The world needed the United Nations to show strong leadership in the defence and promotion of human rights.

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For use of the information media; not an official record

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