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HRC reviews global human rights situation

Human rights ‘taken by storm’

| Updated: March 29, 2020 22:12:35


UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the opening of the High-Level Segment of the 43rd session of the Human Rights Council, in Geneva, Switzerland on February 24, 2020: he issued a "call to action" to countries, businesses and all people to help renew and revive human rights across the globe, laying out a seven-point plan amid concerns about climate change, conflict and repression.         —Photo. AP UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the opening of the High-Level Segment of the 43rd session of the Human Rights Council, in Geneva, Switzerland on February 24, 2020: he issued a "call to action" to countries, businesses and all people to help renew and revive human rights across the globe, laying out a seven-point plan amid concerns about climate change, conflict and repression.        —Photo. AP

The High Commissioner of the Human Rights Council (HRC), during its latest Session in Geneva - the 43rd, in the last week of February, has outlined an extensive update of prevailing human rights issues that are prevailing in different parts of the world. As expected there was reference to what has happened and are still taking place in Myanmar. In this context, attention has also been drawn to evolving situations that continue to raise concern because of their osmotic effects also on surrounding sub-regions.

We need to remember in this regard that human rights can be generally defined as those rights which are inherent in our nature and without which we cannot live as human beings. Fundamental freedoms and human rights allow us to develop fully and use our human qualities, our intelligence, our talents and our conscience. It also helps to satisfy our spiritual and other needs. Human rights have gradually evolved over the years and have been based on mankind's increasing demand for a life in which the inherent dignity and worth of each human being will receive respect and protection. The establishment of human rights, according to scholars also provides the foundation upon which rests the political structure of human freedom, the achievement of which, generates the will as well as the capacity for economic and social progress- and it is this, that provides the basis for true peace.

The discussion in Geneva has drawn the world's attention to several serious situations prevailing presently, particularly in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and South Asia. HRC also drew the world's notice to some positive developments.

SOUTH ASIA: In South Asia there was reference to India's handling of the Jammu and Kashmir situation and allegations of excessive use of force and other serious human rights violations by security forces. There was also, in broad terms mention of the instability that had been created amongst different communities because of the Citizenship Amendment Act adopted last December. There was also observation about serious human rights violations by security forces. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, it has also been revealed asked to be made a Party in the matter of a hearing about the Revision of this Act in front of the Supreme Court of India but this was turned down by the External Affairs Ministry of India on the ground that no "foreign party" has any locus standi on issues pertaining to India's sovereignty. At this point it needs to be noted that after changes in the Delhi administration and active engagement of the Judiciary, things appear to have somewhat settled down.

In this context reference was also made to religious minorities continuing to face violence, repeated attacks on their places of worship, and discrimination in law and practice in Pakistan. It was also mentioned that Pakistan despite recommendations from international human rights mechanisms, had not amended or repealed blasphemy law provisions which have led to violence against religious minorities, as well as to arbitrary arrests and prosecution.

Bangladesh also came under scrutiny. It was observed that measures needed to be taken to strengthen the independence and impartiality of the judiciary and National Human Rights Commission and refrain from extra-judicial killings. Mention was also made of Bangladesh's commendable record of working with the United Nations - particularly in looking after the Rohingya refugees.

AFRICA: The High Commissioner has drawn attention, at the very start to the situation prevailing in a camp for displaced people in Ituri - a province of the Democratic Republic of Congo that is rich in oil and gold, but whose desperately poor people have suffered repeated cycles of violence in the past decade. It was pointed out that the High Commissioner had during a recent visit to that area had spoken to people who had had limbs cut off and watched family members being massacred. It was also asserted that despite demands for justice by the afflicted population, and voluntary efforts by a group of Congolese volunteers, positive solutions had not as yet emerged to overcome the massive challenges.

The situation in the DRC was outlined as a comparison with what is taking place in the Sudan region. The Government of Sudan received thanks for its excellent cooperation extended to the HRC and for its commitment to justice and swift measures to boost access to health-care and schools. In this regard, it was also pointed out that independent committees had been constituted to address grave human rights violations by successive Governments since 1989. Measures are also being taken to establish a special criminal court for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. It was also correctly noted that while the formation of a revitalized transitional government in South Sudan has been a step forward, it was clear that if that country wanted to achieve lasting peace, three human rights challenges must be addressed- (a) to achieve justice, the Government should cease to delay the Hybrid Court, and should support investigations and prosecutions by independent domestic institutions'; (b) inter-communal violence urgently needed to be addressed; and (c) restrictions on fundamental freedoms needed to be lifted (including harassment, arbitrary arrest and surveillance of people or groups deemed critical of the Government).

The High Commissioner drew attention to three other Sahel countries in Africa- particularly Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, where attacks by violent extremist groups have caused over 4,000 killings in 2019 - 500 per cent more than in 2016, according to the Special Representative of the Secretary General for West Africa and the Sahel. This has resulted in alarming humanitarian consequences, including massive displacement and setbacks for development. In Mali, there have also been inter-communal attacks. It has been observed that across all three countries, there is not only a clear need for an approach that extends beyond a military focus but also measures to address root causes of violent extremism - including extreme poverty, inequalities, exclusion, inadequate accountability, rights of displaced populations and protection of human rights.

There were references to three other African countries - Nigeria, Guinea and Burundi.

Nigeria has drawn attention because of the 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. All these have been taking a toll on civilians. It is also resulting in kidnapping for ransom, and sexual and gender-based violence. These factors are contributing to insecurity, amid sharpening ethnic, regional and religious polarization across the country. It was also observed in this regard that it was vital that Nigerian security forces conduct all their operations in full compliance with human rights standards.

The High Commissioner of HRC observed that Guinea should ensure that upcoming elections in that country is fair and transparent, and be careful about its controversial Constitutional referendum that has resulted in dozens of deaths, created ethnic divisions and increased incitement to hatred and violence on social media and at political rallies. In similar vein the High Commissioner expressed alarm at the crackdowns being carried out on the opposition in Burundi and also the suppression of civil and political rights in that country ahead of the Presidential, legislative and communal elections scheduled in May.

MIDDLE EAST: After this survey of Africa, the High Commissioner drew attention to the evolving situation in several Middle Eastern countries.

Emphasis was first placed regarding human rights in Syria. It was pointed out that attacks on Idlib, Aleppo, and Hama had been causing massive displacements of civilians over the past nine years, following the military offensive launched by the Syrian Government, backed by its allies. Nearly a million people had been forced to flee in the past three months. In the first week of February this year the HRC had 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. The humanitarian situation of hundreds of thousands of families had also worsened because of the effective closure of two cross-border points for the entry of humanitarian aid.

Reference was made after this to the situation in Iraq, the Occupied Palestinian Territory and to Egypt.

It was observed that in Iraq, live ammunition was repeatedly being used against unarmed protestors and that this had already resulted in over 450 deaths since October, 2019. Security forces had also detained thousands of people in the context of protests, without regard to due process and some of them have reportedly suffered ill-treatment. The High Commissioner has observed that unresolved political and economic grievances lie at the heart of the current wave of protests and has suggested that the Iraqi Government needs to meaningfully address these demands instead of responding with violence.

Similarly attention has been drawn to the deteriorating situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory where there has been many deaths and thousands of injuries because of the use of live ammunition by Israeli forces. It was also noted by the High Commissioner that plans for new Israeli settlements in the occupied territory, illegal under international law, has more than doubled in the past year. Such an observation made so soon after the unveiling by US President Donald Trump of his deal of the century has created its own ramifications.

Grave concern has also been expressed about the increasing use of the death penalty in Egypt where 37 individuals have reportedly been sentenced to death in February, 2020 alone.  The HRC also pointed out their anxiety with regard to 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. Attention has also been drawn to restrictions which continue to impact 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, 2019.  Reported enforced disappearances, and systematic harassment of human rights defenders, lawyers, trade unionists and their family members have also been noted. 

LATIN AMERICA: Latin America was singled out pertaining to civilian protests in several countries being responded to violently by the security forces. It was observed that this was undermining public confidence in economic and political systems. The HRC reiterated that there was need to ensure accountability for human rights violations in the context of demonstrations, and to address the protests' root causes in Chile, Bolivia, Brazil and Ecuador.

One needs to conclude by pointing out that the global report has underlined that observance of human rights can be taken forward if all countries work with the United Nations; the wide range of stakeholders, including victim groups and the larger civil society. One has to agree with this opinion.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at muhammadzamir0@gmail.com

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