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UN expert: International community must do more to protect mass graves

27 October 2020

NEW YORK (27 October 2020) – The international community must do more to help countries and communities where mass graves are located to ensure such sites are treated with respect, and in accordance with human rights standards, a UN expert said today,

“Mass graves are places of evidence crucial to effective pursuit of formal justice,” Agnès Callamard, UN special rapporteur on summary executions, told the General Assembly as she presented her annual report.  “They hold the remains of those denied identity in death. They are spaces of intimate sorrow for loved ones. And, they are places of public record - proof that heinous events took place which must never be forgotten.”

“Ours is a human history marred by massacres, in which so often those responsible have not only walked free but are later even celebrated, with statues erected in their memory gracing our court houses, town halls and local parks,” she said. “But just contrast that with the way so many killing sites and mass graves are treated: left unacknowledged, unprotected, unpreserved and, when not covered up, desecrated or destroyed.  It may even become a crime to mention them in public.”

Every region of the world has mass graves, she said. They “may be the result of repression, conflict or linked to criminal activities. They may be the result of natural disasters or pandemics, but they always embody human rights violations.”

Despite their global scale and their significance to so many, far too little has been done to ensure respectful handling of mass graves.

“The international community must do far more to support the countries and communities where these sites are located,” she says in her report. In addition to the historical and global neglect of mass graves, the report also highlights the lack of a coherent human rights framework for their treatment. 

“All these meanings and associated rights ought to be considered,” Callamard said. “My report offers a human rights framework by which to strengthen the respectful and lawful handling of mass graves; an approach in which the diversity of the claims, rights and obligations are recognised and in which a fair balance can be struck across those many interests.”

Stressing the importance of due process and non-discrimination, she said victims’ families, survivors and affected communities are central and must be enabled to actively and meaningfully participate in decisions about the management of mass graves.

To help guarantee fair participatory processes, she recommends the appointment of a legal guardian for the mass grave, and where relevant, crime scene managers; officials who would be responsible for ensuring that decision-making processes give due attention to diverse stakeholders’ claims and that State obligations are implemented.

“I call on States to further support the development of standards and best practices for the respectful and lawful management of mass graves to ensure that mass graves are included in transitional justice and peace-making efforts and their management well resourced,” she said. 

“More coherent human rights action must be taken also to ensure that present and future generations never forget the heinous crimes that led to these many mass graves and work actively to ensure that repetition of that violence is never allowed,” Callamard said.

“It is only through human rights-based interventions that these massacre sites of massive suffering and mass death can become sites of dignity, respect and places for the deep communal learning essential to non-repetition.”

* Dr. Agnès CallamardSpecial Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executionshas a distinguished career in human rights and humanitarian work globally. Ms Callamard is the Director of Columbia Global Freedom of Expression at Columbia University and has previously worked with Article 19 and Amnesty International. She has advised multilateral organizations and governments around the world, has led human rights investigations in more than 30 countries, and has published extensively on human rights and related fields.
Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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