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Press briefing notes Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Press briefing notes on Ukraine, Democratic Republic of the Congo and El Salvador

23 January 2015

Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Rupert Colville
Location: Geneva
Date: 23 January 2015

(1) Ukraine

More than 5,000 people have now been killed since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine in mid-April last year. The significant escalation of hostilities in Ukraine since 13 January has taken the total death toll in the country to at least 5,086 – and we fear that the real figure may be considerably higher. At least 10,948 people have also been wounded between mid-April last year and 21 January 2015.*

In just nine days, between 13 and 21 January, at least 262 people were killed due to the hostilities. That is an average of at least 29 people killed per day. This has been the most deadly period since the declaration of a ceasefire on 5 September.

In addition to the intense fighting and shelling in the Donetsk region, particularly around the airport where tanks and heavy artillery have reportedly been used by both sides, shelling has also been reported in several towns of Luhansk region. The killing of civilians when an artillery shell hit a bus stopping for passengers in the Leninskyi district of Donetsk yesterday has brought into stark focus the impact of the ongoing hostilities on civilians. This was the second bus to have been struck, with significant casualties, in the last 10 days.

We are concerned about the lack of implementation of the 12 provisions of the Minsk Protocol and the continuing presence of foreign fighters in the east, allegedly including servicemen from the Russian Federation, as well as the presence of heavy and sophisticated weaponry in populated areas under the control of armed groups. Civilians held or trapped in these areas are subject to a total lack of respect for human rights and the rule of law. We remind all parties to the conflict that international humanitarian law prohibits the targeting of civilians and requires that all necessary measures be taken to ensure the safety and protection of civilians, and that the principles of military necessity, distinction, proportionality and precaution be strictly respected.

We are also concerned about the impact on civilians of the recent decision by the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine to restrict movement in and out of the areas controlled by armed groups. As of 21 January, people travelling to and from these areas need to obtain special passes and provide documents to justify the need to travel. These limitations are worrying, especially in light of the escalating hostilities. It adds to concerns created by the Government decision in November 2014 to discontinue providing State services in the territories controlled by armed groups. The introduction of such restrictions will likely have a severe effect on the most vulnerable groups, such as older people, mothers with children and people with disabilities who may depend heavily on social benefits. We urge Ukrainian authorities to take immediate steps to redress this situation.

* The casualty figure is a conservative estimate of the HRMU and WHO based on available official data: casualties of the Ukrainian armed forces as reported by the Ukrainian authorities; 298 people from flight MH-17; and casualties reported by civil medical establishments of Donetsk and Luhansk regions: civilians and some members of the armed groups. HRMU and WHO believe that the actual numbers of fatalities are considerably higher.

(2) Democratic Republic of the Congo

We are alarmed by the apparent excessive use of force by law enforcement officials in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where more than 13 people have been killed and more than 30 injured in the context of several days of demonstrations in Kinshasa, and Goma.

The protests, which began on 19 January against the passing of an electoral bill in the lower house of the legislature, have also resulted in the detention of more than 300 individuals across the DRC including prominent members of the opposition and civil society representatives. The electoral bill is now before the Senate and there are fears that its passage may escalate the situation and result in more violence. The bill requires the conduct of a national census before the holding of elections. There are fears that this could considerably postpone the next elections, which are currently scheduled to be held in 2016.

We urge the Government to promptly conduct a thorough and independent investigation into any excessive use of force by law enforcement officials – and in particular the reported use of live ammunition against protestors. Any use of force during demonstrations must be exceptional and, when used, must be proportional and strictly necessary. The intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.* We also call on the protestors to refrain from any acts of violence or vandalism.

State authorities have also restricted Internet and mobile text messaging services for more than three days now, not only disrupting communication between individuals but also creating disruption in the conduct of economic activities, like banking. We remind the authorities that it is the duty of the State to ensure that the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are respected.

We also call on the authorities to promptly release all those who have been detained for exercising their right to peaceful assembly, for expression of their views, for their affiliation with the opposition or for disagreeing with the amendments to the electoral bill. The right to vote in genuine, periodic elections is a fundamental human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political rights. We will continue to monitor the situation through the UN Joint Human Rights Office in the DRC.

(3) El Salvador

We welcome the ground-breaking decision of the Salvadorian Legislative Assembly to pardon Carmen Guadalupe Vásquez Aldana ("Guadalupe"), a 23-year-old domestic worker who suffered a miscarriage at the age of 18 after reportedly being raped and was convicted of aggravated homicide after her crime was reclassified from "abortion" to "aggravated homicide" during her trial. Her petition was one of 17 cases presented before the Supreme Court in 2014 requesting pardons for women who are imprisoned on similar charges. The pardon was granted on 21 January following a complex judicial review by the Supreme Court of Justice, which also required a majority plenary vote by the Legislative Assembly. Guadalupe had served seven years of her 30 year sentence.

El Salvador has a complete ban on and criminalizes abortion, even when the woman's life or health is at risk or in cases of rape or incest. Human rights mechanisms, including treaty bodies and special procedures, have regularly expressed serious concern about the total ban and criminalization of abortion in El Salvador, and its impact on women's right to be free from discrimination as well as their rights to life and to health among other human rights.

We are encouraged by the decision to pardon Guadalupe and welcome the steps taken to review each case in line with due process standards. We hope that other imprisoned women in El Salvador who received similar convictions will be freed and that efforts will be made to reform the legal framework on sexual and reproductive rights in line with the recommendations of numerous human rights bodies.

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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