Hears High Commissioner’s Global Human Rights Update and Holds Enhanced Interactive Dialogue on Myanmar
The Human Rights Council this morning opened its forty-fifth regular session, hearing a global human rights update from Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as separate updates on the human rights situations in Nicaragua and Venezuela.
The Council approved by a vote Germany’s request on behalf of the European Union to hold an urgent debate on the “situation of human rights in Belarus”, which was set for 10 a.m. on Friday, 18 September. Germany, Venezuela (video message), Netherlands, Denmark, Czech Republic, Australia, Poland and Spain took the floor. Belarus spoke as a concerned country.
The Council also heard a video message by Marise Payne, Minister for Women and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Australia, and then held an enhanced interactive dialogue on the High Commissioner’s presentation of her report on Myanmar.
Speaking during the interactive dialogue were European Union, Pakistan, Jordan, France, Japan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Senegal, Iraq, Australia, China, Bangladesh, Venezuela (video message), Malaysia (video message), India, Philippines (video message), Russian Federation, Ireland, Lao People's Democratic Republic, United Kingdom, Egypt, Denmark, Tunisia and Armenia.
Also taking the floor were the following non-governmental organizations: Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (video message), Lutheran World Federation, the Next Century Foundation (video message), and International Institute for Rights and Development Geneva
At 3 p.m., the Council will hear the presentation of the report of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, followed by an interactive dialogue. It will then hold an enhanced interactive discussion on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Opening Remarks by the President of the Human Rights Council
ELISABETH TICHY-FISSLBERGER, President of the Human Rights Council, extending a warm welcome to all delegations and other stakeholders present in the room or following the meeting virtually, recalled that the same health-related measures that had been applied to the forty-fourth session would continue to be applied to the forty-fifth session, until further notice. These proposed extraordinary modalities would apply exclusively to the current circumstances and should by no means serve as a precedent.
Ms. Tichy-Fisslberger presented the programme of work. The Russian Federation took the floor. The Council then adopted the programme of work.
Urgent Debate on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus
Ms. Tichy-Fisslberger, turning to a matter of urgency, she said that on 11 September 2020, she had received a letter from Ambassador Michael von Ungern-Sternberg, Permanent Representative of Germany, requesting - on behalf of the States members of the European Union that were members of the Human Rights Council – that an urgent debate be held on the “situation of human rights in Belarus” during this forty-fifth session.
Germany, Venezuela, Netherlands, Denmark, Czech Republic, Australia, Poland and Spain took the floor. Belarus spoke as a concerned country.
By a vote of 25 in favour, 2 against and 20 abstentions, the Council approved the request to hold an urgent debate on the “situation of human rights in Belarus”. Ms. Tichy-Fisslberger said it would be held at 10 a.m. on Friday, 18 September.
High Commissioner for Human Rights: Global Update on Human Rights
MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that with COVID-19, a fast-moving and global health crisis had collided with many slower, and more entrenched, political, social and economic crises around the world.
Re-establishing social peace in Belarus required far-reaching dialogue, reforms, and accountability for grave human rights violations, said Ms. Bachelet, encouraging the Council to focus action on three areas in order to prevent further escalation of violence and grievances. In Poland, the High Commissioner was concerned about the continuing repression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people and activists, including restrictions on their freedom of assembly, and the Government's support for towns that had termed themselves – using unacceptable language – “LGBTI-free zones.” Last week's fire at the migrant camp in Lesbos, Greece had had a drastic impact on the lives of thousands of people – and underscored the need for solidarity and shared responsibility among European Union Member States. Reports of pushbacks and collective expulsions at the sea and land borders of European Union States – in violation of legal obligations and with grave consequences for the lives and rights of migrants – called for independent monitoring and verification.
In Lebanon, last month's explosion of chemicals warehoused in the port of Beirut had created additional destruction, devastating people's lives, livelihoods and hope. It was critical that human rights principles be fully integrated into all efforts to rebuild from this tragedy. In the Occupied Palestinian Territory, with sharply rising COVID-19 cases in Gaza, the health sector now faced total collapse unless aspects of the blockade were lifted. This blockade, which contravened international law, had conclusively failed to deliver security or peace for Israelis and Palestinians, and should urgently be lifted.
Ms. Bachelet was dismayed at the prolonged hunger strike of human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh in Iran. She urged the authorities to pursue many more temporary releases, as an urgent public health measure, and to immediately release political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. In Iraq, ongoing killings and attacks on activists and human rights defenders by armed groups – without accountability – were deeply worrying, and the High Commissioner encouraged the Government to move quickly on its stated commitment to establish a fact-finding commission to ensure accountability and prevent such actions in the future. In Syria, the pandemic had highlighted the devastation of a health system battered by deliberate bombings and other effects of conflict, and ill-equipped to meet even basic needs, and the World Food Programme reported that 9.3 million people in this country faced food insecurity.
In Saudi Arabia, the High Commissioner for Human Rights was deeply concerned about the continued arbitrary detention of women human rights defenders who had demanded that Saudi Arabian women be empowered to make their own choices, as equals to men, and stated that they should be released without delay. Her Office continued remote monitoring of the situation in Western Sahara, where it had last conducted technical missions five years ago. Such missions were vital to identify critical human rights issues on all sides and contributed to preventing the escalation of grievances.
Regarding Mali, the High Commissioner said it was vital that human rights be upheld, including during security operations, particularly given the extreme fragility of the security situation. All those illegally detained in relation with the events of 18 August should be released, and all continuing discussions of transitional political arrangements should have the fundamental rights of all Malians at their core. In Tanzania, Ms. Bachelet drew the Council's attention to increasing repression of the democratic and civic space in what was becoming a deeply deteriorated environment for human rights. In Ethiopia, despite notable efforts in recent years to bring about meaningful human rights-based reforms, the killing of an Oromo singer and activist in July had triggered protests and inter-communal violence across the country. In Burundi, steps taken since July to arrest and prosecute members of the ruling party youth wing, senior police officers and local administrators who had allegedly committed extortion and other crimes were encouraging. However, since elections in May, her Office’s reports continued to indicate politically motivated arrests and detentions, as well as the burning of houses of opposition party members.
In Somalia, the High Commissioner was alarmed by an increase in reports of sexual violence against women, girls and boys, with minimal investigation. She again called on the Somali authorities to swiftly adopt the sexual offenses law that was approved by the Cabinet two years ago. Her Office continued to strengthen its presence on the ground in the Sahel region, including in the context of the G5 Sahel Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Compliance Framework. It had issued a report last month that outlined the advancement of the work with G5 Sahel Joint military forces to implement human rights compliance in their military operations. She was concerned that the electoral process in Côte d’Ivoire had begun amid a tense political context and a backdrop of pre-existing triggers of violence related to issues of nationality, toxic regional and ethnic divides, economic inequalities, discrimination and impunity for past crimes.
In Indian-administered Kashmir, incidents of military and police violence against civilians continued, including use of pellet guns, as well as incidents related to militancy. Major legal changes – including to the Constitution and domicile rules – were generating deep anxiety. The space for political debate and public participation continued to be severely restricted. In Pakistan-administered Kashmir, people also had limited Internet access, creating difficulties in accessing education and other vital services, and the High Commissioner remained concerned about ongoing restrictions to the rights to freedom of expression and association.
In China, the High Commissioner said her Office continued to follow developments in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region - particularly the impact of the National Security Law. She encouraged the Hong Kong authorities to closely monitor the enforcement of the law by the police and the courts, and to take steps to review the law in response to any negative consequences it might have on the enjoyment of human rights. Her Office continued to engage with the Chinese Government on the situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the impact on human rights of its policies. Following an invitation extended by the Government of China, she had been discussing with the authorities the conditions of a possible visit to Xinjiang when conditions were conducive.
In Sri Lanka, the High Commissioner for Human Rights was troubled that the new Government was swiftly reneging on its commitments to the Human Rights Council since it had withdrawn its support for resolution 30/1. She encouraged the Council to give renewed attention to Sri Lanka, in view of the need to prevent threats to peace, reconciliation and sustainable development. In the Philippines, her Office continued to work with the Government, the Commission on Human Rights, civil society and the United Nations system to develop follow-up actions to its June report. She was concerned by continued reports of drug-related killings, by both police and vigilantes, including during COVID-related restrictions on movement.
In Afghanistan, the human cost of conflict remained unacceptably high with some 3,500 civilian casualties this year, and continuing attacks on healthcare facilities and personnel – a situation that was severely exacerbated by COVID-19. The severe socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Americas region should alert all actors to the urgency of addressing the region's profound inequalities in development. Coupled with often fragile democratic systems, it may also be a warning of potentially high risks of social unrest. Alarming numbers of human rights defenders and journalists continued to be intimidated, attacked and killed – particularly those dedicated to protecting the environment and land rights, she added.
In Colombia, her Office had documented 47 killings of human rights defenders in 2020; 44 more cases were in the process of verification. The 2016 Peace Agreement had opened a new chapter for all Colombians, and should be fully implemented to prevent further violence, and human rights violations and abuses. In Honduras, attacks on and violent deaths of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons continued to increase. She welcomed her Office’s continued engagement with the authorities, to strengthen accountability. In Mexico, at least four journalists and seven human rights defenders had been killed in 2020. She welcomed her Office’s collaboration with authorities to improve the effectiveness of the National Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists.
In Brazil, her Office was receiving reports of rural violence and evictions of landless communities, as well as attacks on human rights defenders and journalists, with at least 10 killings of human rights defenders confirmed this year. Also in Brazil – as well as in Mexico, El Salvador and elsewhere – there was an increased involvement of the military in public affairs and law enforcement. While she acknowledged the challenging security context, any use of the armed forces in public security should be strictly exceptional, with effective oversight.
In the United States, the shooting of Jacob Blake last month in Kenosha, Wisconsin, by a police officer employing apparently excessive force – and details that had emerged regarding the death of Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York – brought home yet again the need for urgent and profound action to combat systemic racism and racial discrimination in policing and across society. The absence of accountability for many prior killings underscored the gravity of this crisis.
The decline in payments of assessed contributions to the United Nations budget had meant that her Office – like the entire United Nations Secretariat – had not received all of the approved funds for its activities this year. Accordingly, a number of reports and related activities mandated by the Council had not received the necessary funds to enable the Office to complete the required work.
Ms. Bachelet was convinced that together, the international community could weather the current challenges – and that societies could emerge better able to prevent injustice. It was time to rise to the occasion.
Presentation of the Oral Update on the Situation of Human Rights in Nicaragua
MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that since her last oral update on Nicaragua last July, there had been no progress in the human rights situation or any signs from the Government to constructively address the tensions and structural problems that triggered the socio-political crisis in April 2018. During this period, her Office had registered 30 cases of threats and intimidation against human rights defenders, journalists, students, peasant leaders and members of the Catholic clergy. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic continued to affect a multitude of rights, including economic, social and cultural. Women's organizations had reported an increase in femicides, with 50 registered as of August 31, 2020, compared to 44 registered in the same period last year. On the other hand, most of the recommendations that she had made in her September 2019 report, including those on electoral and institutional reforms, had not yet been implemented, which had led to the perpetuation of impunity and new violations.
Presentation of the Oral Update on the Situation of Human Rights in Venezuela
MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, addressing the cooperation and technical assistance between her Office and Venezuela, said that one year after signing the Letter of Understanding, her Office had strengthened its presence in Venezuela, and made progress in exchanging information on individual cases and human rights situations. Due to the pandemic, the visit of the Special Rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures had been rescheduled for January 2021. Ms. Bachelet took note with satisfaction of the Government's decisions to grant house arrest to parliamentarian Juan Requesens and to pardon another 110 people. She called on the Government to continue with the release of all those who had been arbitrarily detained. Her Office had signed with the Government the renewal of the Letter of Understanding for a renewable year. The new agreement included a tripling of the number of human rights officers in the country, with greater legal autonomy, as well as the formalization of a mechanism for the exchange of information on individual cases.
Video Message by the Minister for Women and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Australia
MARISE PAYNE, Minister for Women and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Australia, said that human rights were not peripheral to the COVID response; indeed, they must be central to all debates and decision-making. Unfortunately, some countries were invoking and misusing the emergency measures to undermine civil and political rights. The pandemic was having a significant impact on women and girls, the aged, people with disabilities, and others who may be in vulnerable situations. In some cases, States had used COVID-19 as a pretext for reducing or removing access to justice and consular assistance for people in detention. In truth – and Australia’s experience and that of others’ demonstrated this – a strong focus on promoting and protecting human rights made response and recovery efforts more effective and more sustainable. Australia had been clear and consistent in raising human rights concerns. More remained to be done to address these. As its first term on the Council drew to a close, Australia was pleased to see its membership diversify, especially to include more nations, now three, from the Pacific. While it fully comprehended the gravity of the challenges posed to the international human rights system, Australia reiterated its firm and enduring support for the Human Rights Council.
Enhanced Interactive Dialogue on the Oral Update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Human Rights Situation of Rohingya Muslims and other Minorities in Myanmar
MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that, currently, people from the Rakhine, Chin, Mro, Daignet and Rohingya communities were increasingly affected by the armed conflict in Rakhine and Chin states. Civilian casualties had also been increasing. It was troubling that a number of satellite images and eyewitness accounts indicated that areas in northern Rakhine had been burnt in recent months. Noting that the Government had contested this, she said it only underscored the need for independent, on-the-ground investigation. Government administrators were reclassifying areas where Rohingya villages were previously located, removing the names of villages from official maps and potentially altering how the land may be used. The complex travel authorization process obstructed access for humanitarian actors. The November elections were an important opportunity for all parties to demonstrate their commitment to democratic norms.
KYAW MOE TUN, Permanent Representative of Myanmar to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that COVID-19 had exacerbated the multiple challenges the Government faced in its efforts for building a democratic federal union. The issue of Rakhine posed a huge challenge for the Government. Myanmar was willing and able to address the issue of accountability. The Government had been taking necessary action based on the recommendations contained in the report of the Independent Commission of Enquiry submitted to the President in January 2020. Myanmar had been working closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Development Programme, as well as with the Association of South-East Asian Nations, to facilitate the implementation of the bilateral agreements between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the repatriation, resettlement and development of returnees. Many challenges remained in Myanmar’s efforts towards a democratic federal union, although many positive changes had taken place in the last four and half years.
KHIN OHMAR, Chair of the Advisory Board of Progressive Voice, said that despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the United Nations Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire, the civil war in Myanmar had reached an intensity not seen in decades with immense consequences on the local ethnic communities. In August, the Myanmar Government had held a peace conference aimed at furthering the peace process, but it remained non-inclusive and genuine steps towards peace had not been taken. The failure of the peace process was marked by the ongoing grave international crimes that continued to be committed throughout Myanmar, particularly in Rakhine state, by the same perpetrators that had committed genocide against the Rohingya. Rohingyas were disenfranchised from voting or standing for elections due to the discriminatory 1982 citizenship law, and there was a large population, Muslims, refugees and internally displaced persons in Rakhine, Chin, Kachin and Shan who would also be unable to vote.
In the ensuing interactive dialogue, speakers reiterated their support for the Independent Investigation Mechanism for Myanmar, and deplored that as efforts were made to bring justice, violations and Islamophobic rhetoric festered. The ferocious and violent crimes amounted to crimes punishable under international law, and the Government of Myanmar must be held fully accountable. The sharp rise in COVID-19 cases in the country, especially in Arakan, as well as the ongoing clashes in that state and southern Chin state were alarming. Speakers called for a safe and dignified return of Rohyingas who were in Bangladesh, and deplored the Government’s disingenuous stance on this matter. Myanmar continued to use discriminatory laws and policies, propagate hate speech and incite to violence. In that regard, the role played by private social media companies was concerning and warranted closer examination. The Government’s decision to impose an Internet lockdown had impeded access to information on COVID-19.
In her concluding remarks, Ms. Bachelet said accountability was key to prevent violations and was intimately linked to transitional justice. To that end, her Office would, inter alia, continue to engage with the Government to build confidence so that independent investigators may enter Myanmar.
Mr. Moe Tun concluded by saying that no one could deny that positive changes were taking place in Myanmar, even though critics would say it was not enough. It was not acceptable that unsubstantiated and unverified allegations found their way into a United Nations report. The Office of the High Commissioner should rely on verified information.
Ms. Ohmar said it was urgent that the Government fully restore Internet access and implement a ceasefire. Domestic accountability was not possible in Myanmar, and domestic justice continued to fail the victims. Myanmar should be referred to the International Criminal Court, or an ad-hoc tribunal should be established. The victims deserved nothing less.