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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
21 March 2018
37th session of the Human Rights Council
Addresses by Ms. Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights
Geneva, 21 and 22 March 2018
Salle XX, Palais des Nations
Members of the Human Rights Council,
Excellences, Ladies and gentlemen,
This afternoon we bring before you seven briefings, updates and reports of the Secretary-General and of the High Commissioner. These are submitted under item 2, and concern: Burundi, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Cyprus, and Iran.
I will start with the High Commissioner’s oral briefing on our work to help improve the human rights situation and accountability in Burundi.
On 28 September 2017, the Human Rights Council adopted resolution 36/2 requesting the High Commissioner to deploy urgently a team of three experts to Burundi to collect , in cooperation with the Burundian authorities and all other relevant stakeholders, information on human rights violations; to then forward such information to the national judicial authorities to ensure accountability; and make recommendations to the Government of Burundi on technical assistance and capacity building.
I can inform the Council that the Office is finalizing the recruitment of the experts and for their deployment to Bujumbura. We will update the Council on their progress at the next session of the Council, in June 2018.
However, as stated by the High Commissioner in his opening speech to this Council session, the situation for the people of Burundi is grave, fuelling growing pessimism about the future for the country.
We continue to receive report of killings, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests and detention, of restrictions of freedoms of association and expression continue, and across the country impunity prevails.
We believe that in particular, Burundi’s security forces are being deployed for the purpose of comprehensive violation of the rights of the people, to such an extent that we must urge the international community to refrain from all engagement with these forces.
The Government's plan to revise the Constitution and to do so in these circumstances generates a host of human rights concerns and is set to further deepen grievances.
Since December 2017 launch by the Government of an official campaign for a referendum to amend the Constitution, crackdowns against civil society have increased with more activists arrested, and detention too of some remaining political opponents. Such incidents have been reported in 15 of the 18 provinces of Burundi.
On various occasions, Government officials issued public statements warning citizens not to oppose the constitutional referendum. In the same vein, they have also threatened to retaliate against any person who would oppose the constitutional amendment.
These statements issued at a high-level have only served to exacerbate the climate of fear, and encouraged acts of intimidation and violence.
During the February 2018 voter registration period, numerous reports emerged of campaigns of intimidation by armed elements associated with the Imbonerakure while local authorities reportedly sought to force citizens to register to vote.
In the lead up to the constitutional referendum increasingly arbitrary arrest and detention - it appears – are used as tools of intimidation, particularly targeting members or alleged members of opposition parties.
Civic space is shrinking, with private media outlets closed and many civil society organisations shut down. The Burundian civil society suffers from unrelenting restrictions of their freedom of expression and lives under fear of surveillance and persecution not only within the country but even in countries of exile.
It is now my duty to present our report on key human rights developments in Guatemala (A/HRC/37/3/Add.1), as observed over the course of last year and on our activities.
We commend the impressive continued efforts by the Office of the Attorney-General, with the support of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to investigate and prosecute high-profile cases - their collaboration has been and remains crucial to the unveiling and tackling of criminal and corruption networks.
A selection process for a new Attorney-General is underway, which we hope will result in strong candidates with proven records. The independence of this key institution is of utmost importance, and jointly with CICIG, under the leadership of Iván Velásquez, together with Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman, these institutions provide Guatemala with viable means by which to reverse impunity and stem the tide of corruption, thus paving the way for sustainable and inclusive development for all Guatemalans.
In such efforts, Guatemalan human rights defenders, journalists and members of the judiciary, who perform their duties with admirable integrity and independence, also have a key role to play. We are gravely concerned that several of them have been targeted - attacked, threatened and subjected to smear campaigns.
As the High Commissioner noted when concluding his visit in Guatemala last November, the country is at a crossroads, facing a choice between the option of progressing with reforms to tackle structural inequality and discrimination as compared to the option of maintaining an old, unjust system by regressing legislatively.
We urge the Government to build forwards on progress of recent years and pursue without hesitation, the quest for equality, truth and justice – including for past crimes and disappearances, such as that of Marco Antonio Molina Theissen.
Excellencies, I also wish to inform you that next month, we’ll release a report on the Hogar Seguro tragedy.
Moving now to our Report on Honduras (A/HRC/37/3/Add.2).
At the outset, we thank the Government of Honduras for its continued cooperation with our Office there and stress our readiness to continue provision of assistance so that the human rights challenges raised in the report before you may be addressed.
Our report highlights the need for investigations that can lead to accountability for human rights violations committed in the context of the country-wide protests and the state of emergency, that followed upon last year’s disputed outcome of the presidential election.
While most protests were peaceful, some elements of the security forces deployed to handle the protests - especially the Military Police for Public Order and the Army - used excessive force, with tragic results in which people including passers-by were killed and many more injured.
Continued attacks against journalists and human rights defenders, including against indigenous, peasant and environmental activists, are described in our report. Some have been subjected unfairly to criminal charges and prosecutions, including for opposing projects affecting their land and lives. We acknowledge the recent developments in the search for justice in the emblematic case of human rights defender Berta Caceres, and urge authorities to pursue full accountability for her murder and for all those subjected to arbitrary loss of life.
We welcome the steps taken to strengthen the investigative capacity of the Office of the Special Prosecutor on Femicide – this is key if crimes against women and girls, which remain alarmingly high, are to be addressed and if hate crimes against LGBTI individuals are not to go unpunished.
With more than half of the population of Honduras living in poverty, non-discrimination must be at the core of envisaged reforms to achieve protection of human rights and sustainable development – recognizing the links between insecurity, poverty and inequality in the country, leaving no Honduran behind.
I now wish to introduce our most recent report on Colombia (A/HRC/37/3/Add.3).
The Peace Agreement between the Government and FARC-EP entrusts our Colombia office with the responsibility of monitoring and assisting with the implementation of several aspects of the Agreement and to report on these efforts to this Council. This is a new and important role for which the Office requires additional funds, and which will be led by our new Representative whom we expect to be accredited imminently.
The Agreement brought hostilities to an end and we saw subsequently a considerable reduction in rates of violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law – and we commend the efforts of FARC-EP and State agents to comply with the Agreement.
That being said, we are concerned at the return in January this year to hostilities between the Government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) and note with deep regret their dramatic consequences for the affected populations. We call on the parties to reignite efforts for a permanent enduring ceasefire and ignite hope for effective peace negotiations between them.
Other significant challenges remain for the implementation of the Peace Agreement. Armed groups, including ELN, and criminal organizations have entered areas formerly under FARC-EP influence, seeking to control illicit economies. An integrated State approach to establishing or restoring its authority in these parts of the country is necessary to prevent escalation of violence. The State needs do more than only deploy security forces in these critical rural areas. It must also secure dignity for people in their daily lives - ensure access to essential services, take concrete steps to realise the affected population’s economic, social and cultural rights – so that material stability and positive change for these communities is delivered in time to prevent ease of settlement in those areas by armed and criminal groups.
A major concern right now is the increase in killings of human rights defenders. In 2017, 84 human rights defenders and 23 members of social organizations were killed.
In the first six weeks of 2018, the weekly average of homicides of human rights defenders almost doubled compared to last year.
Most victims were those who were demanding the implementation of the Peace Agreement, in the context of disputes among criminal and armed groups for the control of illicit economies. Despite significant efforts by the Attorney-General and the National Police to identify the material authors of these crimes, in most cases, the intellectual authors have not yet been identified.
Accelerating reintegration of FARC-EP combatants is also essential to prevent ex-combatants from deserting the peace process, joining criminal groups and engaging in illegal activities. We note that at least 36 ex-FARC members were killed in 2017.
Presidential elections will take place in May. Some candidates have stated they will stop and even reverse the implementation of the peace agreement should they win. We encourage this Council to continue to closely follow the situation.
Moving now to our report on Cyprus (A/HRC/37/22), which provides an overview of human rights developments between 1 December 2016 and 30 November 2017.
The persistent territorial division of the island into two, continues to hinder the full enjoyment of human rights for the people of Cyprus. Our report details concerns pertaining to the right to life and the question of missing persons; non-discrimination, freedom of movement, property rights, freedom of religion or belief and cultural rights, freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to education.
At the same time, there were positive developments during the period, particularly relating to bi-communal initiatives and confidence-building measures. The search for missing persons continued to progress (albeit slowly); and the interreligious dialogue was sustained, and included broader activities to promote human rights such as a joint statement by religious leaders condemning all forms of violence against women and girls. There has also been progress in the work of the bi-communal Technical Committees, particularly on gender equality, education and cultural heritage.
It is essential that efforts for dialogue and trust be further strengthened, and that a human rights approach underpins the political process. Greater efforts are also required to ensure women’s participation and the mainstreaming of gender-related issues into the political process.
The next report before you is the Report of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights in Iran (A/HRC/37/24).
In it, the Secretary-General expresses alarm at Iran’s continuing and high rate of executions. While welcoming amendment to the drug-trafficking law which retroactively amends the punishment for some drug offences that previously carried the death penalty to imprisonment, the Secretary-General remains deeply troubled that the death penalty remains in force for juvenile offenders despite its unequivocal prohibition under international law. Five juvenile offenders were executed in 2017, and already three this year.
State response to protests in December 2017 led to at least 22 deaths and the arrest of thousands. Several people later died in custody. While the authorities claim that some committed suicide, this is very much disputed by family and friends of the victims.
A persistent pattern of intimidation, arrest and prosecution of human rights defenders is in evidence. Those in detention are at particular risk , and we hold grave concerns for the health of detainees Arash Sadeghi, Narges Mohammadi, Soheil Arabi, Atena Daemi and Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee.
The Secretary-General is further concerned about the targeting of journalists and media workers working inside and outside of the country, as well as persistent violations against religious and ethnic minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender and intersex individuals.
There have been encouraging developments related to the employment of women and girls. However, the prevalence of child marriage and gender based discrimination codified in civil law remain. Women who do not wear an appropriate hijab can still be fined or jailed –we are particularly concerned by the mounting reports of arrests of those protesting against compulsory veiling.
Finally, the Secretary-General welcomes the improved cooperation between the Government of Iran and the treaty bodies, and the dialogue with the late and much missed Special Rapporteur Asma Jahangir, whilst noting with concern the Government’s continued refusal to allow the Special Rapporteur to visit the country.
Moving now to our written update on progress in promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka (A/HRC/37/23) between March 2017 and January 2018.
We welcome the Government’s constructive engagement with OHCHR and the human rights mechanisms, including its cooperation with visits of this Council’s Special Rapporteurs on human rights and terrorism; on truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence; and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. We also welcome Sri Lanka’s accession to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and the adoption of the National Human Rights Action Plan.
Yet, it is with much regret that we must report slow progress in establishing transitional justice mechanisms. In the absence of concrete results or publicly available drafts of legislation, it seems doubtful that the transitional justice agenda committed to by the Government under this Council’s resolution 30/1 could be fully implemented before our next report in March 2019.
We further regret that the commissioners of the Office of Missing Persons were only recently appointed, 20 months after the adoption of the legislation.
In addition, there has been insufficient progress in returning land occupied by the military. Trust will not be rebuilt if land grabbing continues, nor without independent mechanisms established to determine fair compensations for land reserved for security reasons.
Furthermore, the Authorities have yet to demonstrate with the willingness or the capacity to address impunity for gross violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law. This strengthens the argument for the establishment of a specialized court to deal with serious crimes, supported by international practitioners. In the absence of such a mechanism, we call on Member States to exercise universal jurisdiction.
We are also seriously concerned about multiple incidents of inter-communal violence, attacks and hate speech against minorities observed last year – a worry further exacerbated by recent developments that have occurred since the drafting of the report, including violence against Muslims in Kandy district that led to the proclamation of state of emergency for 12 days. Allegations of continuing use of torture and continued reports of harassment or surveillance of human rights defenders are more than worrying.
In light of the gravity of the above matters and given the import role that this Council has played to date, the High Commissioner strongly advises that this Council continue to focus its attention on the human rights of the people of Sri Lanka and in particular on the processes in place for accountability and reconciliation.
Over several years now, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Mr Pablo de Greiff, has engaged closely with Sri Lanka. As he will soon conclude his mandate, I understand you next will have the benefit of his insights on these important matters and we are very grateful for his leadership in this regard.
This concludes my introduction of country reports and updates under item 2.