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Human Rights Council holds second panel of its annual full-day discussion on the human rights of women on COVID-19 and women's rights”. Then holds interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi

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14 July 2020

Human Rights Council

14 July 2020

The Human Rights Council this morning held the second panel of its annual full-day discussion on the human rights of women, which focused on the theme “COVID-19 and women's rights”.  It also held an interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi.

Opening the panel discussion, Peggy Hicks, Director of the Thematic Engagement, Special Procedures and Right to Development Division, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that the COVID-19 pandemic continued to gather pace with uneven impact - women and girls were at higher risk, not due to any inherent vulnerability, but rather due to pre-existing discrimination and inequality. 

Arancha González Laya, Minister for Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation of Spain, speaking via video message, said that since the beginning of the pandemic, Spain had been working at the multilateral level to advance a coordinated and effective response that guaranteed a sustainable and transformative recovery.  To that end, the international community must act by placing human rights at the centre of its plans and policies. 

Editar Adhiambo Ochieng, Founder of the Feminist for Peace Rights and Justice Centre and feminist activist from Kibera informal settlement, Kenya, speaking via video message, said it was very important to bring out the voice of the grassroots women.  Coming from Kenya, it had been really hard because while the pandemic had hit the whole world, it also had ripple effects for women and girls in informal settlements. 
Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, speaking via video message, said the world must vigorously uphold women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights during the COVID-19 pandemic.  She especially emphasized the need to address the alarming increase in levels of gender-based violence and even femicide that the world was currently witnessing.  The situation was urgent.

Jayati Ghosh, Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India, speaking via video message, said the COVID-19 crisis had reinforced relational inequalities and the power structures that enabled patriarchal oppression within households and communities.  The pandemic and related containment measures like lockdowns had impacted on women’s livelihoods even more severely than for men.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), speaking via video message, said around the world women continued to face barriers to political leadership.  Worldwide, women held just 25 per cent of seats in single or lower houses of parliament.  At the same time, women leaders had been lauded for their responses to the pandemic.
In the ensuing discussion, speakers emphasised that the world had long known that diseases affected women and girls disproportionately, and COVID-19 was not an exception, exacerbating existing inequalities.  Speakers asked the panel about the lessons learned during the pandemic with regard to the prevention of domestic violence and discrimination.  Critically unveiling the structural causes of inequalities and redressing them should be a priority in achieving lasting change.
Speaking during the interactive dialogue were Australia (video message), Namibia (video message), European Union, Norway on behalf of Nordic and Baltic countries, Switzerland on behalf of a group of countries, Denmark on behalf of a group of countries, Chile on behalf of a group of countries, Monaco, Ecuador, Qatar, Angola, China, Belgium, Venezuela, Tunisia, India, Syria, Iran, Chile
Cuba, Indonesia, Brazil, Botswana, South Africa, Netherlands, Greece and Sudan.

The following civil society organizations also took the floor : Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, International Planned Parenthood Federation, European Region of the International Gay and Lesbian Federation, Action Canada for Population and Development, and Plan International, Inc.
The Council then held an interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi.
Doudou Diène, Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, presenting an oral update, said the Commission was solemnly inviting the new President of the Republic to demonstrate his willingness for change regarding human rights issues by fully cooperating with the international human rights mechanisms.  The international community should not settle and turn the page as if the entire and exclusive responsibility of the current situation lay with the late President Nkurunziza, and as if an election and a political transition were sufficient to automatically guarantee the improvement of the human rights situation going forward.

Burundi, speaking as a concerned country, rejected the mandate of the Commission on Inquiry, due to its explicit condemnation of the system of governance set up by the ruling party.  Burundi had always claimed loud and clear that this Commission was not an objective investigative mechanism with a temporary mandate as written and known, but rather a sui generis mechanism with a geopolitical agenda that was meticulously and freely carried out for the benefit, in particular, of the Burundian political opposition.  The content of this Commission's reports did not have the quality of neutral United Nations expertise that honoured the Council. 

In the ensuing discussion, speakers noted that the peaceful transfer of power was a historic chance for Burundi to commit to democratic principles of the rule of law.  The new President had declared his intention to prioritise combatting the COVID-19 pandemic and the scourge of corruption, which was encouraging.  Speakers also expressed concern over impunity and continued serious violations of human rights, as well as over the reports of violence against members of the political opposition during the election campaign. 
Speaking during the interactive dialogue were European Union, Norway on behalf of a group of countries, China, France, Russian Federation, Venezuela (video message), Australia, Spain (video message), Luxembourg, Netherlands, Ireland, Switzerland, Myanmar and the United Kingdom.
The following civil society organizations also took the floor : Union of Northwest Human Rights Organization, East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, CIVICUS - World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Amnesty International, and United Nations Watch.

The Council will next meet this afternoon at 3 p.m. to resume the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.  It will then hold an interactive dialogue with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.

Second Panel of the Annual Full-Day Discussion on the Human Rights of Women : COVID-19 and Women’s Rights

The first panel of the annual full-day discussion on the human rights of women was held in a previous meeting and a summary can be found here.

Opening Statement

PEGGY HICKS, Director of the Thematic Engagement, Special Procedures and Right to Development Division, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that the COVID-19 pandemic continued to gather pace with uneven impact - women and girls were at higher risk, not due to any inherent vulnerability, but rather due to pre-existing discrimination and inequality.  The United Nations Population Fund estimated that, if the restrictive measures lasted six months, there would be 31 million additional cases of gender-based violence globally.  Gender equality was not an option, nor could it be cast aside in times like these.  In fact, it was fundamental to overcoming crises.  It was now needed to properly implement existing strategies : the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Beijing Platform for Action and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.  The crisis had shown the power of women’s leadership – with more effective COVID-19 response in many places where women were in charge.  The world would only overcome this historic challenge through solidarity, coordination and multilateralism, and always with the equal participation of women and girls.  The Secretary-General had stressed the critical importance of tackling gender equality, including in his recently launched Call to Action on Human Rights and in his policy briefs and guidance on COVID-19. 
Statement by Keynote Speaker

ARANCHA GONZÁLEZ LAYA, Minister for Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation of Spain, speaking via video message, said that since the beginning of the pandemic, Spain had been working at the multilateral level to advance a coordinated and effective response that guaranteed a sustainable and transformative recovery.  To that end, the international community must act by placing human rights at the centre of its plans and policies.  Firstly, women must be effectively involved in all phases of planning and decision-making on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  No country in the world was exempt from the pandemic of violence against women and girls.  In countries with records of gender-based violence, it had increased by an average of 30 per cent.  How the world responded now would inexorably shape the future of all societies and the impact of the crisis on human rights.  That was why economic policies to respond to and recover from the pandemic must specifically address the impact on women.  Finally, the world needed more and better data in order to implement truly effective policies.  Under these premises, Spain was promoting concrete initiatives within the United Nations, and regional organizations and leading important initiatives such as the Beijing+25 Generation Equality Forum action coalition on economic justice and rights.

Statements by the Panellists

EDITAR ADHIAMBO OCHIENG, Founder of the Feminist for Peace Rights and Justice Centre and feminist activist from Kibera informal settlement in Kenya speaking via video message, said it was very important to bring out the voice of the grassroots women.  Coming from Kenya, it had been really hard because while the pandemic had hit the whole world, it had also had ripple effects for women and girls in informal settlements.  Coming from Kibera, it had been so difficult for many during this situation as women had suffered in a variety of economic and social ways.  In Kibera, during this pandemic, every day there had been more than five cases of young girls and teenage girls being raped or defiled by their closest relatives.  The Feminist for Peace Rights and Justice Centre helped create safe spaces for women, as most of the women in Kibera were domestic workers and some of them had lost their jobs so just staying at home had been difficult because they had experienced increasing levels of domestic violence.  Ms. Ochieng underlined just how difficult life for women during the pandemic in Kibera was, as they were breadwinners, but now unable to provide for their families, experienced more domestic violence, could not speak up about it, and lived in an environment where many did not believe in the existence of coronavirus.  The Centre provided soap to the community, making soap to sustain young girls in their project at the same time giving back to the community ; talking on matters of sexual- and gender-based violence, and about reproductive health ; and providing condoms and contraceptives to women.

NATALIA KANEM, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, speaking via video message, said the world must vigorously uphold women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights during the COVID-19 pandemic.  She especially emphasised the need to address the alarming increase in levels of gender-based violence and even femicide that the world was currently witnessing.  The situation was urgent.  It affected every country.  Thus far, 146 Member States had pledged to make peace in the home a reality.  The United Nations Population Fund stood with them and appealed to all, to join the pledge.  The Fund was providing personal protective equipment to midwives, and also family planning services and dignity kits with soap and menstruation supplies, for women and adolescent girls in camps for refugees and internally displaced persons.  Their work must begin with asking : who was being left behind ...  and why?  Through their work with national statistical agencies, the United Nations Population Fund was helping countries to map populations vulnerable to COVID-19 and target those most at risk.  As the global community came together to conquer COVID-19, it must also work in solidarity together – women and men, girls and boys, everyone – to put peace in the home, and to defend rights and choices for women and girls. 
JAYATI GHOSH, Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in India speaking via video message, said the COVID-19 crisis had reinforced relational inequalities and the power structures that enabled patriarchal oppression within households and communities.  The pandemic and related containment measures like lockdowns had impacted women’s livelihoods even more severely than for men.  One big reason for the disproportionate impact on women workers was that—especially in the developing world—women were more likely to be informal workers, who had no legal or social protection.  How could the world deal with all of these complex and existential challenges?  It was clear that the world needed a global new deal—and it must be multi-coloured.  It must be green and blue.  Increased public spending had to be oriented towards, inter alia : recognising, respecting and preserving the environment ; and changing patterns of production and consumption accordingly.  It must be purple, with an emphasis on care economy.  It must be red, with a critical focus on addressing and reducing inequalities.  All of this required international cooperation, which was why this multi-coloured new deal must be global in scope.  This may seem like an impossible agenda, but the constraints were mainly political.

PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA, Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), speaking via video message, said that around the world women continued to face barriers to political leadership.  Worldwide, women held just 25 per cent of seats in single or lower houses of parliament.  At the same time, women leaders had been lauded for their responses to the pandemic.  They had “flattened the curve” and set new standards of leadership with transparency, public engagement and science-based decision-making.  Governments had a responsibility to put women front and centre in responding to the pandemic.  Women’s involvement was crucial in all stages of legislative, policy and budgetary decision-making processes.  This may require temporary special measures, such as those frequently recommended by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and in the Beijing Platform for Action.  Women must also have access to and information about the Internet, along with policies that limited the risk of online violence against women participating in public discourse.  A handful of women heads of state and government were showing the world how to find sustainable solutions to the pandemic.  The world must follow their example and ensure that more women could join them as leaders and role models, during and beyond the pandemic.

Discussion

Speakers emphasised that the world had long known that diseases affected women and girls disproportionately - and COVID-19 was not an exception, exacerbating existing inequalities.  Pregnant women and those who had just given birth were particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.   The pandemic brought into sharp focus the need for better implementation of equal pay for equal work and for addressing the burden of unpaid work shouldered by women.  Women represented the majority population in many countries in the world, but despite this they had less access to healthcare than men.  States, international organizations and civil society must work together to create a gender equal world.  A better normal could only happen if women participated in decision-making as equal partners, redressing the deep-rooted discrimination and feminised poverty that was a reality across all continents.  At the community level, women’s organizations provided vital health information and services for women who were experiencing violence, or were at risk of violence and needed support.  Speakers cited a powerful quote from the late Kofi Annan : “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women”.  Speakers asked the panel about the lessons learned during the pandemic with regard to the prevention of domestic violence and discrimination.  Critically unveiling the structural causes of inequalities and redressing them should be a priority in achieving lasting change.

Speakers said the COVID-19 crisis had demonstrated the fragility of gains made towards achieving gender equality.  The positive outcomes of various policies implemented in countries to address the adverse effects of the pandemic were noted, notably those that affected women, such as the creation of hotlines managed by women, the expansion of salary guarantees, and support for community kitchens.  Poverty, inequality and discrimination compounded the pandemic’s consequences.  In the face of COVID-19, the right to health should be understood as fully integrated with all other rights, and States should stand together, bound by the common understanding that human rights applied to all.  As lockdowns became the new normal, global responses and gender sensitive approaches were needed that supported women in low-wage jobs as a priority.  For already marginalized lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans women, this crisis added a layer of difficulty.  Trans women who were doing sex work had been particularly vulnerable because of containment measures that in turn forced many to resort to more unsafe and precarious conditions in order to work.

Concluding Remarks

EDITAR ADHIAMBO OCHIENG, Founder of the Feminist for Peace Rights and Justice Centre and feminist activist from Kibera informal settlement in Kenya, speaking via video message, said that the world needed to enforce existing policies if all wanted to ensure that women were protected during the pandemic.  Her experience living in Kibera, an informal settlement, showed that laws were not being enforced and women’s suffering was being ignored.  She called on the Council to spread the message of women power.

NATALIA KANEM, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, speaking via video message, said rights obligations continued to be relevant to women in all circumstances.  Accountability must be beyond legal protection.  Unless the world acted to meet the need and build resilience, even the more stable countries in the developing world would have to cope with knock-on effects of the pandemic.  She urged Member States to join the pledge for “ceasefire in the home” to counter gender-based violence.

ÅSA REGNÉR, Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, said that women and girls found themselves in a contradiction - on one hand, they worked in essential jobs literally saving the lives of the rest of the population, on the other hand these jobs were underpaid, undervalued and sometimes completely unpaid.  Evidence showed that policies that excluded women from decision-making were simply less effective and sometimes harmful.  In the COVID recovery phase, there were opportunities to change the logic that had been harmful to women and girls.

Interactive Dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi

Documentation

The Council has before it Resolution 42/26 on the Situation of human rights in Burundi (A/HRC/RES/42/26).

Presentation by the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi

DOUDOU DIÈNE, Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, said the work of the Commission had been affected by the health situation related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the movement restrictions that had followed.  The Commission noted with satisfaction that since the passing of President Nkurunziza, the Burundian authorities appeared to have better grasped the health risks linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, if only by turning away from the claim that Burundi “is protected by divine grace”.  Regarding the presidential, legislative and local (commune) elections that took place on 20 May, the Commission took note of the relatively strong participation of women in the electoral process, including the number of elected female candidates.  The electoral process – still ongoing for the Senate and colline elections, respectively scheduled for 23 July and 24 August – had been characterised by political intolerance and marred by violent incidents and multiple human rights violations.  Since the accreditation of the party Congrès National pour la Liberté of Agathon Rwasa on 14 February 2019, its members and leaders had faced acts of intimidation, threats and serious human rights violations, Mr. Diène said. 

The judicial system, which was still characterised by a lack of independence and impartiality, had largely been used as a tool in the electoral context, and justice had become the main instrument used by authorities and the Conseil National de Défense de la Démocratie - Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie, to weaken and stand in the way of the Congrès National pour la Liberté.  Further, it was clear that the economic underpinnings of the State were characterised by an obvious lack of transparency which raised numerous fundamental questions, specifically on governance in Burundi in general.  The Commission was solemnly inviting the new President of the Republic to demonstrate his willingness for change regarding human rights issues by fully cooperating with the international human rights mechanisms.  The international community should not settle and turn the page as if the entire and exclusive responsibility of the current situation lay with the late President Nkurunziza, and as if an election and a political transition were sufficient to automatically guarantee the improvement of the human rights situation going forward.

Statement by Concerned Country

Burundi, speaking as a concerned country, asked the Council to join the Burundian people in observing a few seconds in memory of the ex-President of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, who passed away recently.  Burundi rejected the mandate of the Commission on Inquiry, due to its explicit condemnation of the system of governance set up by the ruling party.  Burundi had always claimed loud and clear that this Commission was not an objective investigative mechanism with a temporary mandate as written and known, but rather a sui generis mechanism with a geopolitical agenda that was meticulously and freely carried out for the benefit, in particular, of the Burundian political opposition.  The content of this Commission's reports did not have the quality of neutral United Nations expertise that honoured the Council.  As a reminder, the apocalyptic scenarios of massive human rights violations presented by this Commission in its previous reports and based on so-called risk factors on the occasion of the 2020 elections had been swept aside with one hand by the Burundian people, who had instead defied this Commission and demonstrated their maturity to take control of their own destiny.  Burundi would like to inform the Council that, until proven otherwise, President Pierre Nkurunziza did not die from COVID-19.   

Discussion

Speakers noted that the peaceful transfer of power was a historic chance for Burundi to commit to democratic principles of the rule of law.  The new President had declared his intention to prioritise combatting the COVID-19 pandemic and the scourge of corruption, which was encouraging.  What should the new Government of Burundi focus on, as it began its mandate?  Speakers expressed concern over impunity and continued serious violations of human rights, as well as over the reports of violence against members of the political opposition during the election campaign.  Authorities had to investigate summary executions, forced disappearances, acts of torture and sexual violence, and prosecute those responsible.  Speakers urged the Government and other political stakeholders to establish a cooperative dialogue.  Other speakers noted that the Government had made positive efforts with regard to security, as well as economic and social development, urging the Council to respect the country’s sovereignty and remove the Commission of Inquiry. 

The African community was called on to help Burundi, implementing the “African solutions for African problems” maxim.  Speakers expressed concern over the future of Burundian refugees and internally displaced persons, asking the Commission to provide advice on the best ways of ensuring their safe return.  For five years, Burundi had been on the Council’s agenda, leading to various efforts which the actions of Burundi had ridiculed.  Speakers said it was frustrating to have to flag human rights violations in the country, but vowed to continue to do so until the situation improved.  Noting that media outlets faced restrictions that unduly limited independent reporting, speakers called on the Commission to continue engaging with the Government.  Burundi was in a period of transition.  Concrete action was needed to transform the new Government’s overture to dialogue into a reality.  In the Commission of Inquiry’s opinion, what measure should the Government prioritize to concretely improve the human rights situation in Burundi?  While noting that the party in power remained the same, some speakers said there was cause for hope, but the President must work in full transparency with the international community and follow the Commission’s recommendations.

Concluding Remarks

FRANÇOISE HAMPSON, Member of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, said the new President had recalled the need for the population to follow social distancing rules.  It was important to tackle other public health issues, such as the spread of malaria.  On the elections, the absence of widespread violence did not guarantee that there had not been violations.  The Catholic Church had published a statement about irregularities witnessed by its representatives, she noted.

DOUDOU DIÈNE, Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, noted that the possibility of real change existed in Burundi, but the international community must remain vigilant.  The Commission remained available to discharge the mandate, and the Council must support further analysis of what the people of Burundi had experienced in the last few years.

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For use of the information media; not an official record

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