Oral updates and introduction to country reports of the High Commissioner and her Office on Colombia, Cyprus, Eritrea, Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, and the impact of COVID-19 on human rights


26 February 2021


46th session of the Human Rights Council
Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Geneva, 26 February 2021

Madame President,
Colleagues, Friends,

I am honoured to present my Office’s reports on the human rights situations in Colombia, Cyprus, Guatemala, Honduras and on the impact of COVID-19 on human rights. I will also briefly update the Council on the situation in Eritrea, as well as on our technical cooperation with Venezuela.

I begin with my annual report on Colombia (A/HRC/46/76).

In 2020, my Office continued to strengthen its cooperation with Colombia. We acknowledge the measures taken to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic with a human rights approach. I also commend the Government for the temporary protection announced for Venezuelan migrants.

Despite a reduction in the national homicide rate, we observed increased violence due to the expansion of non-state armed groups and criminal groups, with serious consequences for the civilian population. In 2020, we received information on 81 massacres, of which we documented 76, the highest number since 2014. We also recorded 133 killings of human rights defenders, 90 of which we verified. The UN Verification Mission in Colombia has documented at least 252 killings of former FARC combatants since the signing of the peace agreement.

I urge the State to redouble its efforts to protect the population, by establishing a comprehensive presence in the most affected territories. I welcome the Ministry of Interior's openness to work with my Office to strengthen the institutional response to early warnings from the Ombudsman's Office. I also urge the National Commission on Security Guarantees to adopt a public policy to dismantle criminal organisations. I also urge the State to further strengthen the special investigative unit of the Attorney General's Office.

I welcome the significant progress on transitional justice. These advances, and the future publication of the Truth Commission report, constitute a historic opportunity to guarantee the rights of victims and pave the way for reconciliation that can overcome decades of violence and conflict. Manifestations against the transitional justice system, including legislative proposals to abolish the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, are concerning. There is an urgent need for effective State protection of these institutions, their members and members of the public who come before them.
I reiterate my Office's full readiness to support the implementation of the recommendations in my report.

In Guatemala, my annual report (A/HRC/46/74) outlines our work to strengthen technical cooperation in 2020.

Guatemala continued to face systemic and structural challenges, particularly poverty, inequality, discrimination, impunity and insecurity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had disproportionate social and economic impact on indigenous peoples, women and people with disabilities.

I welcome the adoption of measures by the Government to strengthen access to culturally appropriate health care and to provide information in accessible formats and in indigenous languages.

I encourage the authorities to strengthen social protections, with greater emphasis on people in vulnerable situations. I recognise the commitment of the Executive and of Congress to expand social programmes and increase the national budget to respond to the crisis generated by the pandemic.

I urge Congress to promote a legislative agenda aimed at strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights and to avoid the adoption of regressive legislation.

Measures should be taken to ensure the independent, objective and transparent election of judges in the High Courts.

In 2020, my Office continued to observe the erosion of civic space, with increasing attacks and intimidation against human rights defenders, including journalists. I urge the Government to act to prevent such attacks and protect these individuals, and judicial personnel.

I encourage the authorities to prioritise strengthening the Presidential Secretariat for Women (SEPREM). Its announced replacement by a lower ranking institution is disturbing. I also urge the Presidential Commission for Peace and Human Rights (COPADEH) to strengthen implementation of national activities in this area.

I encourage the Government to continue to engage with regional and international human rights mechanisms. I reiterate my Office's full readiness to support the implementation of the recommendations included in my report, and to continue working with the Government for the promotion and protection of human rights for all in Guatemala.

I now turn to the situation in Honduras (A/HRC/46/75) where, in 2020, my Office has strengthened technical cooperation with executive, legislative and judicial bodies.

The country's human rights challenges include high levels of violence, impunity, discrimination and lack of access to economic, social and cultural rights. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the impact of hurricanes Eta and Iota, have exacerbated the obstacles faced by the most vulnerable people.

I appreciate the Government's willingness to comply with my Office's recommendations, including modification of the decree declaring a State of Emergency in response to the pandemic.

My Office recorded a total of 665 social protests during the State of Emergency. I am concerned about arbitrary arrests, the militarisation of citizen security and the excessive use of force by security forces in handling demonstrations. I call on the Government to undertake a process of progressively demilitarising and strengthening civilian institutions in the security sector.

We observed continued criminalisation, threats and even murders of people defending human, environmental and land rights. I call on the State to strengthen the civic space and to ensure the right to free, prior and informed consultation for indigenous peoples and Afro-Honduran communities.

Strengthening accountability and access to justice for victims of human rights violations must be a priority. I am concerned about obstacles to access to justice in several judicial processes, including in the trial related to the murder of Bertha Cáceres.

I regret that the State has not yet carried out a participatory consultation process to reform the new Penal Code and ensure its compliance with international human rights obligations, including those linked to the right to freedom of expression, women's rights and the fight against corruption.

I emphasise that among the thousands of people who have left Honduras in so-called "migrant caravans" – often due to structural human rights violations – many have returned in conditions that did not meet the criteria of voluntariness, safety and dignity.

I thank the State for its continued cooperation with my Office and human rights mechanisms.

Madam President,

I am pleased to present this update on the cooperation between my Office and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (HRC/45/2). On 10 March, I will have the opportunity to address the human rights situation in the country (HRC/45/20).

Since my last update, the joint work plan has been renewed and expanded. My team continues to strengthen technical assistance, also providing support on pre-trial detention and investigation protocols for violations of the right to life and personal integrity. In addition, my team has worked intensively with the Ombudsman's Office, conducting 4 trainings in recent months.

My Office has already visited seven states and conducted five more visits to detention facilities since September. I am confident that more will be organised shortly, including to military prisons and intelligence detention facilities.

In October, my team proposed to the authorities a protocol for observation of court hearings, which I hope to see adopted and implemented. Since my last update, we have also formalised a mechanism for the exchange of information on individual cases and situations of concern. I encourage the deepening of this exchange, with substantive and timely responses and appropriate resolutions.

I note the decision to grant Juan Planchart house arrest and to allow him to receive adequate medical care. I also take note of the release of two military personnel who had served their sentences, the conditional release of 12 indigenous Pemones and the acquittal of a journalist. 

I also welcome measures to provide some detainees with access to medical examinations, and I urge they be followed up with medical assistance and timely sharing of medical reports with lawyers and family. This practice, as well as regular contact with family members and lawyers and adequate access to food and water, should be standardised in all places of detention.

My team continues to follow up with the Attorney General's Office alleged human rights violations. I welcome the new charges under the Law against Torture in the killing of Captain Acosta Arevalo.

The Special Rapporteur on Unilateral Coercive Measures conducted a country visit in February, and I encourage additional visits by other mandates this year to focus on a wide range of human rights concerns.

We are initiating the mid-term evaluation of the Letter of Understanding with the Government, with a view to strengthening our cooperation, expanding our presence and establishing an Office in Venezuela.

I now move to the report onCyprus (A/HRC/46/23).

The persisting division of Cyprus continues to hinder the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The report continues to highlight concerns with respect to the right to life and the question of missing persons; the principle of non-discrimination; freedom of movement and the right to seek asylum; property rights; freedom of religion or belief and cultural rights; freedom of opinion and expression; and the right to education. It also emphasizes the importance of ensuring a gender perspective to the peace process.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated human rights challenges. Restrictions on freedom of movement rendered the buffer zone effectively impassable, serving as a stark reminder that Cyprus remains a divided island. The effect was particularly acute for individuals and groups in vulnerable situations, including older people, those with disabilities, migrants and asylum seekers members of religious communities and Cypriots who were already affected by the protracted division. I note, however, that both sides have accepted many requests to facilitate access for Cypriots to essential services.

I commend the efforts of all of those who continued to work to advance the promotion and protection of human rights, despite the challenges. They included civil society, religious leaders and faith-based actors, and many bicommunal technical committees.  I urge stronger efforts for mutual dialogue and cooperation, and call upon all parties to work towards the full restoration of human rights to the population of Cyprus.

Let me now turn the update on Eritrea, as mandated by resolution 44/1.

The 2018 peace agreement with Ethiopia prompted hope of internal reforms to improve the situation of human rights in Eritrea, but I remain concerned by the lack of tangible progress. I have, however, noted some positive developments in recent months, namely the release of a large group of Muslim men last August and that of 28 Jehovah’s Witnesses on 4 December 2020, who had each spent between 5 to 26 years in prison. In recent weeks, 70 evangelical and orthodox Christians were released from three Eritrean Prisons.

At the same time, Eritrean authorities have yet to ensure full respect for human rights, in particular the freedoms of expression and opinion, association and peaceful assembly, and religion. I reiterate my call to the Eritrean Government to release political prisoners, journalists, civil society activists, and those detained for practicing their faith, some of whom have been held incommunicado for decades.

I am also concerned by reports indicating the participation of Eritrean troops in the conflict in Tigray alongside the Ethiopian army, and allegations of their implication in cases of serious human rights violations. Those include acts of abductions and forceful return of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers and their imprisonment in unknown locations. Such allegations need to be investigated promptly and thoroughly by independent mechanisms. 

As a member of this Council, Eritrea is duty bound to respect the highest standards of human rights promotion and protection in full cooperation with other United Nations bodies. I encourage the Government to strengthen its cooperation with UN human rights mechanisms, in particular with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, and to enhance its engagement and technical cooperation with my Office. We remain ready to assist Eritrea on the three priority human rights areas identified by the authorities, as well as in implementing the recommendations from the Universal Periodic Review.

Lastly, I now turn to my report on the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on human rights (A/HRC/46/19).

The health and socio-economic crisis we face is unparalleled. 

As stated in my report, the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of strong public universal healthcare systems, with quality care available, accessible, affordable to all -- without any discrimination, and regardless a person’s ability to pay.

Universal health coverage is a fundamental priority.

And vaccines must be made available to everyone.

Addressing inequalities and discrimination is a defining challenge of our time. Upholding human rights is the way to address them and we must strengthen our investments on Economic, Social and Cultural rights.

There is an absolute necessity to create greater resilience to future shocks and ensure a more effective, sustainable recovery.

From the catastrophe brought by the pandemic, we now have both the opportunity and the responsibility to recover better. For people and planet.

For that, we also need meaningful participation and new levels of global cooperation and international solidarity.

The Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights spells out the transformative role of human rights in addressing the challenges faced globally and should drive our recovery efforts from COVID-19.  

I welcome the promising examples submitted by States and encourage all to share your best practices.

My Office and I look forward to continuing our work supporting States with their human rights-based recovery efforts.

This concludes my introduction of country reports and updates under item 2.   I encourage stakeholders to implement their recommendations.

Thank you.