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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
26 February 2021
46th session of the Human Rights Council
Item 2 - High Commissioner's Oral Update
Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
26 February 2021
Distinguished President, I welcome you as a proud representative of the Pacific, recognising the unique contribution of the Pacific and small island states to this Council
Colleagues and friends,
The leaders of countries are called to make many difficult decisions in the turbulence of today's events. To address the multiple challenges of COVID-19, in terms of health policies; sudden economic crises and financial shortfalls; and the rising distress of people from every walk of life is an immense and challenging task. I am convinced, by my own experience and the lessons of history, that the best way to approach such dilemmas is to involve the public. In their diversity of views, experiences and needs, a country's people are its leader's finest and most important resource.
Participation is a right – and it is also a means that ensures better, more effective policy. To help heal harms, bridge deep fractures, and lead change that meets expectations, every society, and every leader, needs to engage the public's participation, fully and meaningfully. All over the world, people clearly manifest their rightful demand to have a role in shaping policy. Acting on that demand is the only way to build public trust – and it is also the best way to drive policies that are based on lived realities and made better by frank and constant feedback.
I draw your attention to theUN Guidance Note on protecting and promoting civic space, which makes it clear why maintaining and expanding civic freedoms is central to the UN’s efforts across all pillars, including development and peace. COVID-19 has demonstrated – once again – how urgent and vital this work is for States, as well as multilateral institutions.
It is precisely at this time of crisis that solid public participation; official accountability through oversight institutions and a free press are most needed, to devise policies that can navigate shocks most effectively. This is a time for more, not less, transparency; for more information; for more public debate and discussion, in a more open and inclusive civic space; and for more responsive governance, which more firmly upholds human rights.
Madam President, the situations in Afghanistan, Belarus, Central African Republic, Colombia, Cyprus, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Sri Lanka, Ukraine and Venezuela will be discussed at other meetings during this session.
In the Russian Federation, I regret the entry into force late last year of new legal provisions which further limit fundamental freedoms, including the constitutionally guaranteed rights to free expression, peaceful assembly and association. Existing restrictive laws have continued to be harshly enforced, including during recent demonstrations across the country. On several occasions, police were filmed using unnecessary and disproportionate force against largely peaceful protesters, and made thousands of arrests. I also note with concern the growing expansion of the definition of ‘foreign agent'.
In Turkey, the newly passed Law No. 7262, with the stated aim of preventing financing of weapons of mass destruction, introduces more restrictions and oversight on civil society organisations. Its application – together with the social media bill adopted last July, and other restrictive legislation – could further increase the use of vaguely defined terrorism charges to target and silence perceived critics. Reprisals against people who seek justice and accountability – including for the victims of enforced disappearances – are compounding the erosion of judicial independence and rule of law, and contribute to an increasingly unsafe civic environment. Crackdowns on student-led protests underline the need for greater dialogue with many constituencies. I am also concerned about last week's raids and mass arrests, including of opposition members, allegedly in connection with terrorism related charges. Any anti-terror operation should comply with international human rights law, and should not be used to target dissent.
In Kazakhstan, I am dismayed by recent administrative prosecutions of NGOs. While suspensions have been lifted, the penalties for alleged inaccuracies in the filing of administrative records on foreign funding appear to be disproportionate and aimed at obstructing their work. I call the authorities to amend national legislation and to eliminate these far-reaching reporting requirements, which have impact on the right to freedom of association.
I welcome the cessation of hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, which was announced by the leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia and the Russian Federation in their joint trilateral statement on 9 November. I call for investigations into all alleged serious violations of international law that occurred in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. It is essential to ensure accountability of those responsible, and redress for the victims. I welcome criminal proceedings launched by Azerbaijan into the activities of four members of the Azerbaijan armed forces. I remind all States that all captured or detained persons should be treated humanely, and benefit from the protections of international law. I continue to seek access for my Office.
I am concerned that measures taken by several European countries are restricting the work of organisations that protect migrants' rights, and deliver them life-saving assistance. A recent update by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency has identified some 50 criminal or administrative proceedings initiated by Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands and Spain since 2016, against humanitarian actors involved in search and rescue in the Mediterranean. Most have been in Italy, and the majority have occurred since 2019. We understand that only four humanitarian ships are currently operational in the Central Mediterranean, while several others have been impounded or prevented from operating – raising grave concerns about people's safety on one of the deadliest migration routes in the world. My Office has repeatedly expressed our concerns regarding such measures, as well as related acts of intimidation, harassment, obstruction or denial of access.
In Hungary, the Government has criminalized the provision of assistance to migrants, as well as the organization of border monitoring, thus denying access to civil society to monitor reports of violent pushbacks and other serious human rights violations at the EU’s external borders. I am seriously concerned that Hungarian police have carried out some 5,000 pushbacks to Serbia in the last two months alone, in breach of Hungary's international human rights obligations as well as EU law.
In Croatia, the authorities have sought to hinder public scrutiny of migration practices by denying access to the ombudswoman and human rights organisations, and discrediting their reports. Last month, the Croatian authorities blocked Members of the European Parliament from visiting border areas with Bosnia and Herzegovina, amid credible allegations of human rights violations.
Civil society and independent monitoring are fundamental to the health of all societies. I encourage the European Union and Member States to ensure that this trend of shrinking civic space is reversed, and to establish adequate protections, including through the EU Pact on Asylum and Migration.
The pandemic has sharpened and shifted our view of what is valuable in any country's economy. Health-care, child-care and social protections are now viewed as essential and effective instruments, which pay high dividends in warding off devastating economic pain. And yet many countries in Asia and the Pacific spend less than 2 per cent of GDP on social protection – compared with the global average of 11 per cent – and large parts of the economy remain informal. I encourage action across the region to achieve far more comprehensive social protection systems – including for migrants – as a core component of plans to recover on a healthy and sustainable foundation.
Across Southeast Asia, there has been a serious contraction in civic space. This Council discussed the alarming situation in Myanmar earlier this month. In Cambodia, Indonesia – including in the Papua region – Thailand and Vietnam, people have gathered peacefully to call for Governments to uphold rights and to implement democratic principles of accountability, transparency, participation and the rule of law. In response, many activists, human rights defenders, environmental actors and journalists have been subjected to arbitrary detention and arrest, harassment and violence, and have faced highly punitive criminal charges and sentences. In all these countries, as well as Lao PDR and the Philippines, we have also documented the arrests and detentions of individuals for exercising the right to free expression, including online. Restrictive legislation on social media, and vaguely worded prohibitions of what is termed "fake news" have been used to silence people, including health-workers and others who report on COVID in their hospitals and neighbourhoods.
I am particularly concerned about the severe shrinking of civic space in Cambodia, where increasing and disproportionate legislative and administrative measures limit the rights to free expression, peaceful assembly, association and information, among others.
In the Philippines, we are working with a range of partners to implement this Council's recent resolution. A UN joint programme on human rights is being finalized, and I will continue to urge the genuine and meaningful participation of all possible constituencies so that it can deliver effective results. The continued high number of killings by police remain a serious concern.
In India, continued protests by hundreds of thousands of farmers highlight the importance of ensuring laws and policies are based on meaningful consultations with those concerned. I trust that ongoing dialogue efforts by both sides will lead to an equitable solution to this crisis that respects the rights of all. Charges of sedition against journalists and activists for reporting or commenting on the protests, and attempts to curb freedom of expression on social media, are disturbing departures from essential human rights principles. With regard to inclusion and participation, I am encouraged by the recent experience of my Office in a pilot programme in Kerala State, where officials, civil society organisations and community leaders have used innovative technology to ensure that the voices of marginalized and poor people are heard, and their needs addressed, in the pandemic response.
We continue to monitor the situation in Indian-administered Kashmir, where restrictions on communications, and clampdowns on civil society activists, remain of concern. Despite recent restoration of 4G access for mobile phones, the communications blockade has seriously hampered civic participation, as well as business, livelihoods, education, and access to health-care and medical information. Raids against human rights defenders in October and November exemplify the continued restrictions on civil society, and resulting impact on the rights of the people of Kashmir to impart and receive information, and to engage in free, open debate on Government policies affecting them. Internet access in Pakistan-Administered Kashmir also remains a serious problem, prompting student protests in the past year.
In Pakistan, the unequal status of women continues to result in widespread denial of their rights, from education to the right to make decisions about their own lives; excessive maternal mortality; poverty, and high levels of violence and sexual violence against women and girls. Last year, CEDAW found “persistent discriminatory stereotypes" and expressed concern at the prevalence of child marriage and forced marriage, as well as so-called “honour” based crimes. Women from religious minority communities are particularly vulnerable to forced marriage accompanied by forced conversion. I urge Pakistan to support and protect women human rights defenders and journalists who are at the forefront of efforts to promote legal and societal change.
In China, strong progress has been made over the last year in reducing the prevalence of COVID 19 and its severe impact on the enjoyment of a broad range of human rights. At the same time, fundamental rights and civic freedoms continue to be curtailed in the name of national security and the COVID-19 response. Activists, lawyers and human rights defenders – as well as some foreign nationals – face arbitrary criminal charges, detention or unfair trials. In the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, more than 600 people are being investigated for participating in various forms of protests – some under the new National Security Law. In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, information that is in the public domain indicates the need for independent and comprehensive assessment of the human rights situation. My Office continues to assess the alleged patterns of human rights violations, including reports of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and sexual violence in institutions; coercive labour practises; and erosion of social and cultural rights. I am confident that through our ongoing dialogue we will find mutually agreeable parameters for my visit to China.
Across the Americas, the impact of COVID-19 has been heightened by weak social security systems; long-standing structural inequalities and discrimination – especially those experienced by Afro-descendant and indigenous peoples; poorly diversified economies; and high numbers of informal workers. Recent data indicates that a major socio-economic and humanitarian crisis may be looming, with poverty rates that could reach over 37% this year in Latin America and the Caribbean. Overall, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean estimates that the region faces a “lost decade”, following the worst GDP contraction in the region’s history.
In recent years, many countries in the Americas – including Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico and Peru – have seen growing movements of social protest. While every situation is distinct, they all broadly focus on inadequate access to economic and social rights; discrimination; impunity; and allegations of corruption. In several countries, demonstrations have been met with the excessive use of force. The pandemic's unfolding socio-economic and humanitarian crisis risks further deepening this discontent, and could trigger a new wave of social unrest. I encourage all States to take measures to prevent further deterioration of the situation, including through guarantees of meaningful and effective participation in the socio-economic pandemic response. I also call for all States to protect the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, and to ensure that demonstrations are managed in compliance with international human rights standards.
In Brazil and other countries of the Amazon and Pantanal regions, reduced enforcement of environmental laws during the pandemic has led to increased illegal mining and illegal logging, with particularly damaging impact on indigenous peoples. Care must be taken to ensure that these territories are better protected from extractive industries and monoculture farming – including in the post-pandemic recovery. Across the region, I am concerned by continued attacks on environmental activists, human rights defenders and journalists, including killings, as well as by the misuse of criminal laws to silence critical voices.
In several States, increasingly tight border controls and the use of security forces to halt migrants are further increasing the risks to people on the move. Last month's discovery of the charred bodies of 19 people – at least 14 of them Guatemalan migrants, together with their alleged smugglers – close to Mexico’s border with the U.S. is a stark example. The militarization of border management by Ecuador, Peru and Chile is particularly concerning in the context of the continued unprecedented movement of Venezuelans, with 5.28 million people estimated leaving or remaining outside their country this year. These issues include worrying reports that people are being expelled without due evaluation of their vulnerability or protection needs.
In the United States of America, we welcome broad new measures to tackle structural inequalities and systemic racism. These include executive actions to redress racially discriminatory federal housing policies; combat xenophobia; and reaffirm commitments to tribal sovereignty and the full consultation of indigenous peoples. To adequately address systemic inequalities and injustices, social and economic rights must be placed at the core of the response. We also welcome new steps to end several migration policies that violated the human rights of migrants and refugees, including executive orders to end the family separation policy. I encourage further measures to tackle remaining issues, such as the massive detention of migrants, through the implementation of alternatives to detention.
In Haiti, high levels of insecurity and poverty, as well as controversy over the end-date of the President’s mandate are contributing to a disturbing increase in social tensions. Arbitrary detentions have been reported, as well as the excessive use of force to disperse protest, and attacks on human rights defenders and journalists, as well as gang abuses on local populations. The current deadlock risks jeopardizing the rule of law and civic space, and could further destabilize the country. I urge the authorities to guarantee the separation of powers, and call on all parties to address their differences through peaceful means, so as to prevent the recurrence of protracted civil protest and a further increase of violence.
It has been a decade since the Arab uprisings, or "Arab Spring" swept through the Middle East and North Africa – a movement that inspired many with its spontaneity, diversity and call for social justice. The demands by hundreds of thousands of people for Governments to uphold economic and social rights; ensure more equitable sharing of the benefits of development; put an end to repressive policies and corruption; and open the democratic spaces echoed through the streets of countries across the world. And yet, ten years on, many countries in the region continue to suffer very serious inequalities. Repressive policies have, in many cases, been strengthened – and some of the valuable gains made by civic movements are being undermined. Despite these setbacks, I remain optimistic that justice and human rights can be realized across the Middle East and North Africa – and that progress in this direction will ensure deep and lasting progress for development and peace.
The terrible suffering of the people of Syria also marks a grim anniversary. Next month it will be ten years since demonstrations swept through parts of the country. Their violent repression by government forces then escalated into today's deadly military conflict, with regional and international implications. Sporadic violence – including targeted killings, use of improvised explosive devices, and shelling – continues. Severe economic deterioration, exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19, continues to compound the humanitarian crisis. I deeply hope there will be tangible progress by the Constitutional Committee, with the voices and rights of Syrians – including young people and its civil society – at the centre of discussion. It is essential that international actors seek to bridge divides, and put the needs and rights of the Syrian people at the forefront of this process.
I remain concerned about continuing restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly in Egypt, including those directed against human rights defenders and other activists. In November last year, three human rights defenders working for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights were arrested and detained pending investigation on terrorism-related charges, publishing false news, and using an internet account to spread false information that undermines public security. While they were released a month later, numerous other human rights defenders, journalists, and activists remain detained, or subjected to asset freezes and travel bans on the basis of vague charges and national security laws.
In Jordan, I am dismayed by increasing restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression – including against journalists reporting on the authorities' response to COVID-19 and its impact on vulnerable groups. The case of the Jordanian Teacher’s Syndicate labour union – in which gag orders have been imposed on all news reports or comments – is also troubling. I encourage the Government to engage in dialogue with independent voices, and to view media freedoms, and the promotion of all civic freedoms, as a vital foundation for sound public policies.
In Saudi Arabia, I welcome the release of women's rights campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul, although I regret that others continue to be unjustly detained. I also welcome announced plans to issue new legislation to strengthen human rights guarantees, including with respect to family law and personal status. I urge the authorities to also establish legislative frameworks to uphold the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association for everyone in the Kingdom.
In Iraq, targeted killings, threats and intimidation continue against civil society activists, human rights defenders and journalists. The near-total lack of accountability for the violations and abuses committed against demonstrators is a significant obstruction to the development of the public's trust in institutions and the country's future. I note that in October 2020 the Prime Minister ordered the establishment of a fact-finding body; however, it remains unclear whether that body is operational. In the Kurdistan region, activists and protesters have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention, with many detainees denied basic due process rights, including access to lawyers.
In Iran, an apparently coordinated campaign has been targeting minority groups since December, including in Sistan and Baluchestan; Khuzestan; and in the Kurdish provinces. Mass arrests and enforced disappearances have been reported, as well as increasing numbers of executions, following deeply flawed processes. Across the country, the exercise of civic freedoms and political or critical expression continue to be targeted through national security laws, criminal prosecution and intimidation. I am concerned at persistent impunity for human rights violations, including violations that occurred in the contexts of protests in 2018 and 2019.
I welcome the formation of a new coalition Government in Yemen, although I regret that it gives no representation to Yemeni women – half the population. The attack on Aden airport on 30 December was particularly shocking. I welcome recent measures by third parties, which strengthen hopes for a negotiated settlement – but these diplomatic moves will not immediately alleviate the widespread malnutrition, forced displacement and attacks on education and health facilities that inflict so much suffering on Yemen's people, together with numerous violations of civil and political rights. I encourage all Member States to make firm commitments at the pledging conference for Yemen on 1 March. I trust the de facto authorities in Sana’a will swiftly issue a visa to my representative.
In Algeria, demonstrations in several provinces continue to mark the anniversary of the Hirak pro-democracy movement. I welcome the decision to hold parliamentary elections early this year, and the release of more than 35 people active in Hirak. I urge the Government to continue on the path of dialogue, and to immediately release all those detained for peaceful participation in demonstrations. There is no doubt that fair and genuine democratic elections which express the will of the people are essential to securing the legitimate authority of governments, and the public trust.
I welcome recent political developments in Libya, and the work we have undertaken with UNSMIL to ensure that human rights are integral to the political agenda and roadmap towards peace. I am also encouraged by the establishment of specialized courts on violence against women and children in Tripoli and Bengazi, and by the fact that five out of the six judges appointed are women. I further commend efforts to revise Libya's law on combating violence against women and girls; this is particularly urgent, given high levels of gender-based violence.
In Ethiopia, it is crucial that full and unimpeded access be immediately given to the whole of the Tigray region, for both humanitarian and human rights workers. Alarming allegations of serious violations committed by all parties during more than three months of conflict include mass killings, extrajudicial executions, and other attacks on civilians, including sexual violence. Credible investigation into all these allegations is vital, with accountability for perpetrators, and my Office stands ready to support. I am also disturbed by reported abductions and forcible returns of Eritrean refugees living in Tigray – some reportedly at the hands of Eritrean forces. At least 15,000 Eritreans who had taken refuge are unaccounted for following the destruction of their shelters. Coupled with growing insecurity in other parts of Ethiopia, the conflict in Tigray could have serious impact on regional stability and human rights. I urge the peaceful resolution of this conflict, and also call for more efforts to resolve the sharply increasing inter-communal violence taking place in other regions of Ethiopia, such as Benishangul-Gumuz and Oromia.
In Uganda, I am concerned that Presidential Directives and other regulations intended to combat COVID-19 have been used to arrest and detain political opponents, journalists and perceived critics of the Government. During the recent electoral process, many opposition supporters were killed and seriously injured, while opposition candidates, human rights defenders and journalists were arbitrarily arrested and detained, ill-treated – and in some instances have disappeared. The stigmatisation of LGBTI individuals, which falsely scapegoats them for the spread of COVID-19, has resulted in arbitrary arrests and detentions, and raids and closures of LGBTI shelters. I call on the authorities to observe human rights standards in all security operations and to promptly and thoroughly investigate all reports of human rights violations.
In Tanzania, efforts to thwart election campaigning by the opposition in the pre-election period included intimidation and violence; arrests of opposition members; and media restrictions, including restricted access to the Internet and social media. Allegations of unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests and illegal detention, and torture were also reported during and after the election, notably in Zanzibar. Transparent investigation of all these allegations is essential. I am also concerned by apparent official attempts to deny the reality of COVID-19 in the country – including measures to criminalise recognition of the pandemic and related information. This could have serious impact on Tanzanians’ right to health. I note reports of pushbacks of hundreds of asylum-seekers from Mozambique and the DRC, as well as continued reports of torture, enforced disappearances and forced returns of Burundian refugees.
In Mali, I encourage swift action by the transitional authorities to ensure prosecution of the suspected perpetrators of serious human rights violations, including among the security forces. The International Commission of Inquiry on Mali has issued important recommendations, and I look forward to their implementation by relevant States and key actors, in order to advance the cause of accountability and combat impunity. I also encourage immediate steps to enhance civilian participation and leadership in the political space, with specific focus on the equality of women and their participation in administrative and legislative bodies. I am particularly concerned by last year's increase in killings and other serious violations and abuses, as well as the sharply reduced democratic space.
In Malawi, mob-justice attacks have more than tripled over the past year, according to official police statistics. They appear to include an increasing number of attacks against older women accused of practicing witchcraft, as well as against people with albinism. Attempted abductions of children with albinism have also been reported, and are presumed linked to a market for body parts, to be used in rituals. I am also troubled by the significant rise in sexual violence against women and girls recorded in Malawi after schools were temporarily closed last year, as well as a 400% increase in child marriage, and teenage pregnancy, in some districts of the country. Fear of the pandemic and increasing poverty may be factors in this increased violence, which calls for a stronger and more accountable police force, as well as stronger protection measures.
In Somalia, I am increasingly concerned about repeated attempts to dismantle the already weak legal protection afforded to children and to women, including with respect to sexual violence and child marriage. I reiterate the need for the 2018 Sexual Offenses Bill to be adopted without delay in the form approved by Cabinet.
In Sudan, I welcome the Joint Council's approval of ratification of the Convention Against Torture and the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. In the Darfur region, incidents of intercommunal violence and other major protection concerns persist. I acknowledge important recent actions by the Government to contain the violence, but I also urge prompt measures to ensure accountability for the grave human rights violations of the past, including remedy for victims. Such efforts are especially important given their deterrent impact. The continued reoccurrence of violence in Darfur points to core grievances, making the full application of the Government’s reform agenda a matter of urgency. Our Office is providing technical assistance to several major institutional reform efforts, and I will continue to encourage international development partners to prioritise support for reforms.
In Guinea, while I welcome the authorities' cooperation with my Office in country, the arrest and detention of opposition members and civil society activists on spurious charges of undermining the internal security of the State, in the context of last year’s presidential elections, severely undermines the foundations of democratic governance. I call on the Government to release all those detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and participation, and to ensure fair trials for those charged with criminal offences. I also call on the authorities to expedite the trials of the common law detainees and to improve their food and health conditions. In the context of COVID-19, I reiterate my call for the release of those particularly vulnerable, including older detainees and those who are sick, as well as low-risk offenders.
I remain concerned about the situation in Comoros, including the crackdown on democratic space, with continued restrictions on freedoms of expression and of the press; continued and often lengthy detention of civil society activists and members of the political opposition; and unjustified prosecutions of journalists. I call on the Government to maintain the civic space and uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Protecting civic space and the right of all people to participate are threshold rights: they open up further impacts that build resilience, prosperity and peace.
Today, in every region of the world, people are being left behind – or pushed even further behind – as the coronavirus pandemic continues to gather pace. They are being excluded, not only from development, and from opportunities, but from participation in the decisions that profoundly shape their lives and futures.
This makes us all weaker. It heightens grievances that are destabilizing. It means we miss perspectives and expertise that could inform and strengthen our initiatives. It shields corruption and abuses, by silencing feedback. This is why my Office, this Council and all other stakeholders – in the UN family, in regional organisations and around the world – must speak out against measures that silence civil society. Because working to defend our rights – and standing up to support human rights defenders – is vital to humanity's future.
Thank you very much Madam President, Excellencies.