MORNING - High Commissioner for Human Rights Presents her Global Update to the Human Rights Council, as well as her Reports on Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, Cyprus, Eritrea and on the COVID-19 Pandemic, and Council Holds Meeting on the Role of Poverty Alleviation in Promoting and Protecting Human Rights
High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet this morning presented her global update to the Human Rights Council, as well as her reports on Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, Cyprus, Eritrea and the COVID-19 pandemic. The Council also held a meeting on the role of poverty alleviation in promoting and protecting human rights.
In her oral update, Ms. Bachelet commented on situations in the Russian Federation, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Nagorno-Karabakh, Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, Netherlands, Spain, Hungary, Croatia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Viet Nam, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Philippines, Cambodia, India, Indian-administered Kashmir, Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Pakistan, China, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, United States, Haiti, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kurdistan region, Iran, Yemen, Algeria, Libya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Mali, Malawi, Somalia, Sudan, Guinea, and Comoros
Ms. Bachelet recognised that countries had had to make difficult decisions in relation to the multiple challenges of COVID-19. Participation was a right – and it was also a means that ensured better, more effective policy. She said protecting civic space and the right of all people to participate were threshold rights: they opened up further impacts that built resilience, prosperity and peace. Today, in every region of the world, people were being left behind – or pushed even further behind – as the coronavirus pandemic continued to gather pace. This was why the Office, the Council and all other stakeholders must speak out against measures that silenced civil society.
The High Commissioner also presented her reports on Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, Cyprus, Eritrea and on the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the beginning of the day, the Council held a meeting on the role of poverty alleviation in promoting and protecting human rights.
Opening the meeting, Peggy Hicks, Director of the Thematic Engagement, Special Procedures and Right to Development Division, Office of the High Commissioner, noted that in order to answer the Secretary-General’s call for a new Social Contract, a New Global Deal was required, ensuring a fair distribution of power, wealth and opportunities at the international level, redressing inequalities, facilitating stimulus packages in the poorest countries and working in everyone’s collective interest.
The discussants in the meeting were Kung Phoak, Deputy Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for the Association’s Socio-Cultural Community; Su Guoxia, Director-General of the General Affairs Department and Spokesperson of the National Administration of Rural Revitalization of China;
Sonnia-magba Bu-buakei Jabbi, Director of Demographic, Health and Social Statistics and Head of Research and Innovation of Sierra Leone; and Máximo Torero, Chief Economist, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
In the discussion, speakers reiterated their full commitment to the fight against poverty, maintaining the importance of a human rights-based approach to development. In light of the devastating effects of COVID-19 and the climate emergency, the acceptance of the Universal Periodic Review poverty reduction recommendations by many States was positive. In order to properly combat the effects of this multidimensional crisis and continue lifting people out of poverty, speakers called for the forgiveness of debt of the poorest countries. Some speakers noted that the alleviation of extreme poverty did not necessarily lead to the realisation of rights.
Speaking were European Union, Cameroon on behalf of the Group of African States, Brunei Darussalam on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Norway on behalf of Nordic and Baltic countries, Mauritania, Germany, Australia, Armenia, Libya, Senegal, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Venezuela, South Africa, Pakistan, Egypt, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Nepal, Uruguay, Mexico, Azerbaijan on behalf of Non-Aligned Movement and Viet Nam.
The following civil society organizations also took the floor: International Service for Human Rights, Make Mothers Matter, Associazione Comunita Papa Giovanni XXIII, Action Canada for Population and Development, Maat for Peace, Development and Human Rights Association, and International Federation for the Protection of the Rights of Ethnic, Religious, Linguistic and Other Minorities.
China took the floor in a point of order.
The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-sixth regular session can be found here.
The Council will next meet at 3 p.m. to hear from the countries concerned and to hold a general debate on the High Commissioner’s oral update and the country reports.
Meeting on the Role of Poverty Alleviation in Promoting and Protecting Human Rights
PEGGY HICKS, Director of the Thematic Engagement, Special Procedures and Right to Development Division, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that great strides had been made in lifting people out of poverty: between 1990 and 2015, the number of people living in extreme poverty had declined from 1.9 billion to 836 million. The pace, however, had already slowed before the pandemic, reversing in its aftermath, with 120 million pushed into extreme poverty, wiping out a decade of progress in the most fragile countries. In order to answer the Secretary-General’s call for a new Social Contract, a New Global Deal was required, ensuring a fair distribution of power, wealth and opportunities at the international level, redressing inequalities, facilitating stimulus packages in the poorest countries, and working in everyone’s collective interest.
Statements by Discussants
KUNG PHOAK, Deputy Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for the Association’s Socio-Cultural Community, noted that while regional numbers for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were positive, with more and more people lifted out of poverty, a closer look revealed the structure and pockets of poverty. The rural poverty rate was higher than in urban areas, and the level of informal employment in the region was high, particularly among the lower middle-income Member States. To continue existing progress, first, the discourse on reducing poverty could not be divorced from promoting and protecting human rights. Second, the Association had to continue fulfilling the role of a regional platform to accelerate poverty reduction and promote human rights. Third, eradicating poverty and ensuring the realisation of human rights required active engagement from all stakeholders.
SU GUOXIA, Director-General of the General Affairs Department and Spokesperson of the National Administration of Rural Revitalization of China, emphasised that China in 2012 had made the eradication of absolute poverty a priority by 2020. Based on current standards, this goal had been met, all rural persons had been lifted out of poverty and absolute poverty had been eliminated. The right to survival and people-oriented principles were central to China’s policies. The education and health of poor people had been greatly improved, as all villages now had clinics and village doctors, while production guidance and technical training covered more than 70 per cent of poverty-stricken households. After achieving these goals, women, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities and ethnic minorities would be the key targets, and special plans would be implemented to increase priority support.
SONNIA-MAGBA BU-BUAKEI JABBI, Director of Demographic, Health and Social Statistics and Head of Research and Innovation of Sierra Leone, said reducing child poverty - both multidimensional and monetary poverty - promoted and protected the rights of the child. Between 2010 and 2017, multidimensional child poverty had fallen by 11 percentage points in Sierra Leone, even with an Ebola epidemic between 2013 to 2017. COVID-19 need not stop or slow the progress that was being made towards poverty alleviation and the promotion and protection of global human rights. If Sierra Leone had demonstrated such resilience during the Ebola epidemic, then so could the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 was no excuse, and a holistic approach was required to reduce child poverty, she added. Three main policy areas had been identified: investing in early childhood; empowering families and creating an enabling environment for children; and adolescent empowerment and voice.
MÁXIMO TORERO, Chief Economist, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, said that, despite significant progress, poverty was still far from being eradicated. Around 689 million people still lived in extreme poverty in 2017. The world needed new champions and specific action undertaken in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia in particular, and global concerted efforts towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 1. Similarly, in 2019, 820 million people were under nourished and 2 billion people experienced food insecurity, highlighting the unequal access to food and the inaccessibility of healthy diets. The COVID-19 pandemic had further exacerbated social and economic inequalities. It had also shed light on weaknesses in many contemporary food systems, particularly in terms of systems resilience, natural resource management, and delivering affordable, nutritious diets to all. The World Bank estimated that COVID-19 could push an additional 150 million into extreme poverty this year, while an additional 80 million people could go hungry. Inclusive food system transformation was thus central to poverty alleviation and realizing human rights.
In the ensuing discussion, speakers reiterated their full commitment to the fight against poverty, maintaining the importance of a human rights-based approach to development. Speakers asked the discussants how to ensure that programmes were fully participatory, placing the voice, rights and agency of individuals at the centre. Eradicating poverty meant leaving no one behind, including the most marginalised individuals, something made clear by the pandemic as it exposed existing inequalities. In light of the devastating effects of COVID-19 and the climate emergency, the acceptance of the Universal Periodic Review poverty reduction recommendations by many States was positive. Social distancing measures and isolation policies created considerable economic shocks. In order to properly combat the effects of this multidimensional crisis and continue lifting people out of poverty, speakers called for the forgiveness of debt of the poorest countries. Human rights were conceived to benefit individuals, therefore suggesting that cooperation had to benefit governments first risked distorting the very object and purpose of human rights.
People needed to be empowered in order to know when to claim their rights, and the alleviation of extreme poverty did not, and would not necessarily lead to the realisation of rights. In some cases, development initiatives led directly to violations of human rights, putting into question the arguments for a causal link between development and the realisation of human rights. Speakers recommended that States radically review military expenditures for humanity that was asking for peace and not war, break intergenerational poverty, and make child poverty the top priority for every government. Unfortunately, many State poverty alleviation policies often took on a neoliberal capitalist logic, insisting on economic growth at all costs. Watered down tools and mechanisms that did not tackle root causes of poverty which were historical, colonial, racialised and gendered could not eradicate poverty. Speakers called for the removal of all restrictions against humanitarian organizations to facilitate humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable communities.
SU GUOXIA, Director-General of the General Affairs Department and Spokesperson of the National Administration of Rural Revitalization of China, expressing hope for greater cooperation with States and international organizations to achieve the 2030 Agenda, assured that China was committed to the cause of poverty alleviation.
SONNIA-MAGBA BU-BUAKEI JABBI, Director of Demographic, Health and Social Statistics and Head of Research and Innovation of Sierra Leone, said that by addressing child poverty, the Government was also promoting the human rights of adults. To alleviate child poverty was to alleviate poverty amongst adults too.
MÁXIMO TORERO, Chief Economist, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, said more than a decade’s work was being lost. The situation was critical. The world had an opportunity to rebuild and use stimulus packages to target interventions properly and in a manner that would generate returns. Resolving poverty in a sustainable manner required resolving inequality.
Presentation of Global Update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights
MICHELLE BACHELET, High Commissioner for Human Rights, recognised that countries had had to make difficult decisions in relation to the multiple challenges of COVID-19. Participation was a right – and it was also a means that ensured better, more effective policy. All over the world, people had clearly manifested their rightful demand to have a role in shaping policy. It was precisely at this time of crisis that solid public participation, official accountability through oversight institutions and a free press were most needed, to devise policies that could navigate shocks most effectively. She noted that the situations in Afghanistan, Belarus, Central African Republic, Colombia, Cyprus, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Sri Lanka, Ukraine and Venezuela would be discussed at other meetings during this session.
In her oral update, Ms. Bachelet expressed regret over the entry into force of new legal provisions that limited fundamental freedoms in the Russian Federation late last year, noting with concern the growing expansion of the definition of ‘foreign agent’ and the use of unnecessary and disproportionate force against peaceful protesters by police. More restrictions had been introduced on civil society in Turkey, where newly passed Law No. 7262 could further increase the use of vaguely defined terrorism charges to silence perceived critics. Last week’s raids and mass arrests of opposition members were concerning. In Kazakhstan, the recent administrative prosecutions of non-governmental organizations that aimed at obstructing their work were dismaying. Ms. Bachelet welcomed the cessation of hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone between Armenia and Azerbaijan, calling for investigations into all alleged violations of international law, accountability, and redress for victims, and welcomed new criminal proceedings of armed forces in Azerbaijan.
In Europe, Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands and Spain had launched 50 criminal or administrative proceedings against humanitarian actors involved in search and rescue in the Mediterranean since 2016, most in Italy, with the majority since 2019. Her Office had repeatedly expressed concerns regarding such measures, as well as related acts of intimidation, harassment, obstruction or denial of access. At the same time in Hungary, the Government had criminalized the provision of assistance to migrants as well as the organization of border monitoring, while Croatian authorities sought to hinder public scrutiny of migration practices. Ms. Bachelet encouraged the European Union and Member States to ensure that this trend of shrinking civic space was reversed, and to establish protection through the European Union Pact on Asylum and Migration.
Many countries in Asia and the Pacific spent less than 2 per cent of GDP on social protection compared with the global average of 11 per cent, and large parts of the economy remain informal. She encouraged action across the region to achieve far more comprehensive social protection systems.
Across Southeast Asia, there was a serious contraction in civic space. The Council had discussed the alarming situation in Myanmar earlier this month. In Cambodia, Indonesia – including in the Papua region – Thailand and Viet Nam , people had gathered peacefully, but in response, many activists, human rights defenders, environmental actors and journalists had been subjected to arbitrary detention and arrest, harassment and violence. In all these countries, as well as in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the Philippines, arrests and detentions of individuals for exercising the right to free expression, including online, had been documented. The severe shrinking civil space in Cambodia and continued high number of killings by police in the Philippines caused particular concern.
In India, continued protests by hundreds of thousands of farmers highlighted the importance of ensuring that laws and policies were based on meaningful consultations with those concerned. Charges of sedition against journalists and activists for reporting or commenting on the protests, and attempts to curb freedom of expression on social media, were disturbing. The situation in Indian-administered Kashmir was continuously monitored, and restrictions on communications, and clampdowns on civil society activists, remained concerning.
Internet access in Pakistan-administered Kashmir also remained a serious problem, while the unequal status of women continued to result in widespread denial of their rights in Pakistan. Women from religious minority communities were particularly vulnerable to forced marriage accompanied by forced conversion. The High Commissioner urged Pakistan to support and protect women human rights defenders and journalists, who were at the forefront of efforts to promote legal and societal change.
Turning to China, Ms. Bachelet noted the strong progress made over the last year in reducing the prevalence of COVID-19 and its severe impact on the enjoyment of a broad range of human rights, despite the fact that fundamental freedoms continued to be curtailed in the name of national security and pandemic response. More than 600 people were being investigated for participating in protests in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, while in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region publicly available information indicated the need for independent and comprehensive assessment of the human rights situation.
Across the Americas, the impact of COVID-19 had been heightened by weak social security systems and discrimination against Afro-descendant and indigenous peoples. Many countries in the Americas – including Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico and Peru – had seen growing movements of social protest. While every situation was distinct, they all broadly focus on inadequate access to economic and social rights; discrimination; impunity; and allegations of corruption. Ms. Bachelet called on States to prevent further deterioration of the situation and protect the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly.
Turning to Brazil and other countries of the Amazon and Pantanal regions , the High Commissioner said care must be taken to ensure that these territories were better protected from extractive industries and monoculture farming – including in the post-pandemic recovery. Across the region, she was concerned by continued attacks on environmental activists, human rights defenders and journalists, including killings, as well as by the misuse of criminal laws to silence critical voices. In several States, increasingly tight border controls and the use of security forces to halt migrants were further increasing the risks to people on the move. The militarization of border management by Ecuador, Peru and Chile was particularly concerning in the context of the continued unprecedented movement of Venezuelans, with 5.28 million people estimated leaving or remaining outside their country this year.
In the United States, Ms. Bachelet welcomed broad new measures to tackle structural inequalities and systemic racism. She encouraged further measures to tackle remaining issues, such as the massive detention of migrants, through the implementation of alternatives to detention. High levels of insecurity and poverty, as well as controversy over the end-date of the President’s mandate are contributing to a disturbing increase in social tensions in Haiti. Ms. Bachelet urged the authorities to guarantee the separation of powers, and called on all parties to address their differences through peaceful means, so as to prevent the recurrence of protracted civil protest and a further increase of violence.
It had been a decade since the Arab uprisings, or "Arab Spring" swept through the Middle East and North Africa – a movement that inspired many with its spontaneity, diversity and call for social justice. And yet, 10 years on, many countries in the region continued to suffer very serious inequalities. Repressive policies had, in many cases, been strengthened – and some of the valuable gains made by civic movements were being undermined. Despite these setbacks, she remained optimistic that justice and human rights could be realized across the Middle East and North Africa – and that progress in this direction would ensure deep and lasting progress for development and peace.
Next month it would be 10 years since demonstrations swept through parts of Syria. She deeply hoped there would be tangible progress by the Constitutional Committee, with the voices and rights of Syrians – including young people and its civil society – at the centre of discussion. She remained concerned about continuing restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly in Egypt, including those directed against human rights defenders and other activists. In Jordan, she was dismayed by increasing restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression – including against journalists reporting on the authorities' response to COVID-19 and its impact on vulnerable groups. In Saudi Arabia, she welcomed the release of women's rights campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul, although she regretted that others continued to be unjustly detained, and urged the authorities to also establish legislative frameworks to uphold the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association for everyone in the Kingdom.
In Iraq, targeted killings, threats and intimidation continued against civil society activists, human rights defenders and journalists. The near-total lack of accountability for the violations and abuses committed against demonstrators was a significant obstruction to the development of the public's trust in institutions and the country's future. In the Kurdistan region, activists and protesters had been subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention, with many detainees denied basic due process rights, including access to lawyers. In Iran, an apparently coordinated campaign had been targeting minority groups since December, including in Sistan and Baluchestan, Khuzestan, and in the Kurdish provinces. Mass arrests and enforced disappearances had been reported, as well as increasing numbers of executions, following deeply flawed processes. Ms. Bachelet welcomed the formation of a new coalition Government in Yemen, although she regretted that it gave no representation to Yemeni women – half the population. She encouraged all Member States to make firm commitments at the pledging conference for Yemen on 1 March.
In Algeria, demonstrations in several provinces continued to mark the anniversary of the Hirak pro-democracy movement. Welcoming the decision to hold parliamentary elections early this year, and the release of more than 35 people active in Hirak, the High Commissioner urged the Government to continue on the path of dialogue, and to immediately release all those detained for peaceful participation in demonstrations. She welcomed recent political developments in Libya, and the work her Office had undertaken with UNSMIL to ensure that human rights were integral to the political agenda and roadmap towards peace.
In Ethiopia, it was crucial that full and unimpeded access be immediately given to the whole of the Tigray region, for both humanitarian and human rights workers. Alarming allegations of serious violations committed by all parties during more than three months of conflict included mass killings, extrajudicial executions, and other attacks on civilians, including sexual violence. She was also disturbed by reported abductions and forcible returns of Eritrean refugees living in Tigray – some reportedly at the hands of Eritrean forces. She urged the peaceful resolution of this conflict, and also called for more efforts to resolve the sharply increasing inter-communal violence taking place in other regions of Ethiopia, such as Benishangul-Gumuz and Oromia.
Turning to Uganda, the High Commissioner expressed concern about Presidential Directives and other regulations intended to combat COVID-19 that had been used to arrest and detain political opponents, journalists and perceived critics of the Government. The stigmatisation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex individuals, which falsely scapegoated them for the spread of COVID-19, had resulted in arbitrary arrests and detentions, and raids and closures of shelters. Efforts to thwart election campaigning by the opposition in the pre-election period in Tanzania included intimidation and violence; arrests of opposition members; and media restrictions, including restricted access to the Internet and social media. She noted reports of pushbacks of hundreds of asylum-seekers from Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as continued reports of torture, enforced disappearances and forced returns of Burundian refugees.
In Mali, Ms. Bachelet encouraged swift action by the transitional authorities to ensure prosecution of the suspected perpetrators of serious human rights violations, including among the security forces. In Malawi, mob-justice attacks had more than tripled over the past year, according to official police statistics. They appeared to include an increasing number of attacks against older women accused of practicing witchcraft, as well as against people with albinism. In Somalia, she was increasingly concerned about repeated attempts to dismantle the already weak legal protection afforded to children and to women, including with respect to sexual violence and child marriage.
In Sudan, in the Darfur region, incidents of intercommunal violence and other major protection concerns persisted. The High Commissioner acknowledged important recent actions by the Government to contain the violence, but also urged prompt measures to ensure accountability for the grave human rights violations of the past, including remedy for victims. While the High Commissioner welcomed the authorities' cooperation with her Office in Guinea, the arrest and detention of opposition members and civil society activists on spurious charges of undermining the internal security of the State, in the context of last year’s presidential elections, severely undermined the foundations of democratic governance. She remained concerned about the situation in Comoros, including the crackdown on democratic space, with continued restrictions on freedoms of expression and of the press; continued and often lengthy detention of civil society activists and members of the political opposition; and the unjustified prosecutions of journalists.
Protecting civic space and the right of all people to participate were threshold rights: they opened up further impacts that built resilience, prosperity and peace. Today, in every region of the world, people were being left behind – or pushed even further behind – as the coronavirus pandemic continued to gather pace. They were being excluded, not only from development, and from opportunities, but from participation in the decisions that profoundly shape their lives and futures. This made all weaker, and heightened grievances that were destabilizing. This was why the Office, this Council and all other stakeholders – in the United Nations family, in regional organisations and around the world – must speak out against measures that silenced civil society. Because working to defend rights – and standing up to support human rights defenders – was vital to humanity's future.
Presentation of Reports by the High Commissioner
MICHELLE BACHELET, High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in 2020, her Office continued to strengthen its cooperation with Colombia. Despite a reduction in the national homicide rate, her Office had observed increased violence due to the expansion of non-state armed groups and criminal groups, with serious consequences for the civilian population. Turning to Guatemala, she welcomed measures strengthening access to culturally appropriate health care and providing information in accessible formats and in indigenous languages. Her Office continued to observe the erosion of civic space, with increasing attacks and intimidation against human rights defenders, including journalists in the country. Honduras’ human rights challenges included high levels of violence, impunity, discrimination and lack of access to economic, social and cultural rights. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the impact of hurricanes Eta and Iota, had exacerbated the obstacles faced by the most vulnerable people.
Since Ms. Bachelet’s last update on Venezuela, the joint work plan had been renewed and expanded. Welcoming measures to provide some detainees with access to medical examinations, she urged they be followed up with medical assistance and timely sharing of medical reports with lawyers and family. The COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated human rights challenges in Cyprus. Restrictions on freedom of movement had rendered the buffer zone effectively impassable, serving as a stark reminder that Cyprus remained a divided island. She remained concerned by the lack of tangible progress in Eritrea. Eritrean authorities had yet to ensure full respect for human rights, in particular the freedoms of expression and opinion, association and peaceful assembly, and religion.
Finally, addressing the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said universal health coverage was a fundamental priority and vaccines must be made available to everyone. From the catastrophe brought by the pandemic, the world now had both the opportunity and the responsibility to recover better for people and the planet. For that, the world also needed meaningful participation and new levels of global cooperation and international solidarity. The Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights spelled out the transformative role of human rights in addressing the challenges faced globally and should drive recovery efforts from COVID-19. In conclusion, she welcomed the promising examples submitted by States and encouraged all to share best practices.