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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

High Commissioner presents updates on human rights in Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Cyprus and Sri Lanka

01 March 2024

Delivered by

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


55th Session of the Human Rights Council

Presentation of the High Commissioner’s annual reports on Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras
Oral update on the situation of human rights in Nicaragua
Presentation of the High Commissioner’s annual report on Cyprus
Oral update on progress in reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka

Madame Vice-President, 
Distinguished delegates,

I present today the reports of my Office on Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras. I will follow with an update on the human rights situation in Nicaragua, my report on Cyprus, and conclude with an update on progress in reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka.

I begin with Colombia (A/HRC/55/23).

While Colombia made significant strides in addressing human rights challenges in 2023, many pressing issues persist.

Non-state armed groups and criminal organisations continue to expand their control over lands and communities, with serious impacts on human rights. High levels of violence are disproportionately affecting rural communities, Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples, and their leaders.

Last year, my Office verified 105 killings of human rights defenders and 98 massacres, in which 320 people were killed. We also verified 53 cases of gender-based violence, including sexual violence, and 134 cases of recruitment or use of children by non-state armed actors.

Such levels of violence require increased civilian protection efforts by the Government. I urge the Government to do its utmost to expand and maintain a comprehensive State presence throughout the whole country.

I also reiterate the UN Security Council’s call that the 2016 peace agreement remain central to the Government’s peace policy today. My Office continues to call for an accelerated implementation of the peace agreement, with a specific focus on advancing the ethnic chapter. I welcome the new participation mechanism created as part of the peace negotiations with the National Liberation Army and recall that permanent dialogue between the State and civil society is paramount to just and lasting peace.

Despite the challenges, Colombia has made concrete commitments and taken action to progress on human rights.

The recognition of peasants’ rights and the creation of the agrarian jurisdiction are very much welcome, both major initial steps in realizing the rural reform outlined in the peace agreement.

I also welcome the adoption of the following key public policies: the policy to dismantle criminal groups and their support networks; the humane security policy; and the drug policy. However, I encourage coordination between stakeholders who are implementing these policies as a means to address more effectively the root causes of violence and armed conflict.

On transitional justice, I commend the continued progress by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the Search Unit for Persons Deemed as Missing, and the Follow up Committee on implementation of the recommendations of the Truth Commission. We particularly welcome the State’s public recognition of its responsibility for extrajudicial executions by the Army and its apologies to victims’ relatives. We also welcome the opening by the Jurisdiction for Peace last year of its investigation into gender-based violence, including sexual violence.

My Office remains fully committed to supporting the transitional justice mechanisms, and accompanying victims as they participate in the process. I will report later this year to the Council on our assistance to implement the recommendations of the Truth Commission.

My Office will continue advocating for a more effective system to protect human rights defenders and will support integration of human rights approaches into the security sector. In light of this, I also urge Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office to advance towards ensuring accountability for all human rights violations and abuses.

Finally, I reiterate the call made by my Office for the Supreme Court promptly to elect a new Attorney General.

I take this opportunity to thank the Government of Colombia for its continued openness in recognizing and discussing the human rights challenges the country is facing.

I now turn to my report on Guatemala (A/HRC/55/21).

Guatemala’s human rights situation in 2023 was marked by a deterioration of systemic and structural inequalities and discrimination, particularly affecting Indigenous Peoples and people of African Descent.

Of particular concern also were the increasing attacks against judicial independence and the justice system. My Office recorded a substantial increase in attacks and reprisals against justice officials investigating cases of corruption and serious human rights violations. In 2023, we registered 71 cases, a 69% increase compared to the year before.

I encourage the Government and Congress to take urgent measures to ensure the safety of justice officials. Conditions must also be created to enable the return of those who have left the country in fear for their safety.

Following last year's Presidential election, a series of legal actions taken by the Office of the Attorney General particularly impacted the integrity of the electoral process, affecting democracy and the rule of law. They included efforts to lift the immunity of the President and Vice-President, and several members of Congress and justices of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, as well as other electoral officers. We will continue closely watching this situation, given our serious concerns about the compatibility of these actions with the separation of powers and Guatemala's Constitution. We will also closely monitor the upcoming election process of justices to the High Courts.

My report also raises serious concerns on attacks against human rights defenders, journalists and Indigenous authorities, urging for the adoption of a stronger public policy to protect them.

Madame Vice-President,

The ongoing violence against women in Guatemala remains profoundly troubling. LGBTQ+ people are also being targeted by violence, including killings. I call on the authorities to prevent - and put an end to - this shocking violence and fully to investigate all cases.

While I note and welcome the advances made in some emblematic cases of violations of human rights committed during the internal armed conflict, I am concerned about serious setbacks in others. One issue of concern is the proposed legal initiative to extinguish criminal liability for people accused and convicted of international crimes committed during the conflict. I urge the Congress to abstain from adopting any legislation that is contrary to international human rights standards.

I thank the Government of Guatemala for the recent extension of our Host Country Agreement until January 2027. I recently met with President Arévalo and expressed to him my deep appreciation for his commitment to the human rights cause. We look forward to continuing our work assisting the State in transitioning towards more democratic governance and in their work to address structural discrimination, with human rights at the core.

The next report I present covers Honduras.

I welcome the openness and willingness of the State to work on structural reform processes with technical support by my Office, including the initiative that led to the adoption of Resolution 54/30 by this Council.

Honduras remains deeply challenged by several longstanding structural obstacles to the enjoyment of human rights.

Persistent violence, including gender violence, land conflicts and impunity are emblematic of some of the country’s most acute human rights issues.

While I note a reduction in homicides, violence and insecurity remain deep-rooted and commonplace, particularly impacting women and LGBTQ+ people. Last year, 380 violent deaths of women were registered, as well as 47 murders of LGBTQ+ people. No specialised protocols exist for criminal justice institutions to address the high rates of violence against women.

For the State to be able to ensure a safe environment, free from organized crime, it requires the resources and policies necessary to address the massive inequalities in the country, illicit financial flows, taxation and corruption. It is also important to develop a coherent national security policy grounded in human rights that incorporates prevention measures.

I am concerned about the increased militarization of public security and the penitentiary system. To take one example, following the tragic attack in the women’s prison in Tamara in June where 46 female prisoners were killed, the Government returned the administration of the prison system to the military police. We have since received reports that some of the military police’s actions may amount to ill-treatment. Additionally, I am concerned about the ongoing State of Emergency, that has been in place for over 15 months, and which grants the national police and military police powers to implement detentions and searches without judicial orders.

Throughout Honduras, conflicts linked to land, territory and natural resources persist, with Indigenous Peoples, Afro Honduran peoples and peasants the most acutely impacted by violence, land grabs and evictions.

I am very troubled by the fact that Honduras remains one of the world’s most dangerous countries for people who defend land, territory and the environment. Attacks against human rights defenders and journalists increased last year, with some 561 people victims of aggression. At least 15 human rights defenders and two journalists were killed. My Office strongly encourages the authorities to strengthen the National Protection Mechanism and to put in place all institutional measures needed to protect human rights defenders.

I welcome the repeal and amendment of decrees by the Congress, part of the so-called “Impunity Pact,” as well as the willingness of the Government to address corruption. However, high levels of corruption and impunity continue to deplete the resources available to the country, as well as to erode trust in public institutions. I urge Honduras to take steps to ensure transparency and accountability, including to strengthen the judiciary, the Office of the Prosecutor and other key national anti-corruption institutions, and to ensure their independence. In this regard, I welcome the recent election of the General Prosecutor and a Deputy, as well as other judicial authorities, by the National Congress.

More generally, I welcome the new process for the election of the new Supreme Court of Justice, and its emphasis on transparency, accountability and gender parity. This is an important step in efforts to strengthen rule of law and access to justice in Honduras.

My Office continues to urge progress in investigations into serious violations of human rights committed in the 1980s, during the 2009 coup, and in the context of the 2017 post-electoral crisis.

I also welcome the recently approved landmark bill that protects natural resources and protected areas in favour of the rights of the affected communities. This law, together with the executive decree to guarantee the ancestral and property rights of Garifuna people, are crucial to advance the enjoyment of rights for the most vulnerable.

I move now to Nicaragua, where the human rights situation continues to plummet at an alarming pace.

For almost six years now, a systematic campaign of repression has targeted anti-Government protestors, human rights defenders, journalists, and politicians. Violations have been particularly severe against women, LGBTQ+ activists and women political leaders.

Most recently, the Catholic Church and other religious groups have come under attack, in a disturbing symbol of the ruling party’s efforts to consolidate its control across all spheres of society and to crackdown on any independent voice.

This Sunday 3 March, regional elections – marred by a series of setbacks on civil and political freedoms - are scheduled to take place in the North and South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Regions. YATAMA, the main Indigenous and Afro descendent party, has been barred from taking part. Its two Deputies at the National Assembly have been arbitrarily detained since September and October, respectively. With one of them subjected to an enforced disappearance and the other held incommunicado, I remain extremely concerned for their lives and safety, and reiterate my call for their immediate release.

Elsewhere in the country, the authorities continue arbitrarily to detain people for political reasons. According to latest civil society data, 19 women and 92 men are currently imprisoned in connection with the human rights crisis that started in 2018. My Office has documented physical torture against some of these individuals, as well as multiple violations of their right to due process. And the closure of the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Nicaragua announced in December now leaves detainees without access to any international or independent monitoring.

The Nicaraguan authorities now exercise almost total control over the judicial system, which has long lost any semblance of independence. Testimonies received by my Office highlight a climate of intense fear, intimidation and harassment. Last November, hundreds of officials were arbitrarily dismissed, reportedly due to their conflicting loyalties.

Many Nicaraguans have fled the country in fear. Many, too, have been arbitrarily deprived of their nationality, often rendering them stateless. Many who travel out of Nicaragua are then denied entry back into their own country.

The authorities in Nicaragua continue to refuse cooperation with my Office or any of the international human rights mechanisms.

International pressure in some cases has resulted in action by the authorities. The latest example was the release of 19 priests and seminarians from arbitrary detention. It is extremely regrettable, however, that after their release, they had to leave the country.

Examples of positive steps taken by the authorities are few and far between.

I urge the authorities to take steps to resume cooperation with my Office and with human rights mechanisms such as the Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua, and urgently to address the raft of serious human rights violations outlined in my Office’s reports.

All those arbitrarily detained need to be immediately released.

An open and pluralistic civic space must be guaranteed.

I also call on the authorities to allow the safe and dignified return of Nicaraguans who wish to come back to the country, and the safe departure of all those who want to leave, especially children and spouses seeking family reunification.

Member States of this Council can and must do more to support Nicaragua to change course and avert an even deeper human rights crisis. I appeal to you to undertake the following actions:

  • To provide full backing and protection to Nicaraguan human rights defenders.
  • To strengthen accountability for alleged international crimes and other violations of international law committed since 2018, as well as to promote the appropriate application of universal and extraterritorial jurisdiction.
  • To ensure international refugee protection to Nicaraguans fleeing persecution and strictly to uphold the principle of non-refoulement.

Additionally, I urge strict scrutiny of all international assistance and investments provided to the State of Nicaragua, including through international financial institutions and businesses. This must be subject to human rights safeguards. In this regard, I welcome the agreement between my Office and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, which seeks to ensure business and human rights standards are upheld in its work with governments, including Nicaragua.

I remain hopeful that, with the decisive support of the Council and the international community, Nicaragua can find a way out of the current human rights crisis.

I turn now to our report on Cyprus, A/HRC/55/20.

The persisting division of Cyprus continues to obstruct the full enjoyment of human rights by all people across the island.

The Turkish Cypriot community continues to be disproportionately affected by discrimination, including at the crossing points between the southern and northern parts of Cyprus. They still face obstacles to exercising their voting rights in the southern part of Cyprus, while citizenship applications for children of Turkish Cypriots who were born in mixed marriages and reside in the northern part of Cyprus continue to be delayed or denied. The socioeconomic disparity between the Turkish Cypriot community and the Greek Cypriot community continues to grow, with the Turkish Cypriot community more deeply impacted.

Although crossing points continued to function, the number of them remains insufficient, resulting in long queues that affect the right to freedom of movement and impact daily exchanges between the two communities. I encourage all relevant stakeholders to advance deeper economic ties and to nourish intercommunal contacts.

Peace education is key, and I hope that education reform can be reinvigorated. I hope that the Technical Committee on Education will resume its plenary meetings without delay, implement the recommendations contained in its 2017 joint report, and undertake efforts to advance peace education throughout the island.

Despite the challenges, I am pleased to hear of ongoing efforts to advance human rights for all people in Cyprus. Of note, religious actors have led joint efforts to protect the rights of refugees, asylum-seekers, and unaccompanied minors.

I continue to urge all parties to ensure that a human rights-based approach underpins their mutual dialogue and cooperation, including with regard to the work of the bicommunal technical committees. Working towards trust, social cohesion and the realization of human rights for all will be essential to supporting and advancing renewed efforts to achieve a just, sustainable and peaceful solution to the island’s ongoing division.

Finally, I turn to Sri Lanka.

Two years ago, tens of thousands of Sri Lankans took to the streets demanding deep democratic reforms and accountability for economic mismanagement and corruption, which resulted in the most severe socio-economic crisis in a generation. There was great hope that the country would embark upon a long overdue transformation that would benefit all its communities.

While the Government has taken important steps to stabilize the economy, I am concerned by the introduction of new or proposed laws with potentially far-reaching impact on fundamental rights and freedoms, the rule of law and democratic governance.

These include the Online Safety Act; the Anti-Terrorism Bill; the Electronic Media Broadcasting Authority Bill; and the NGO Supervision and Registration Bill – which variously strengthen the executive, grant broad powers to the security forces, and severely restrict rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression, impacting not only on civic space but the business environment.

Meanwhile, the disastrous consequences of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis continue to bite deeply, particularly for the most marginalised. Poverty rose further to an estimated 27.9% last year. Nearly two-thirds of households across the country have seen their monthly incomes decrease since March 2022, while food, transportation, health and education costs continue to rise. Despite the Government’s efforts, social protection remains overstretched, and the government’s largest budget expenditure this year will go towards servicing its debt. I appeal for Sri Lanka to be given the fiscal space and support by international financial institutions and creditors to uphold economic, social and cultural rights.

This year, Sri Lanka marks 15 years since the end of a decades-long civil war. Yet violations of human rights remain unaddressed. Tens of thousands of families of the disappeared are still looking for their loved ones and face intimidation, arrests and violence in their search. Land disputes continue to escalate in the north and east of the country impacting on people’s livelihoods. Provincial Councils and local government bodies, that promised a measure of devolution, are not currently constituted.

It is also almost five years since the devastating Easter Sunday bombings, and despite Supreme Court orders victims are still seeking truth and justice.

While the Government has introduced a draft legislation for a Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation, the environment for a credible truth-seeking process remains absent. My Office continues to receive allegations of surveillance, harassment and arrests by security forces of civil society representatives, journalists and victims, as well as of people who have been involved in organising commemoration events for war victims.

I remain deeply concerned about recurring, credible accounts received by my Office of abductions, unlawful detention and torture, including sexual violence, by the Sri Lankan police and security forces, some of which allegedly took place in 2023, mainly in the north and east of the country. Last week, the appointment of a new Inspector General of Police was confirmed, despite the Supreme Court’s finding that he was responsible for torture of an individual in 2010. These cases highlight the need for comprehensive security sector reform.

My Office continues to work to advance accountability in Sri Lanka. It is providing support to several jurisdictions undertaking criminal justice investigations, and is deepening its information and evidence base on specific incidents of human rights concern. It has also been carrying out research on enforced disappearance and conducting consultations with victims.

Sustainable peace and reconciliation will not be achieved in Sri Lanka with regressive laws and authoritarian approaches, which will only serve to perpetuate the human rights concerns of the past.

I urge the Government immediately to reverse this trend and undertake credible accountability measures to investigate and prosecute past and present human rights violations and economic crimes. I also urge Member States to continue to reinforce these efforts, including through appropriate use of universal and extra-territorial jurisdiction and targeted measures against credibly-alleged perpetrators of serious human rights violations and abuses.

It is only through addressing the root causes of the country’s conflict and economic crisis, and ensuring accountability, that Sri Lanka will be able to enhance its prospects of achieving genuine reconciliation and sustainable peace and development.

Thank you.