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Press briefing notes Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Press briefing notes on Syria, Afghanistan and Haiti

07 October 2014

Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Rupert Colville
Location: Geneva
Date: 7 October 2014

(1) Syria

We are very alarmed by the situation in Kobane, the town also known as Ain al-Arab in Arabic, in north-eastern Syria, which is currently being attacked by ISIL.  Up until 3 or 4 days ago, there were still some 10,000 civilians who had not yet crossed into Turkey, and although most have now done so, some may still remain.

From 4 September onwards, ISIL is reported to have intensified what appears to have been indiscriminate shelling of various parts of the town, as they advanced to the outskirts.  On Monday 6 September, ISIL units reportedly broke through the trenches dug by the town’s mainly Kurdish defenders, and street-to-street fighting then took place in eastern neighbourhoods of the town. They also took control of a number of buildings and a strategic hill looking over the town from the south-east . 

As a result of these developments, most of the approximately 10,000 civilians who had remained in the border area are believed to have crossed into Turkey on Sunday and Monday. The Kurdish groups in control of Kobane had reportedly ordered civilians to seek refuge in Turkey, and civilian administrators in Kobane were also said to have mostly left the town by yesterday evening.

Nevertheless we remain hugely concerned for the safety of any civilians remaining in Kobane or in the border area near the town, as well as in surrounding villages. We believe the numbers are now , at most, in the hundreds  -- maybe fewer. But clearly anyone who falls into the hands of ISIL is at risk. Given their atrocious record of repeated murders and summary executions of prisoners in both Syria and Iraq, we are also extremely concerned about the fate of any combatants captured by ISIL.


(2) Afghanistan

We learned this morning that the Attorney-General's office in Afghanistan has announced that the executions will be carried out tomorrow (Wednesday) of five men accused of armed robbery and gang rape in Paghman, near Kabul, earlier this year.   On 29 September, the High Commissioner wrote to ask the new President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani requesting him to stay the execution of the death sentences, the warrant for which had been signed by his predecessor Hamid Karzai, in order to allow time for a judicial review and re-consideration of these cases to ensure that the right to fair trial of the accused individuals is upheld.

There is no question this was an appalling crime, and we appreciate the fact that State authorities acted quickly to arrest individuals suspected of committing it. However, the High Commissioner informed President Ghani, and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah,  that he has grave concerns that the legal process which led to these convictions failed  to comply with national and international fair trial standards. We have received credible allegations that the convicted men were ill-treated while in pre-trial detention, were denied adequate legal representation, and during the legal proceedings – a mere two short trial hearings, followed by the Supreme Court review of the appeal case – the legal basis for the prosecution was unclear.

The High Commissioner drew attention to the fact that Afghanistan is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 6 of the Covenant provides that in countries which have not abolished the death penalty, the death sentence may be imposed only for the most serious crimes and not contrary to the provisions of the Covenant. In cases of trials leading to the imposition of the death penalty, scrupulous respect of the guarantees of fair trial is important. In particular, those accused of capital offences must be effectively assisted by a lawyer at all stages of the proceedings. In accordance with the jurisprudence of the Human Rights Committee and its General Comment No. 32, the imposition of a death sentence upon the conclusion of a trial in which the due process standards under article 14 of the ICCPR have not been respected, constitutes a violation of the right to life. 

Furthermore, the jurisprudence of the Human Rights Committee clearly provides that subjecting persons against whom criminal charges are brought to ill-treatment and forcing them to make or sign under duress a confession admitting guilt, would violate both article 7 of the ICCPR prohibiting torture and inhuman, cruel or degrading treatment and article 14, paragraph 3 (g) prohibiting compulsion to testify against oneself or confess guilt.

The High Commissioner stated his firm view that the proceedings of these cases not only risk denying adequate justice to both the victims of this terrible crime and the accused, but will also undermine efforts to strengthen the rule of law and administration of justice in Afghanistan.

He therefore called on  President Ghani to refer the cases back to the courts given the very serious due process concerns. He also urged the President to consider exercising his constitutional power to commute the death sentences to a suitable term of imprisonment. 


(3) Haiti

We would like to stress the importance of pursuing accountability in Haiti following the death of former President Jean-Claude Duvalier on Saturday. The return of Jean Claude Duvalier to Haiti in 2011 spurred victims and civil society organisations to seek justice and accountability for human rights violations, crimes committed during his 15 years in office,  from  1971 to 1986.  In January 2014 an appeals panel overturned a previous lower court ruling and affirmed that crimes against humanity were part of Haitian law, and not subject to a statute of limitations, ordering additional investigations, which are currently ongoing. 

It is believed that thousands of Haitians were tortured, imprisoned and killed during Duvalier's presidency.  Obviously, these crimes were not all committed by Duvalier by himself.

Legal proceedings and investigations are still ongoing in respect to other individuals accused of responsibility for serious crimes and human rights violations during the Duvalier regime – and it is essential they continue. It is the right of the Haitian people to obtain accountability for past violations of their human rights and the duty of mankind to remember, establish the truth and ensure justice for the victims.

Although Jean Claude Duvalier was never brought to trial, on 28 February 2013 he did at least face some of his accusers, when the appeals court ordered him to appear in person at a hearing.


For more information or media requests, please contact Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 9767 /[email protected]) or Ravina Shamdasani (+41 22 917 9169 / [email protected])  

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