45th session of the Human Rights Council
Opening Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Geneva, 14 September 2020
Colleagues and Friends,
In a context of sharply escalating suffering and turmoil across the world, human rights principles, norms and actions offer effective solutions to build stronger resilience to shocks, and counter despair, by preventing social, economic and political instability.
Policies that deliver universal and equal access to social protections and health care; institutions which promote respect for the views and rights of all members of society; and laws that require accountable policing and access to justice help to avert the escalation of tensions and grievances into violence and conflict.
This human rights-based approach supports greater social and economic resilience. It is the foundation of prosperity and political stability. And it protects vulnerable people from the worst impacts of crises.
With COVID-19, a fast-moving and global health crisis has collided with many slower, and more entrenched, political, social and economic crises around the world. Those multiple underlying fractures, which have made us more vulnerable to this virus – and create entry points for its harms – result primarily from political processes that exclude people’s voices, as well as gaps in human rights protection.
As international human rights bodies, and in line with the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights, I believe it is the responsibility of both this Council and my Office to promote those measures that will help States better protect the well-being of their peoples, and to cooperate with States to ensure they fulfil their obligations in this regard. In many of the country situations I will outline this morning, I see important opportunities for us to assist States to devise human rights-based action that can de-escalate tensions; support sustainable development; and preserve people’s well-being – even at this challenging time.
Later in the session my Office will discuss aspects of the following country situations: Cambodia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Georgia, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Sudan, Ukraine, Venezuela and Yemen.
In Belarus, we continue to receive alarming reports of the ongoing violent repression of peaceful demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of people from every walk of life, notably women. Reports continue to indicate unnecessary or excessive use of force by law enforcement officials; thousands of arrests, many of them apparently arbitrary; and hundreds of allegations of torture or ill-treatment, including against children, with some reports indicating sexual violence. Recently, abductions by unidentified individuals of people associated with the opposition have also been reported. Journalists reporting on the protests also continue to be targeted for arrests and harassment. There has been limited evidence of any steps by the authorities to address these reports.
Re-establishing social peace in Belarus requires far-reaching dialogue, reforms, and accountability for grave human rights violations. I encourage the Council to focus action on these three areas, to prevent further escalation of violence and grievances. Given their scale and number, all allegations of torture and other forms of ill-treatment by the security forces should be documented and investigated, with a view to bringing the perpetrators to justice.
In Poland, I am concerned about the continuing repression of LGBTI people and activists, including restrictions on their freedom of assembly, and the Government’s support for towns that have termed themselves – using unacceptable language – “LGBTI-free zones.” The scapegoating and targeting of a minority group, for political purposes, feeds intolerance and discrimination, damaging all of society.
Last week’s fire at the migrant centre in Lesbos, Greece has had drastic impact on the lives of thousands of people – and underscores the need for solidarity and shared responsibility among EU Member States. I encourage the European Commission and EU Member States to enhance genuine solidarity and strengthen human rights safeguards at EU external borders in the upcoming EU Pact on Migration and Asylum. Reports of pushbacks and collective expulsions at the sea and land borders of EU States – in violation of legal obligations and with grave consequences for the lives and rights of migrants – call for independent monitoring and verification. I recall to all countries their obligation to cooperate in ensuring that migrants’ lives are protected and their human rights upheld, regardless of their administrative status.
In Lebanon, compounded political, socio-economic and financial crises have persistently burdened the population, with reports indicating that more than 55% of the population is now trapped in poverty – almost double last year’s rate. Against this backdrop, last month’s explosion of chemicals warehoused in the port of Beirut has created additional destruction – devastating people’s lives, livelihoods and hope. The additional, heavy impacts of COVID-19, including multiple challenges in accessing basic health and education, have prompted an alarming exodus of young professionals, notably from the health sector – further draining the country of its most precious resources. It is critical that human rights principles be fully integrated into all efforts to rebuild from this tragedy. The authorities must empower individuals and communities to claim their rights, and ensure their participation in decisions. Accountability for this tragedy will be vital, with an impartial, independent, thorough and transparent investigation into the explosion. Political actors must agree on, and implement, reforms aimed at preventing further erosion of rights, to meaningfully address the grievances of the people and the country’s underlying human rights gaps.
In the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the escalating tragedy in Gaza is of particular concern. Although temporary truces are welcome – including the latest agreement to end hostilities between armed groups in Gaza and Israel – Gaza’s two million people desperately need long-term and sustainable solutions. The blockade by sea and land, which Israel has imposed for 13 years, has brought Gaza’s main economic and commercial activities to a complete halt. As a direct result, more than 38% of Gazans live in poverty; 50% are unemployed; and more than 90% of the water from aquifers is undrinkable. Last month’s decision to ban the entry of fuel into Gaza creates even deeper suffering and humanitarian burdens. With sharply rising COVID-19 cases in Gaza, the health sector now faces total collapse, unless aspects of the blockade are lifted. The blockade, which contravenes international law, has conclusively failed to deliver security or peace for Israelis and Palestinians, and should urgently be lifted.
In Iran, human rights defenders – including women’s rights defenders –lawyers, labour rights activists and protesters continue to suffer intimidation, prosecution and ill-treatment. I remain concerned that political prisoners and prisoners of conscience have been excluded from Iran’s temporary release of detainees, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I am dismayed at the prolonged hunger-strike of human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. I urge 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 – are deeply worrying. Last month a report by my Office noted the high number of human rights activists and protestors who remain missing, while others, who have been located, have reported torture and ill-treatment. I encourage 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.
Syria‘s people continue to face multiple and comprehensive crises. The pandemic has highlighted the devastation of a health system battered by deliberate bombings and other effects of conflict, and ill-equipped to meet even basic needs. WFP reports that 9.3 million people in Syria face food insecurity. These economic challenges are amplified by regional instability, including the financial crisis in Lebanon, while the imposition of strict sanctions has also raised concern that the growing humanitarian needs will be more difficult to address. Families of the thousands of missing persons across the country are especially hard-hit. There must be an end to this inhumanity and conflict.
In Saudi Arabia, I am deeply concerned about the continued arbitrary detention of women human rights defenders who have demanded that Saudi Arabian women be empowered to make their own choices, as equals to men. They should be released without delay.
We also continue remote monitoring of the situation in Western Sahara, where we last conducted technical missions five years ago. Such missions are vital to identify critical human rights issues on all sides and contribute to preventing the escalation of grievances. I look forward to discussing the parameters of a new visit with all parties in the near future.
In Mali, it is 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, to ensure they work to prevent further conflict. I am concerned by the economic impact of recently adopted sanctions, in a context where extreme poverty, conflicts and insecurity – and climate hazards such as floods and droughts – are creating great hardship and deteriorating humanitarian conditions.
In Tanzania, I draw the Council’s attention to increasing repression of the democratic and civic space, in what is becoming a deeply deteriorated environment for human rights. With elections approaching next month, we are receiving increasing reports of arbitrary arrests and detention of civil society actors, activists, journalists and members of opposition parties. Among the many laws that have restricted civic space online and offline in recent years, the recent Miscellaneous Amendments Act (No. 3) of 2020 undermines strategic litigation and seeks to block government accountability for human rights violations. Further erosion of human rights could risk grave consequences, and I encourage immediate and sustained preventive action. I also call on the Government to uphold the rights of all refugees, and to ensure that any return of refugees be conducted in safety, in dignity and on a voluntary basis.
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 triggered protests and inter-communal violence across the country. My Office is ready to support a thorough, independent, impartial and transparent investigation by the Government into the killing and subsequent violence, and to support the Government’s ongoing legislative reforms.
In Burundi, steps taken since July to arrest and prosecute members of the ruling party youth wing, senior police officers and local administrators who have allegedly committed extortion and other crimes are encouraging. However, since elections in May, our reports continue to indicate politically motivated arrests and detentions, as well as the burning of houses of opposition party members. I firmly encourage the authorities to guarantee due process and fair trials, and to uphold human rights. These are the most effective way to prevent conflict.
In Somalia, I am alarmed by an increase in reports of sexual violence against women, girls and boys, with minimal investigation. I again call on the Somali authorities to swiftly adopt the Sexual Offenses law that was approved by Cabinet two years ago. I am encouraged by last week’s decision to appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate the killings of journalists. It is essential that all States acknowledge and protect the right of their people to freely express their views, and that they protect journalists from arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, harassment, intimidation and physical attacks, including murder.
The Office continues to strengthen our presence on the ground in the Sahel region, including in the context of the G5 Sahel Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Compliance Framework. My Office issued a report last month that outlines the advancement of the work with G5 Sahel Joint military forces to implement human rights compliance in their military operations. It also notes the security, political, operational, logistical and administrative challenges that remain, and outlines the way ahead for this innovative initiative. We continue to support the Joint Force in developing and strengthening its internal monitoring and accountability aimed at preventing human rights violations in the context of Joint Force operations. Recent allegations of human rights violations by armed forces in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger emphasise the urgent need for decisive action in this respect.
I am concerned that the electoral process in Cote d’Ivoire has 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. The rifts in society are likely to widen with the intensification of the political campaign and hardening of positions. We also note an increase in hate speech on social media. I urge the authorities to ensure that the human rights of everyone are fully protected and respected in this important election period.
It has been more than a year since my last report on both Indian and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. In Indian-administered Kashmir, incidents of military and police violence against civilians continue, including use of pellet guns, as well as incidents related to militancy. Major legal changes – including to the Constitution and domicile rules – are generating deep anxiety, but the space for political debate and public participation continues to be severely restricted, particularly since new media rules have prohibited vaguely defined “anti-national” reporting. While I welcome the release of some political and community leaders, hundreds of people remain in arbitrary detention, with many habeas corpus petitions still pending – including those of many of Jammu and Kashmir’s political leaders. I welcome the initiatives to extend services to remote areas, and the recent conditional restoration of full Internet connectivity in two districts – which should be applied promptly to the rest of Jammu and Kashmir.
On the Pakistan side, people also have limited Internet access, creating difficulties in accessing education and other vital services. I remain concerned about ongoing restrictions to the rights to freedom of expression and association. My Office is committed to continuing its engagement with both India and Pakistan, to uphold the rights of the Kashmiri people – which is the best way to prevent further tensions and conflict.
In China, my office continues to follow developments in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, particularly the impact of the National Security Law. Since its implementation in July, at least 24 individuals have been charged under the law. The Hong Kong authorities have consistently stated that the law is not intended to impact negatively on the peaceful exercise of human rights by Hong Kong residents. Accordingly, I would encourage the Hong Kong authorities to monitor closely 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.
I am concerned about the Uyghurs. My Office continues 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, I have been discussing with the authorities the conditions of a possible visit to Xinjiang when conditions are conducive.
In Sri Lanka, I am troubled that the new Government is swiftly reneging on its commitments to the Human Rights Council since it withdrew its support for resolution 30/1. Among other developments, the proposed 20th amendment to the Constitution may negatively impact on the independence of key institutions, including the National Human Rights Commission. The pardon given in March to a former Army sergeant convicted of participating in unlawful killings; appointments to key civilian roles of senior military officials allegedly involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity; and moves within the police and judiciary to thwart the investigation of such crimes, set a very negative trend. The surveillance and intimidation of victims, their families, human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers should cease immediately. I encourage 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, we continue to work with the Government, the Commission on Human Rights, civil society and the UN system to develop follow-up actions to our June report. I am concerned by continued reports of drug-related killings, by both police and vigilantes, including during COVID-related restrictions on movement. In June, the Secretary for Justice told this Council that a review would begin into internal police investigations of 5,655 anti-illegal drug operations where deaths occurred. We are seeking details from the Government so we can advise and assess the review panel’s scope, process and efficacy. However, beyond this initial process, there is clearly an urgent need to revoke the policies that continue to result in killings and other human rights violations, to bring to justice the perpetrators, and to halt the use of rhetoric inciting violence against people who use or sell drugs. I am also concerned by harassment, threats and violence against journalists, activists and critics; the passage of anti-terrorism legislation with many problematic provisions; and the President’s announced intention to reinstate the death penalty. I encourage the Council to remain active on this situation and to support my Office’s continued monitoring and reporting – including to this Council – as well as our technical cooperation to implement the report’s recommendations, and to continue to pursue accountability.
In Afghanistan, the human cost of conflict remains unacceptably high with some 3,500 civilian casualties this year, and continuing attacks on healthcare facilities and personnel – a situation that is severely exacerbated by COVID-19. With the formal start of intra-Afghan peace talks on 12 September, I reinforce the call for an immediate reduction in violence, a humanitarian pause, and the need for victim-centred justice and inclusion of marginalised groups’ concerns. These are critical to successful talks and any peace agreement. I also condemn attacks on human rights defenders with nine killed since the start of 2020, including members of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. I urge the Government to establish an effective national protection mechanism.
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. The only way to build a sustainable recovery will be to address the root causes of inequalities, exclusion and discrimination. It will also be crucial to strengthen democracy and safeguard human rights in response to increasing levels of violence across the region.
Alarming numbers of human rights defenders and journalists continue to be intimidated, attacked and killed – particularly those dedicated to protecting the environment and land rights. I call on all Governments to refrain from discrediting human rights defenders and journalists, putting them at further risk of attacks. I encourage decisive investigations and prosecutions of perpetrators.
In Colombia, my Office has documented 47 killings of human rights defenders in 2020; 44 more cases are in the process of verification. In relation to recent protests in Bogota and Soacha – where excessive use of force may have killed as many as 13 people, leaving more than 300 injured, including 77 with gunshot wounds – my Office is verifying the cases, and has offered technical assistance on democratic and human rights based policing of protests. The 2016 Peace Agreement 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 LGBTI persons continue to increase. Since the beginning of the state of emergency in mid-March, OHCHR-Honduras has documented seven killings of trans women; three of them occurred in July alone. In both these countries, I welcome our continued engagement with the authorities, to strengthen accountability.
In Mexico, at least four journalists and seven human rights defenders have been killed in 2020. I welcome our collaboration with authorities to improve the effectiveness of the National Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists.
In Brazil, we are 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. The continued erosion of independent bodies for the consultation and participation of communities is also worrying. I call on the authorities to take strong measures to ensure that all decision-making is grounded in the contributions and needs of all people in Brazil.
Also in Brazil – as well as in Mexico, El Salvador and elsewhere – we are seeing increased involvement of the military in public affairs and law enforcement. While I acknowledge 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 have emerged regarding the death of Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York – bring 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 underscores the gravity of this crisis. Many commitments to reform were made by cities and police following the killing of George Floyd in May – including by law enforcement agencies in Kenosha. Those words need to be matched by real change, to create an environment in which African Americans feel they are protected by law enforcement and the State. I will be speaking later in this session about our follow-up to the Council’s resolution 43/1.
As you are all aware, the decline in payments of assessed contributions to the UN budget has meant that my Office – like the entire UN Secretariat – has not received all of the approved funds for our activities this year. Furthermore, in an effort to contain or reduce expenditures, the Secretary-General initiated in April a “freeze” on recruitment to fill vacant staff positions using the regular budget. Accordingly, a number of reports and related activities mandated by the Council have not received the necessary funds to enable the Office to complete the required work. This situation has been the topic of several recent briefings organised by the President of the Council, as well as ongoing discussions of my Office with the Controller in New York. As it is likely that these difficulties may persist into next year, we will continue to keep you informed of developments that may further impact on our work.
At this critical moment in world history – with poverty and tensions shooting up and a sharp decline in many people’s hope for a better life – human rights norms provide the tested guidance that can help States de-escalate grievances, deliver appropriate protection, establish a sound foundation for development and security, and ensure justice, freedom and rights.
Humanity has faced many crises. I am convinced that together, we can weather the current challenges – and that our societies can emerge better able to prevent injustice.
It is time to rise to the occasion.
Please also see the High Commissioner’s statements at the Human Rights Council today, 14 September 2020 on: