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Human Rights Council Opens its Fifty-Fourth Regular Session, Hears Global Update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights
11 September 2023
Council Holds Minute of Silence for Earthquake Victims in Morocco
The Human Rights Council this morning opened its fifty-fourth regular session, holding a minute of silence for the victims of the earthquake in Morocco, and hearing a global update by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
At the request of Gambia, the Council held a minute of silence for the victims of the earthquake in Morocco. Morocco thanked all for this touching gesture of solidarity and compassion shown in honour of the innocent victims of the earthquake.
Volker Türk, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said development issues underlined almost every challenge the international community faced. People everywhere had a right to a decent standard of living, including food, access to affordable medical care, education, economic prospects, a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and justice and police systems which upheld their rights. But time and again, people were deprived of these rights. Climate change was pushing millions of people into famine. Urgent action was needed now. Instead of unity, the world was seeing the politics of division and distraction.
Mr. Türk said the Food and Agriculture Organization's 2023 global report projected that almost 600 million people would be chronically undernourished at the end of the decade. With the planetary crisis gaining pace, there was also a vital need for a shift to human rights economies that promoted green solutions. He emphasised the need for a rapid, equitable phase-out of fossil fuels. The High Commissioner also spoke about the growing crisis of homelessness, unprecedented water scarcity, and the situation of human rights in a number of countries and territories.
Václav Bálek, President of the Human Rights Council, in opening remarks on procedural and organizational matters, said Myanmar would not be represented in the interactive dialogue on the report of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar and the interactive dialogue on the report of the High Commissioner on the overall situation of human rights in Myanmar, scheduled to take place during this session, as the General Assembly had still not made a decision on the representation of Myanmar. He also said that personal insults, attacks or threats against the Council’s mandate holders would not be tolerated. He called on everyone to take all necessary steps to prevent any act of reprisal or intimidation committed against individuals or groups who had cooperated with the Council, its mechanisms and procedures.
The Council approved the draft programme of work with the understanding that it was a living document.
The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s fifty-fourth regular session can be found here.
The Council this morning will hold an interactive dialogue with the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, followed by an interactive dialogue on the written update of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka.
Minute of Silence
MUHAMMADOU M. O. KAH, Permanent Representative of Gambia to the United Nations Office at Geneva, called for a minute of silence for the victims of the earthquake in Morocco. All were aware that just three days ago, a devastating earthquake struck Morocco, with the deaths of thousands. This tragic event reminded all of the temporary nature of life and collective vulnerability. The Council must remember they were not just members of nations, but part of a global community: humanity. It was part of the collective responsibility to stand together in both good and hard times.
OMAR KNIBER, Permanent Representative of Morocco to the United Nations Office at Geneva, thanked all for this touching gesture of solidarity and compassion shown in honour of the innocent victims of the earthquake. Since the event, there had been an outpouring of solidarity and expressions of sympathy, which had been affectionate and emotional from the entire international community in Geneva, without exception. Morocco was very grateful that humanity was standing together with deep compassion. Work was ongoing day and night to save lives, and considerable efforts were being made despite the significant obstacles being faced. The authorities, guided by the King, had conducted tireless efforts to bring relief, being aided by the international community. Morocco had been completely stricken by this event, but the people of Morocco were known for their resilience, and would overcome these problems and difficulties. All were thanked for their expressions of solidarity.
The Council held a minute of silence in memory of those who lost their lives and as a symbol of its collective commitment.
Opening Remarks by the President of the Council
VÁCLAV BÁLEK, President of the Human Rights Council, in opening remarks on procedural and organizational matters, said the General Assembly had still not made a decision on the representation of Myanmar. Therefore, in the interactive dialogue on the report of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar and the interactive dialogue on the report of the High Commissioner on the overall situation of human rights in Myanmar, scheduled to take place during this session, Myanmar would not be represented. The President said such a proposal was made on the basis that this exceptional circumstance did not set a precedent for the future. The Council agreed with the proposal that the two interactive dialogues would proceed as scheduled, without the participation of the concerned country.
Mr. Bálek it was unacceptable that the Council’s mandate holders were sometimes subjected to personal insults, attacks or threats in the course of their work, and reiterated that disagreement with the content of the reports and presentations of mandate holders could be expressed, but personal insults, attacks or threats would not be tolerated. Along the same lines, the active participation of representatives of civil society and national human rights institutions was part of the foundation of the Human Rights Council. The President called on everyone to take all necessary steps to prevent any act of reprisal or intimidation committed against individuals or groups who had cooperated with the Council, its mechanisms and procedures, and in the case that such an act did occur, ensure that it was promptly and seriously addressed. He also emphasised that the United Nations, including this Council, had a zero tolerance for any form of harassment, including sexual harassment, and that all complaints would be dealt with promptly.
Global Update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights
VOLKER TÜRK, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said development issues underlined almost every challenge the international community faced. People everywhere had a right to a decent standard of living, including food, access to affordable medical care, education, economic prospects, a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and justice and police systems which upheld their rights. But time and again, people were deprived of these rights. Last month, in Iraq, Mr. Türk had witnessed drought in previously lush Basra, where searing heat, extreme pollution and fast-depleting supplies of fresh water were creating barren landscapes of rubble and dust. This was a human rights emergency for Iraq and many other countries. Climate change was pushing millions of people into famine. Urgent action was needed now. Instead of unity, the world was seeing the politics of division and distraction. The series of some 30 incidents of burning the Quran recently was the latest manifestation of polarisation.
Mr. Türk was shocked at the more than 2,300 people reported dead or missing in the Mediterranean this year, including the loss of more than 600 lives in a single shipwreck off Greece in June. It was evident that far more migrants and refugees were dying, unnoticed, in the seas around Europe, along the United States-Mexican border, or at the border of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where the Office was seeking urgent clarification about allegations of killings and mistreatment. Sustainable Development Goal 16 – on peace, justice and strong institutions – encapsulated the way out and forward and made clear that to advance development, States had the responsibility to guarantee and protect civic space and fundamental rights. Against this backdrop, Mr. Türk said his address would focus on development and human rights.
The Food and Agriculture Organization's 2023 global report projected that almost 600 million people would be chronically undernourished at the end of the decade. Causal factors included climate change, the consequences of the pandemic, and Russia’s war on Ukraine. The Russian Federation's withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative in July, and attacks on grain facilities in Odesa and elsewhere, had again forced prices sky-high in many developing countries. In Somalia, years of drought, extremist violence and failed governance had led to an estimated 43,000 excess deaths last year. Some 1.8 million children were likely to be acutely malnourished through 2023.
Hunger and food insecurity were also deeply concerning in the Caribbean. The May 2023 World Food Programme-Caribbean Community survey found that 3.7 million people – or 52 per cent of the population of countries belonging to the Caribbean Community – were food insecure. In Haiti, nearly half the population, 4.9 million people, experienced acute food insecurity. Across 111 countries, 1.2 billion people, nearly half of them children, now lived in acute multidimensional poverty. They represented almost 20 per cent of the countries' populations – and according to the World Bank, many millions more would be pushed into extreme poverty due to climate change. Across the Sahel, most people struggled for daily survival, with Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger among the eight least developed countries in the world; 2022 was the deadliest year since the beginning of the Sahel crisis a decade ago, and the constant threat of violence by armed groups was now expanding towards coastal States.
None of the challenges faced by these countries could be addressed in isolation: they were interlinked. One important step needed to be the reform of the international financial architecture, including fairer deals on debt relief and development finance. Mr. Türk also strongly encouraged States to endorse the United Nations' appeal for a sustainable development goal stimulus, and welcomed the current international discussions on reinforcing international tax cooperation. There was a need to combat tax avoidance, tax evasion and illicit financial flows. Mr. Türk commended the leadership of the African group for bringing the topic to the General Assembly, and welcomed the initiative led by Colombia, Chile and Brazil to promote progressive taxation and greater cooperation across Latin America and the Caribbean.
With the planetary crisis gaining pace, there was also a vital need for a shift to human rights economies that promoted green solutions. Mr. Türk emphasised the need for a rapid, equitable phase-out of fossil fuels. He welcomed the consideration of an international crime of ecocide, proposed for inclusion in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court by a number of States and civil society groups.
A crisis of affordable housing was driving a growing crisis of homelessness. In many European countries, housing costs had risen far faster than incomes – putting stable, secure housing out of reach for large numbers of young people, and others with low or erratic incomes. Across the European Union, a 2023 report indicated that nearly one million people were homeless – almost 30 per cent higher than the already high level in 2021 – with young people among the most impacted. In the United States, more than half a million people were experiencing homelessness in January 2022, according to official figures, with over 40 per cent of them being people of African descent. By dint of concerted action, including housing allowances and targeted social support services, among others, Finland had seen significant reductions in homelessness since 2010. A European Platform on Combatting Homelessness was established in 2021 to help coordinate action across the European Union by governments, cities and civil society. Ending homelessness and ensuring affordable housing were firmly embedded in the Sustainable Development Goals.
Across the Middle East and North Africa, people were facing unprecedented water scarcity, with an estimated 83 per cent of the region’s population exposed to extremely high water stress. Governance reforms could better equip societies to react, adapt and build resilience to decreasing water access. Water was just one example of the need to ensure inclusive governance in the context of development. China's drive for development had brought achievements in alleviating poverty, but the country’s recent economic challenges highlighted the need for a more participatory approach that upheld all human rights.
In El Salvador, Mr. Türk was concerned about the excessive duration of the current state of emergency, and mass detentions which had occurred in this context, as well as unacceptable prison conditions, and restrictions of civic space. In Mexico, poverty rates had decreased notably, with over five million people moving out of poverty between 2018 and 2022, an achievement worth celebrating. At the same time, recent data indicated an increase in the number of people who lacked access to healthcare services. A milestone decision by the Supreme Court last week found criminal penalties for abortion in the Federal Penal Code unconstitutional - another advance in Latin America regarding women’s rights.
Mr. Türk also welcomed last month's discussions by Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela towards a common vision for the Amazon rainforest, including effective participation by indigenous peoples. He also congratulated the people of Ecuador for their votes in favour of stopping oil and mineral extraction activities in Yasuní National Park, which was home to indigenous peoples, and the Andean Chocó Biosphere Reserve. In Australia, a referendum would take place next month on constitutional recognition of the First Peoples of Australia, by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander “voice” to Parliament. This was a historic opportunity to lay a new foundation for the inclusion and participation of indigenous peoples. In India, the Office frequently received information that marginalised minority communities were subjected to violence and discrimination. Muslims were often the target of such attacks, most recently in Haryana and Gurugram, in northern India.
Mr. Türk remained shocked by the escalating violence in the occupied Palestinian territory, as more Palestinians and Israelis, including children, continued to be killed and seriously injured. He was also concerned by continuing civic space restrictions by the Palestinian authorities and de facto authorities in Gaza. He reiterated his deep concerns regarding human rights developments in the Russian Federation. Allegations of torture and ill-treatment in detention facilities persisted, as did the authorities’ unwillingness to investigate. In Iran, a year after Mahsa Amini’s death, the High Commissioner was concerned that a new bill currently under review imposed severe penalties on women and girls who did not obey the compulsory dress code, including travel bans and withdrawal of access to social services. Accountability for Ms. Amini’s death, and for violations in the context of subsequent protests, had been inadequate. Use of the death penalty had risen sharply, notably against the Baloch and others from minority communities. In Pakistan, Mr. Türk was concerned by the use of blasphemy allegations to incite violence against minority communities and instigate communal tensions. Draft amendments to the country's already severe blasphemy laws would sharply increase penalties.
In Ethiopia's Amhara region, since the start of the crisis and the declaration of a state of emergency at the beginning of August, over 1,000 people had reportedly been arrested, and more than 200 reportedly killed, in the context of clashes between Federal Forces and Amhara Fano militia. All these incidents needed to be investigated, and those responsible held to account. Mr. Türk urged dialogue with all stakeholders and encouraged transitional justice, and accountability. In both Libya and Tunisia, he was alarmed by reports that authorities had been carrying out mass arrests and collective expulsions of migrants and asylum seekers from south of the Sahara. As of 31 August, at least 28 migrants had reportedly died from heat and thirst in desert areas at the Libya-Tunisia border, after some 2,000 migrants and asylum seekers, were left there by Tunisian authorities.
In Lebanon, three years after the Beirut explosion which killed over 200 people and wounded more than 7,000, including over 1,000 children, there had been no accountability. It might therefore be time to consider an international fact-finding mission to look into human rights violations related to the tragedy. In Cameroon, six years of crisis in the north-west and south-west regions had claimed several thousand lives, displaced an estimated 725,000 people, and left at least 1.7 million in need of humanitarian assistance. Mr. Türk acknowledged steps by the authorities towards a major national dialogue. In Peru, Mr. Türk expressed concern at the opening of a parliamentary inquiry on all members of the National Justice Board, an independent institution in charge of appointing judges and prosecutors. Since January, the Office had documented 13 bills and five constitutional accusations by Congress that had raised concerns regarding interference into autonomous constitutional bodies, particularly the National Election Board and the National Justice Board. Congress was called on to abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary and respect the balance of State powers.
More than halfway through the 2030 Agenda, the international community was on target for it to become a tragic monument to the failure to erase extreme poverty and realise human rights. At the Sustainable Development Goals summit next week; at the [United Nations Climate Change Conference] COP28, on climate change; and at the Summit of the Future, States needed to pivot decisively towards fundamental changes. As the Human Rights 75 high-level event in December approached, Mr. Türk urged all Member States to make genuine commitments through transformative pledges. He concluded by emphasising that the human rights cause had the potential to unify the international community, at a time when the world urgently needed to come together to confront the existential challenges that faced humanity. This was ultimately about building trust and restoring hope, including through the work of the Council. Everyone needed to play their part.