Countdown to Human Rights Day
Women played a large part in drafting the UDHR
Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
27 February 2020
It is an honour to update this Council on the work of my Office, and our approach to recent human rights developments around the world.
My speech will not focus on human rights situations that are the object of separate statements or reports by my Office during this session. These are Afghanistan; Central African Republic; Colombia; Cyprus; the Democratic Republic of Congo; the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; Eritrea; Guatemala; Honduras; Iran; Libya; Myanmar; Nicaragua; Sri Lanka; Venezuela and Yemen, as well as our report on ensuring accountability in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
I want to begin today with a discussion I had a few weeks ago in a camp for displaced people in Ituri – a province of the DRC that is rich in oil and gold, but whose desperately poor people have suffered repeated cycles of violence in the past decade.
Many of the people I spoke to had had limbs cut off and watched family members being massacred. One man had been recovered from a pile of bodies. But their demands for justice, and for respect of their human rights, were strong and clear. And even here, in this great suffering and destruction, a group of Congolese volunteers, Solidarité Féminine pour la Paix et le Développement Intégral, has been at work, month after month – sharing goods, caring for the wounded, helping to train people to develop new skills, and soothing trauma.
I was inspired by this search for positive solutions, and this fundamental generosity and solidarity of human beings even in the face of massive challenges. I see this as an approach that all of us could emulate.
I thank the Government of Sudan for its excellent cooperation with the establishment of our country office, and I commend its commitment to justice and swift measures to boost access to health-care and schools. Independent committees have been formed to investigate the repression of protests last June, and to address grave human rights violations by successive Governments since 1989. Although an agreement seems to have been reached regarding transitional justice and reconciliation processes, including establishment of a special criminal court for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, I remain concerned by the security situation in Darfur. I call on the Council to join us in offering support and technical cooperation to the Sudanese Government and civil society.
In South Sudan, the formation of a revitalised transitional government is a step forward. But for the country to achieve lasting peace, three human rights challenges must be addressed. One is justice: the Government should cease to delay the Hybrid Court, and should support investigations and prosecutions by independent domestic institutions. Two: inter-communal violence urgently needs to be addressed. And thirdly, restrictions on fundamental freedoms should be lifted, and the harassment, arbitrary arrest and surveillance of people or groups deemed critical of the Government should end.
In Cameroon, I note steps taken by the Government following the National Dialogue in October, including the release of more than 400 detainees, and new legislation on bilingualism and decentralization, granting “special status” to the North- and South-West regions. An assessment mission to the area by my Office in September found serious human rights violations and abuses across both regions by security forces, as well as by separatist armed elements. The Government has agreed to cooperate on implementing our recommendations. The reported attack on a village two weeks ago which left many civilians dead, including children, emphasises the importance of swift action to ensure that investigations of any such incident are independent, impartial, thorough and lead to prosecution.
In Sahel countries, particularly Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, attacks by violent extremist groups caused over 4,000 killings in 2019 – 500% more than in 2016, according to the SRSG for West Africa and the Sahel. This has alarming humanitarian consequences, including massive displacement and setbacks for development. In Mali, there have also been intercommunal attacks. Across all three countries, there is a clear need for an approach that extends beyond a military focus, to address root causes of violent extremism – including extreme poverty, inequalities, exclusion, and inadequate accountability and protection of human rights. In addition to engaging with the G5 Sahel Joint Force to establish a human rights compliance framework, my Office is stepping up our work across the region on governance issues, migration, climate change, justice, development and the rights of displaced populations. We plan to open a new Country Office in Niger this year, and expect to strengthen our cooperation and presence in Burkina Faso.
In Nigeria, increasing attacks and killings by Boko Haram, the Islamic State of West Africa Province, and other jihadist groups – as well as those resulting from farmer-herder clashes – are taking a toll on civilians. Kidnapping for ransom, and sexual and gender-based violence also contribute to insecurity, amid sharpening ethnic, regional and religious polarization across the country. It is vital that security forces conduct all their operations in full compliance with human rights standards. I strongly encourage measures to address climate change and control over land use, together with broader action to uphold economic, social and political rights, to resolve some of the root causes of these cycles of violence. And I urge action to ensure the security forces understand and protect the work of humanitarian civil society actors.
In Guinea, recent demonstrations demanding that upcoming elections be fair and transparent, and protesting a controversial Constitutional referendum, have resulted in dozens of deaths. Reports also indicate that ethnic divisions are deepening, with increasing incitement to hatred and violence on social media and at political rallies. Any further escalation of this crisis could be profoundly harmful. Noting that the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie has reported serious irregularities in the voters' register, I urge the authorities to avert greater turmoil and ensure that the electoral process is transparent and inclusive.
In Burundi, I am alarmed by crackdowns on the opposition, and suppression of civil and political rights, in the context of the Presidential, legislative and communal elections scheduled in May.
In Syria, attacks on Idlib, Aleppo, and Hama are causing the most massive displacements of civilians in the past nine years, following a military offensive launched by the Syrian Government, backed by its allies. Nearly a million people have been forced to flee in the past three months. In the first week of this month my Office recorded incidents in which at least 100 civilians were killed, and many others injured, as a result of the air-strikes and ground-based strikes by Government forces and their allies. Seven civilians were killed as a result of ground-based strikes by non-State armed groups. Since January, 10 medical facilities and 19 educational facilities have been directly hit or affected by strikes close by. The humanitarian situation of hundreds of thousands of families was made worse by the effective closure of two cross-border points for the entry of humanitarian aid.
In Iraq, live ammunition has repeatedly been used against unarmed protestors, resulting in over 450 deaths since October. Security forces have also detained thousands of people in the context of protests, without regard to due process; some have reportedly suffered ill-treatment. Unresolved political and economic grievances lie at the heart of the current wave of protests, and I encourage the Government to meaningfully address these demands instead of responding with violence.
In the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the loss of life in 2019, and the thousands injured by use of live ammunition by Israeli Forces – including many children – are a source of concern. Plans for new Israeli settlements in the occupied territory more than doubled in the past year. Settlements on occupied land are illegal under international law. Moreover, their expansion has been accompanied in the past year by the highest level of settler violence against Palestinians since 2013.
I am troubled by increasing restrictions of the civic space in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, where human rights defenders and political opponents are being targeted with arrests, travel bans, ill-treatment, smear campaigns, administrative sanctions and obstructions to funding.
The increasing use of the death penalty in Egypt, with 37 individuals reportedly sentenced to death just this month, is a serious issue. We remain gravely concerned at the continued existence of Article 122 of the Child Law, which allows the imposition of the death penalty on juveniles at the time of the alleged offence. Restrictions continue to intensify on freedom of expression and media freedom, as well as the right to peaceful assembly, exemplified by the arrest and detention of more than 4,000 people in the context of peaceful protests since September. Reported enforced disappearances, and systematic harassment of human rights defenders, lawyers, trade unionists and their family members, are also concerning.
I encourage Saudi Arabia to seize the opportunity of this year’s G20 Summit, in Riyadh, to demonstrate progress in implementing its international human rights obligations. I encourage legislative frameworks to uphold freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association for all, and reviews of the judgments of those who have been convicted for expressing their opinions – including human rights defenders, religious leaders and journalists. I call for the release of several women who have legitimately and peacefully demanded reforms of discriminatory policies in the country. I also call for full transparency in the ongoing judicial proceedings, and comprehensive accountability, regarding the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Across many countries, protests are being fuelled by profound inequalities. Violent responses by the security forces can further undermine public confidence in economic and political systems.
In Chile and Ecuador, as elsewhere, there is a need to ensure accountability for human rights violations in the context of demonstrations, and to address the protests’ root causes: inequalities. In both countries, the Office has provided recommendations to the Governments and civil society for a sustainable roadmap guided by human rights norms.
I recently sent a mission to Bolivia, and my Office is strengthening engagement there to support UN efforts to overcome the current social and political crisis. The post-election crisis last year resulted in at least 35 deaths and 800 injuries, most of them during Army and police operations. The prosecution of dozens of former Government officials and individuals related to the former administration are a source of concern.
In Brazil, attacks against human rights defenders, including killings – many of them targeted at indigenous leaders – are taking place in a context of significant rollbacks of policies to protect the environment and indigenous peoples' rights. There are also increasing takeovers of indigenous and Afrodescendants’ lands, and efforts to delegitimise the work of civil society and social movements.
The United States is also rolling back environmental protections, including for waterways and wetlands. Untreated pollutants may now be poured directly into millions of miles of streams and rivers, putting ecosystems, drinking water and human health at risk. Weaker fuel emission standards for vehicles, and decreased regulations on the oil and gas industries, could also harm human rights.
Restrictive US migration policies raise significant human rights concerns. Reducing the number of people trying to enter the country should not be done in disregard of asylum and migrant protections. The situation of children in detention is of particular concern.
In Jammu and Kashmir, while some political leaders have been released, and ordinary life may be returning to normal in some respects, as many as 800 people reportedly remain in detention, including political leaders and activists. Schools, businesses and livelihoods have been disrupted by the continued heavy military presence, and no steps have been taken to address allegations of excessive use of force and other serious human rights violations by security forces. The Indian government has partially restored mobile and internet services, after an important decision by the Indian Supreme Court, but authorities continue to impose excessive restrictions on the use of social media.
In India more broadly, the Citizenship Amendment Act adopted last December is of great concern. Indians in huge numbers, and from all communities, have expressed – in a mostly peaceful manner – their opposition to the Act, and support for the country's long tradition of secularism. I am concerned by reports of police inaction in the face of attacks against Muslims by other groups, as well as previous reports of excessive use of force by police against peaceful protesters. This has now widened into broader inter-communal attacks, with 34 people killed since Sunday 23 February. I appeal to all political leaders to prevent violence.
Religious minorities in Pakistan continue to face violence, repeated attacks on their places of worship, and discrimination in law and practice. The Government, despite recommendations from international human rights mechanisms, has not amended or repealed blasphemy law provisions which have led to violence against religious minorities, as well as to arbitrary arrests and prosecution. The death penalty remains mandatory for blasphemy, and in December, the Multan Court sentenced Junaid Hafeez to death on a blasphemy charge, in contravention of international human rights law.
In Cambodia, we continue to receive reports of acts of intimidation against civil society and human rights organisations, which impede their capacity to monitor and report – including to this Council. Critics and political opponents also continue to be targeted by repressive measures, including arbitrary detention and apparent misuse of criminal laws. While the authorities’ cooperation with the Office on technical and capacity building activities is welcome, I call on the Government to respect its commitment to uphold all the human rights of its people – including freedom of the media, the impartial rule of law, and the right to freely participate in public affairs without fear of persecution.
In Bangladesh, I encourage action to strengthen the independence and impartiality of the judiciary and National Human Rights Commission. Continuing allegations of torture, arbitrary arrests and almost 400 extrajudicial killings last year are concerning, as are reports of intimidation of human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists, and constraints in the context of recent local elections. Reform of the Digital Security Act is needed. Bangladesh has a commendable record of working with the United Nations – particularly in receiving the Rohingya refugees – and we will endeavour to assist all such reforms.
In Mongolia, the initiative to develop a comprehensive human rights defenders law, together with civil society, is inspiring, and I look forward to its early presentation to Parliament. I also welcome Parliament’s approval last month of legislation establishing an independent National Preventive Mechanism under the National Human Rights Commission of Mongolia.
Nepal is at another crucial juncture in its transitional justice process. I urge the authorities to build trust in these processes by genuinely consulting a wide range of stakeholders, including victim groups and the larger civil society.
I welcome Thailand's National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, the first in Asia. I am concerned that human rights defenders continue to face incidents of judicial harassment. I note that a draft law on torture and enforced disappearance is under consideration; it will be important to ensure its compliance with international human rights standards.
I welcome the invitation by the Chinese Government for me to visit China this year, including Xinjiang. We will continue to request unfettered access for an advance team in preparation for this proposed visit. We will seek to analyse in depth the human rights situation in China, including the situation of members of the Uyghur minority.
The coronavirus epidemic has set off a disturbing wave of prejudice against people of Chinese and East Asian ethnicity, and I call on Member States to do their utmost to combat this and other forms of discrimination.
Protection of our environment is fundamental to the enjoyment of all human rights. I welcome the leadership demonstrated by the European Union in adopting its Green Deal last December. It couples ambitious action within the EU with a strong dimension of external action, engaging both climate diplomacy and green cooperation aid. Implementation of this plan will greatly advance enjoyment of the right to a healthy environment, and I encourage strong social measures to ensure that just transitions leave no-one behind.
In Kazakhstan, I note the President’s plans for significant legislative and policy changes to ensure greater civil and political freedoms, including a new law on peaceful assemblies. My Office could provide expertise on human rights standards in regard to the announced reforms. The President also committed to signing the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, on the death penalty. I look forward to the implementation of these reforms, and urge the Government to refrain from law enforcement practices that violate the right to peaceful assembly and protection against arbitrary detention.
I also look forward to discussions with officials in Turkmenistan, following the President’s recent statement that the country will strengthen its engagement with our Office and other UN agencies. I am hopeful that we will be able to assist steps to uphold fundamental freedoms.
In Turkey, rights activists, media workers, and people perceived as government critics continue to be prosecuted as a result of legislation and policies introduced during and after the state of emergency. In particular, the application of anti-terrorism legislation and related measures, which fall short of international standards, continues to restrict the public’s rights to participation, freedom of expression, information and assembly. I note the Government’s intention to amend the Anti-Terror Law to address its adverse effects, although there has, as yet, been little evidence of action in this direction. The recent re-arrest of Mr. Osman Kavala, and the continued emblematic trial of 11 human rights defenders, including former members of Amnesty, are the latest examples of Turkey's hostile environment for rights activists. I encourage swift and decisive action to uphold human rights – including by ensuring the independence of the judiciary, especially when challenges persist with regard to separation of powers. I look forward to continuing our engagement with Turkey to establish an effective and independent national human rights institution and develop a National Human Rights Action Plan.
In Poland, recently adopted legislation curtails the independence of judges and lawyers; enables the dismissal of judges; and levies severe penalties against prosecutors, lawyers and judges who are critical of the Government’s judicial changes. There have been sharp increases in disciplinary proceedings against judges, and numerous lawsuits against journalists and media outlets not affiliated to the government. Dozens of local municipalities have adopted resolutions declaring they are “zones free of LGBTI ideology”.
In the Russian Federation, new amendments to the 2012 legislation on civil society known as the “foreign agent law,” have further expanded its application to individuals who distribute foreign media, or publish material, while also receiving money from outside the country. It will have chilling effect on the exercise of freedom of expression and other forms of participation by the public in decision-making. In November, the Supreme Court ruled that one of Russia’s oldest human rights groups, the All-Russia Movement for Human Rights, should be dissolved, after allegedly refusing to take actions required under the “foreign agent” law.
With regard to foreign individuals with suspected ties to ISIL: as I have noted on other occasions, unless they are to be prosecuted for recognised crimes in accordance with international standards, they should be repatriated to their countries of origin. Some States have begun to repatriate their nationals, and I call on the international community to support them. Children, in particular, have suffered grievous violations of their rights. The primary consideration should be their rehabilitation, protection and best interests. My Office, in consultation with other UN entities, has prepared guidance regarding human rights-based responses to the situation of foreign fighters and their families, with specific recommendations with respect to their gender and age. We stand ready to offer assistance.
In many of Europe’s frontline States, and along their borders, we continue to witness preventable suffering of migrants. All frontline States, including on the Balkan route, should fully honour their international commitments, and remove legal and procedural barriers that prevent identification of the protection needs of all migrants.
Pushbacks – which violate the right to seek asylum and the principle of non-refoulement – are increasing at several borders; and tens of thousands of migrant women, men and children are sequestered in deeply sub-standard conditions, with poor systems in place to identify vulnerabilities. We must do better.
Finally, Madam President, I extend my deepest respect to the medical teams around the world who are tackling the coronavirus, COVID-19, which constitutes a serious threat to the rights to life and to health of people everywhere. A health crisis like this epidemic is a test of our societies’ resilience – and the human rights framework brings crucial guideposts that can strengthen the effectiveness of our response.
To effectively combat the virus, all public health measures should be carried out without discrimination of any kind, with an emphasis on transparency and information to empower people to participate in protecting health. Quarantines, which restrict the right to freedom of movement, should be proportionate to the risk, time-bound, and safe. The rights of those under quarantine must be protected, including rights to food and clean water, the right to be treated humanely, access to health care, the right to be informed, and freedom of expression.
Our field presences will support all stakeholders to uphold the rights of all affected people. People living in collective institutions, including many older people and people deprived of their liberty, are likely to be more vulnerable to this infection, and we will be emphasising our concerns about them and other vulnerable groups.
My update today has raised some very serious concerns, which will be examined in greater detail during this session. I ask Member States to approach these situations cooperatively, with concerted and productive action – and to assist, also, those countries which have made commendable progress in upholding human rights.
Thank you Madam President.