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Introduction to country reports of the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

40th session of the Human Rights Council

20 March 2019

Distinguished President,
Members of the Human Rights Council,
Colleagues, Friends

The Council has been presented with reports of the Secretary General and of the High Commissioner concerning the human rights situations in Colombia, Cyprus, Guatemala, Honduras, Iran, and regarding the situation of the Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar. I will also, in a separate statement, give the Council oral updates on the human rights situations in Venezuela and Yemen. My remarks this afternoon will include updates on recent issues in the countries under discussion.

I begin with the report on Colombia, A/HRC/41/3/Add.3

Two years after the signature of the Peace Agreement between the Government and the FARC-EP, I encourage the Government to implement the Special Jurisdiction for Peace in a comprehensive manner.

Regarding the Presidential decision to challenge six articles of the Statutory Law, I encourage the executive and legislative branches, as well as all other stakeholders, to discuss and review these articles in an expeditious and thorough manner. A prompt decision will enable the Special Jurisdiction to function in a more independent way while strengthening legal security for the victims. The protection of victims’ rights to justice, truth and guarantees for non-recurrence is essential, and should be at the core of all State efforts.

I am also concerned by some aspects of the newly launched Security and Defence Policy, which increases the use of military forces to perform public security tasks, and seeks to establish citizen security networks.

The number of killings of human rights defenders and social leaders is a source of concern. In 2018, the Office documented the killing of 110 human rights defenders, one quarter of them indigenous or Afro-Colombian people. As of 8 March, we have received reports of 27 more killings of human rights defenders this year, and verification is ongoing. Most of these murders occurred in rural areas where the FARC-EP's influence was previously strong, and where the presence of the State remains weak, particularly in healthcare, education and other fundamental services. Many human rights defenders are targeted for supporting aspects of the Peace Agreement, such as land restitution, victims’ rights and substitution programmes for illicit crops. The masterminds behind these killings frequently remain unknown and thus benefit from impunity.

I welcome the resumption of meetings by the National Commission on Security Guarantees. My Office will continue to assist the State to improve protection of human rights defenders and others, and to boost accountability. I also note the country visit by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders, and encourage the Government to host other experts. I welcome the reactivation of the National Plan for Human Rights and trust it will continue to include the participation of civil society. The work of upholding human rights is crucial to enabling reconciliation and peace, and I am convinced that these measures will bring tremendous benefit to the people of Colombia.

I now turn to the report on Cyprus, A/HRC/40/22

Four decades of division of the island continue to hinder full realisation of all people's human rights. The report highlights concerns regarding the right to life, and the question of missing persons; discrimination; freedom of movement; property rights; freedom of religion or belief; cultural rights; freedom of opinion and expression; and the right to education. It also notes some positive developments, including slow but positive steps regarding missing persons, and sustained efforts by civil society actors to build dialogue and cooperation. Two new official crossing points have opened, increasing contacts between communities and enhancing freedom of movement.

We continue to urge stronger efforts for mutual dialogue, and the meaningful participation of women in the peace process. An impartial, in-country human rights capacity could help to ensure that human rights issues are rapidly addressed and that human rights are fully integrated into the peace process.

The next report before you is on Guatemala, A/HRC/40/3/Add.1

I note a number of serious and continuing challenges to the rule of law, the independence of justice and the fight against impunity and corruption in Guatemala.

Some important progress was made in 2018 regarding justice for grave human rights violations committed during the decades of internal armed conflict. For example, the ground-breaking judgment in the Molina Theissen case recognized that practices of sexual violence, torture and enforced disappearance were part of military strategy during this period. I particularly commend the courage of victims, their supporters, and key members of the Attorney General Office and the judiciary.

However, I am troubled by the mounting threats to the independence and protection of members of the judiciary – such as judges presiding over crucial trials for corruption and transitional justice, and those seated on the Constitutional Court. I have expressed my concern over the Government's recent decision to withdraw from the agreement establishing the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala. This move could be a very significant setback for the struggle to eradicate both corruption and impunity in the country.

I am also deeply concerned by a number of legislative bills which risk reversing the country's recent progress in accountability, and which may impose undue limitations to fundamental freedoms. In particular, bill No 5377, which aims to amend the National Reconciliation Act, envisages a general amnesty, with immediate release of all people who have been detained for crimes committed during the internal armed conflict. This would constitute a prima facie denial of justice, and could place victims and their families at high risk of reprisals.

I am also alarmed that bill No. 5257 could impose restrictions on civil society organizations, and have damaging impact on freedom of association and expression, which are particularly crucial in an electoral year.

There is continuing violence against human rights defenders, especially those working on land rights, natural resources and indigenous peoples’ rights. In 2018, 26 human rights defenders were killed. Together with the national human rights institution, my Office is preparing a public report on the situation of human rights defenders in Guatemala.

In this context, I am concerned by the risk of rising tensions and even violence as the Presidential, legislative and municipal elections, which are scheduled in June, approach. It is vital for Guatemala's future that groups who have traditionally suffered discrimination and exclusion can meaningfully participate in elections, with adequate representation. I trust that all candidates will address the country's serious structural issues, including growing inequalities, extreme poverty, chronic malnutrition of children, and discrimination against indigenous peoples.

I move now to the report on Honduras, A/HRC/40/3/Add.2

I regret that the comprehensive National Political Dialogue, intended to overcome the crisis of November 2017, concluded in December 2018 without any formal agreement. Nonetheless, it was an important moment for the country, as it allowed for many voices to be heard and for important discussions to take place.

Further steps should be taken to demilitarize public order and to develop a professional and accountable civilian police force that is properly vetted and trained. There could be further deterioration of the human rights situation unless accountability for human rights violations is promptly pursued and there is movement on the reforms in the social, economic, justice and security sectors.

Impunity remains a very serious concern, including for human rights violations. There has, forexample, been little progress concerning the prosecutions and trial of members of the security forces for the human rights violations committed in the context of protests following the elections in November 2017. I welcome the efforts made to investigate and prosecute the murder of Berta Caceres, but other, lower-profile cases should also receive attention.

I commend the efforts to establish a Special Prosecutor for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Journalists Media Workers and Persons Responsible for the Administration of Justice, but the Office continues to observe a pattern of criminalization of human rights defenders, including indigenous, peasant and environmental activists.

I encourage prompt action regarding legal reforms to guarantee the independence of the justice system, particularly the bill on effective collaboration which was presented to Congress in April 2017, and which includes measures to incentivise cooperation with judicial investigations into organized crime.

Given thestrong links between violence, insecurity, involuntary displacement and the country's high levels of poverty, inequality and exclusion, it will be essential for Honduras to set up strong, human rights-based policies, including through regional cooperation, to address root causes of migration, such as the rights to work, to education, to adequate health care and to be protected from violence.

I turn now to the report of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights in Iran, A/HRC/40/24

The report welcomes the amendment abolishing the mandatory death penalty for some offences, which has led to a significant reduction in the overall number of executions in Iran. However, the report raises concerns regarding the establishment of special courts in August 2018 to address economic crimes. A least 5 individuals were sentenced to death under this directive, three of whom were executed. Moreover, the death penalty remains in force for child offenders, despite the unequivocal prohibition under international law. At least six child offenders were executed in 2018, and at least 85 child offenders are currently on death row. The report acknowledges the Government's efforts to encourage pardons, but reiterates the need to prohibit death sentences for child offenders in all circumstances. All such sentences should be immediately commuted.

Economic and financial challenges in Iran have had a significant impact on a wide range of human rights, including access to work, food, water, health care and other basic necessities. Longstanding economic grievances and mismanagement have led to sporadic protests across the country. The re-imposition of sanctions in November 2018 is likely to further exacerbate economic challenges affecting the enjoyment of economic and social rights.

Serious and persistent discrimination against women and members of ethnic and religious minorities is also of deep concern. The Secretary-General's report notes a persistent pattern of intimidation, arrest, prosecution and ill-treatment of human rights defenders, lawyers, labour rights activists and environmentalists.

In particular, the detention, recent conviction and long prison sentence for human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who represented women rights defenders, is of great concern. Like all Human Rights Defenders arbitrarily detained, she should be immediately released.

The report also expresses concern at the deteriorating health of a number of individuals in detention and the persistent denial of access to appropriate medical care. Cases of torture and arbitrary detention continue to be reported, as well as the conduct of trials, which fail to comply with international standards.

Finally, the Secretary-General notes and welcomes enhanced cooperation and dialogue between the Government of Iran and the Office, Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures. He encourages the Government to engage in further dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Iran, including an invitation to visit.


Our report on the situation of human rights of Rohingya people in Rakhine State, A/HRC/40/37, is submitted pursuant to the Council's resolution S-27/1. It assesses progress made by Myanmar in its cooperation with the mechanisms in five principal areas which they have consistently identified as human rights priorities: citizenship; participation in public life; fundamental rights and freedoms; displacement and the right to return; and accountability.

The report notes initial steps by the Government to implement some recommendations, particularly among those issued by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. However, it emphasises that the overall objectives of the recommendations remain largely unaddressed, with no significant progress observed on human rights concerns raised in previous reports. It regrets the failure to reach an agreement on an OHCHR presence, and the denial of access to the Council's Independent International Fact-Finding Mission, as well as the withdrawal from cooperation with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

On key human rights concerns, our report observes that no steps have been taken to adequately address the issue of citizenship of the Rohingya people. It calls for halting the issuance of National Verification Cards, and immediately removing the requirement for possession of National Verification Cards as a precondition for access to essential services.

The report also raises concerns regarding participation in public life, noting that there is essentially no representation of the Rohingya community, at any level of decision-making. It recommends measures to ensure their participation in political processes, particularly in view of the 2020 parliamentary elections, as well as adequate representation in the civil service.

Systematic discrimination and pervasive restrictions on freedom of movement continue to severely damage the human rights and fundamental freedoms of members of the Rohingya community. Our report calls for immediate and concrete measures to put an end to this situation, as repeatedly recommended by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State and the UN human rights system.

On displacement and the right to return, our report underscores that there are currently no conditions for the voluntary, sustainable, dignified, and safe returns of the over 730,00 refugees currently in Bangladesh, as well as the almost 130,000 internally displaced people who have been living in camps in central Rakhine since the violent events of 2012. Physical infrastructure is far from the only issue. The Government should address major concerns that perpetuate segregation and bar access to basic services, including limited freedom of movement, access to health services, and livelihood opportunities. Participation of refugees and IDPs at all stages of the return processes is a critical element for the creations of adequate conditions.

Furthermore, our report expresses concern about the absence of investigations into allegations of the grave violations of human rights that have been occurring in Rakhine, following the attacks of August 2017, and the failure to investigate or prosecute high-ranking officials of the military.

In several other areas, notably Kachin State and Shan State, armed conflict and related humanitarian issues also give rise to concern.

Since 2012, Myanmar has created eight commissions of inquiry, all of which exonerated the security forces from any criminal responsibility for acts committed during fighting and clearance operations. I also urge rapid steps towards creating the requisite conditions for safe and voluntary returns, as well as recognition by the authorities of the reality of what has occurred, as a first step towards real accountability.


This concludes my introduction of country reports and updates under item 2. My next statements will be oral updates on the human rights situations in Venezuela and Yemen. In every instance, I encourage the relevant stakeholders to implement the recommendations made in each report, as well as the recommendations of all the human rights mechanisms. My Office stands ready to assist this effort.

Thank you for your attention.