Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
7 March 2022
Colleagues and friends,
The United Nations, and this Council, stand for the human rights of the world's peoples: their rights to participate in decisions, to voice their views, and to live in dignity, free from fear and want.
We stand for peace and for the right to development: development that is sustainable, participative and inclusive, aimed at advancing the common good.
The conduct of warfare that targets civilians; violent or unconstitutional overthrow of Governments; autocratic rule; and governance and policing that oppress people's rights negate this vision.
There is still time to turn back from the sharply escalating misery and fear that we see around us – and jointly work to create a more positive cycle of increasing solidarity and justice.
States have drafted and accepted legal obligations to uphold the rule of law and the integrity of their own institutions and those of other Member States; to ensure that governance and transitions are inclusive; to respect human rights in all contexts, including while countering terrorism; to prevent hate speech and support the broadest possible civic space; and to promote the rights to freedom of information, expression and peaceful assembly, including views that may be critical of the authorities.
My human rights update to the Council this morning includes a number of critical situations that call for urgent measures. As a general rule, this update does not include more detailed remarks on the following situations, which are the subject of separate discussions during this session:
Afghanistan, Belarus, Central African Republic, Colombia, Cyprus, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Guatemala, Honduras, Myanmar, Nicaragua, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Ukraine and Venezuela.
I wish to further update the Council regarding
Ukraine. Since the Council's urgent debate, the number of civilian casualties has continued to grow. I am deeply concerned about civilians trapped in active hostilities in numerous areas, and I urge all parties to take effective action to enable all civilians – including those in situations of vulnerability – to safely leave areas affected by conflict. The Office has received reports of arbitrary detentions of pro-Ukrainian activists in areas that have recently come under the control of armed groups in the east of the country,. We have also received reports of beatings of people considered to be pro-Russian in Government controlled territories. I repeat my urgent call for a peaceful end to hostilities.
Russian Federation, the space for discussion or criticism of public policies – including its military action against Ukraine – is increasingly and profoundly restricted. Some 12,700 people have been arbitrarily arrested for holding peaceful, anti-war protests, and media are being required to use only official information and terms. I remain concerned about the use of repressive legislation that impedes the exercise of civil and political rights and criminalizing non-violent behaviour. Vague and overly broad definitions – for example, of extremism or incitement to hatred – have led to legal interpretations that are not in line with Russia's human rights obligations. Further legislation criminalising circumstances of "discrediting" the armed forces continues down this concerning path. Fundamental freedoms and the work of human rights defenders continue to be undermined by widespread use of the 2012 so-called 'foreign agent' law, as evidenced by the judicial closure of two organisations set up by the widely respected civil society group Memorial.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, deepening political crises are being fuelled by divisive rhetoric by some political leaders. Incidents of
hate speech and incitement to violence in the Republika Srpska entity earlier this year have alarmed many people, underscoring the urgent need for leaders to condemn – and refrain from – such statements. Recent legislative initiatives in the Republika Srpska entity to withdraw from State institutions would, if adopted, disrupt the rule of law and further limit independence of the judiciary, with potentially far-reaching impact. It is essential that the current negotiations on electoral reform uphold the equality of all of Bosnia and Herzegovina's citizens, in line with
decisions by the European Court of Human Rights. This situation calls for preventive action. I call on all political leaders to engage in constructive dialogue, including with civil society actors, with a view to protecting the rights of all people in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Kazakhstan, excessive use of force was used in the response to both peaceful protests and outbreaks of violence, which resulted in dozens of deaths and well over 5,000 injuries. At least 9,900 people were detained. I deplore the use of other practices that violate Kazakhstan's international human rights obligations, including torture and ill-treatment in police detention. I note the first steps towards investigation that have been taken, and urge that they be thoroughly and independently conducted, delivering accountability. I also strongly encourage further steps towards comprehensively addressing the grievances that led to these demonstrations, including allegations of corruption and deep underlying inequalities.
Tajikistan, crackdowns continue against the political opposition. Increasing numbers of members of opposition groups have received long-term prison sentences, in trials that failed to comply with due process standards. Violence between security forces and demonstrators in November 2021 in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region has also significantly undermined the human rights situation in the area, creating an environment of fear and repression. I deplore the continued internet shutdown in the region; such shutdowns clearly violate human rights.
I am encouraged by the welcome given by many governments and communities to people fleeing Ukraine, including the unanimous decision by European Union Member States to activate temporary protection – and permission to stay – for them across the EU. In the face of hundreds of thousands of refugees, this speedy reaction is a bright light in a desperately sad situation.
However, it contrasts starkly with the treatment of migrants from other countries at European borders, and elsewhere in the world. A humane and principled approach should not be the exception: it should be the rule. It is essential that all States meet their obligations regarding all migrants, no matter the colour of their skin, their nationality or their religion – and that they coordinate this action through implementation of the
Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.
Currently, pushbacks, limited access to asylum and other human rights protection, criminalization of migrants and human rights defenders; inadequate reception conditions, and lack of independent monitoring mechanisms exacerbate migrants' vulnerability and violate their rights.
In just one of the starkest examples of the lethal impact of such policies, more than
2000 migrants died or went missing in the Mediterranean last year – bringing the total since 2017 to over 10,000. This tragic loss is not inevitable. It could be addressed by coordinated action to search and rescue migrants at sea; ensuring disembarkation in places of safety; and expanding pathways for safe and regular migration so that migrants are not compelled make more precarious journeys. I also call on all States to cease actions which criminalize or obstruct the work of humanitarian organisations providing assistance to migrants.
I deeply regret the series of recent unconstitutional changes of power in several countries on the African continent, which have serious impact on the stability of institutions, societies and – beyond national borders – into the wider region. Democratic and accountable government is a strong driver of sustainable development and rights, with institutions widely viewed as legitimate working to resolve grievances, diminish corruption, and prevent social tensions and conflicts.
>Compliance by security forces with international human rights and humanitarian law is crucial to building public trust. This is especially important in areas where non-State armed groups are active. A safe civic space that empowers all parts of society – including political parties, human rights defenders, civil society organizations and journalists – to speak up freely and contribute to identifying challenges and solutions, is also key to building resilient and stable societies. I urge Governments to strengthen the credibility of democratic institutions, and the accountability and independence of key institutions such as the judiciary and national human rights institutions.
In Mali, it is essential to ensure a swift transition to democracy and a full return to constitutional order. Although there was a slight reduction in the number of security incidents in the last quarter of 2021 compared with the previous quarter, the security environment in the country remains precarious, with serious consequences on human rights and the humanitarian situation. I am extremely concerned by the country's shrinking civic space and democratic debate, as well as by continued attacks on civilians by violent extremist groups, community-based armed groups and militias. Enforced disappearances or abductions documented by the UN more than doubled in 2021, to 775 cases. I am concerned by reports of very serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by the defence and security forces, notably those engaged in "Operation Keletigui". My Office is investigating a number of allegations in Diabaly and elsewhere. Ordinary Malians are suffering from the impact of sanctions, and I regret the continued tension between the authorities and several regional and international partners. I call on the transitional authorities to work constructively with their regional and international partners to advance the full rights of Mali's people.
Following the singing of a Host Country Agreement with the Government of Burkina Faso in October 2021, we have opened an office in the country, and now have presences in all of the G5 Sahel countries. During my visits to Burkina Faso and Niger in December, I noted numerous efforts undertaken by both countries to prevent conflict and build greater peace in the Sahel. I am therefore profoundly concerned by the recent coup in Burkina Faso, a setback that may severely compromise the human rights progress that I observed. I urge swift return to rule of law and constitutional democracy, in full respect of the rights and freedoms of all Burkinabé. Transitional authorities must adhere to the country's commitments under international human rights law. The security situation, particularly in the three-border area between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, is alarming. We continue to document human rights violations by the security forces, and abuses and attacks by armed groups, in a conflict that has displaced 2.5 million people over the past ten years. Both conflict and displacement are escalated by resource scarcity, particularly water scarcity, which often aggravates tensions, including between farmers and herders, which are exploited by violent extremist groups. I strongly encourage greater efforts to protect civilians, and to increase action to address humanitarian needs, sustainable and green development, gender equality and protection of migrants.
Chad, the Office continues to assist implementation of the roadmap for democratic transition outlined by the Transitional Government that took power following the death of President Idriss Deby in April 2021. A national dialogue, which has been postponed several times, is now expected to take place in May this year. The transitional roadmap must be rooted in human rights, to avoid discrimination, address inequalities, and ensure inclusion, particularly of ethnic and religious minorities; women; youth; trade unions and civil society actors in both urban and rural areas, and to enable true dialogue.
G5 Sahel Joint Force human rights and international humanitarian law compliance Framework, which OHCHR helps operationalize, demonstrates that human rights and protection of civilians can be placed at the core of military operations. However, this requires the full and constant dedication of all authorities involved. Since my visits to the region, the political context of the G5 Sahel has evolved considerably, with possible implications for the future of the G5 Sahel Executive Secretariat and Joint Force. While we are monitoring these developments, we are committed to continue working with these institutions and with national counterparts to ensure that compliance with human rights, international humanitarian law remains at the core of regional and national counter-terrorist operations. Through our field presences in each of the G5 Sahel countries, my Office stands ready to also work directly with national security forces towards greater human rights compliance.
Cameroon, I remain concerned by the severe human rights impact of three distinct and simultaneous crises. Increasing attacks by armed separatist groups in the North-West and South-West regions; inter-ethnic clashes and attacks by Boko Haram militia in the Far North; and in the East region, spill-over effects from the crisis in the Central African Republic all involve serious human rights violations and abuses against civilians, greatly increase poverty and other vulnerabilities, and are causing large-scale displacement. In the North-West and South-West regions, hundreds of thousands of people live in constant fear of attacks or counter-insurgency operations, as well as reprisals directed at them by all parties for their perceived support to adversaries. Increasing use of improvised explosive devices by armed separatist groups has killed and injured numerous civilians, particularly children. Continuing attacks by armed groups on humanitarian workers and UN personnel impede the delivery of assistance. While I welcome some steps taken so far by the Government to address these and other issues, I urge stronger efforts to fully implement the recommendations published by my Office in November, including by advancing a broad and free civic space. Reports of serious human rights violations by the security forces must be investigated and lead to accountability.
Syria, I am deeply concerned by the increasingly volatile situation in north-eastern areas under the control of Turkish-affiliated armed groups, and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The attack on a prison in al-Hassakeh city by ISIL in January also highlighted the continued and unacceptable arbitrary deprivation of liberty of many people held in detention facilities and camps. I again strongly urge countries of origin to repatriate their nationals, especially women and children, in accordance with their obligations under international law. I note in that respect the strong position taken last week by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, in its complaint jurisprudence – stating clear legal obligations on States to act to the extent of their capacities to assist their nationals in these situations of very high risk. There is also an urgent need to address the tens of thousands of Syrians who remain missing, abducted or held incommunicado. Their families must know the truth about their whereabouts and fate. The conviction in January by a German court of a senior Syrian intelligence official is a significant step towards accountability, justice and reparation for victims. I also welcome in this regard the action taken by the General Assembly to examine options to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people in the Syrian Arab Republic, identify human remains and provide support to their families. My Office is closely engaged in this process.
Yemen, hostilities are intensifying. In January 2022, 1,623 airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition and 40 cross-border attacks by Ansar Allah were recorded. This represents a 275% increase in coalition airstrikes from last year's monthly average. These numbers rose sharply following the non-renewal of the mandate of the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts in October, underscoring the importance of the key role it had played in monitoring the situation. All parties to the conflict continue to engage in serious human rights violations and abuses. Indiscriminate or deliberate attacks targeting civilian areas and civilian infrastructure, which would constitute war crimes, have caused increasing civilian casualties in the past four months, with preliminary figures for January at half of the total for all of 2021. The long-standing blockade of the Hudaydah port constitutes collective punishment against ordinary Yemenis. Humanitarian operations, including health, nutrition and livelihood programmes for millions of Yemenis and migrants, have been forced to close or sharply curtailed due to shortages and funding cuts. This is intensifying people's despair, after seven years of warfare and no sign of peace. I also repeat my call for Ansar Allah to release the two OHCHR and UNESCO staff members it has improperly detained.
Tunisia, I am deeply concerned by the continued suspension of Parliament and rapid erosion of key institutions. In particular, last month's decision to dissolve the High Judicial Council seriously undermines rule of law, the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary. I note the announcement in December of a roadmap for 2022 that includes national consultation of all Tunisians followed by a referendum in July and parliamentary elections in December this year. I am very concerned by his recent announcement of plans to forbid civil society groups from receiving any funding from abroad –a ruling that risks deep damage to essential civic and democratic space. We will be closely following these developments. The Office firmly believes that the major progress Tunisia has made in the past decade towards promoting and realizing human rights can, and should, be preserved. We will support reform efforts that are in line with Tunisia's obligations under international law.
I am concerned by the deteriorating situation in the
Occupied Palestinian Territory, including a dramatic rise in the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces – 320 in 2021, compared to 32 in 2020. Settler violence is increasing, not only in number of incidents but also in severity. The arrests of Palestinians almost doubled in 2021, with administrative detention – without charge or trial – up 30 percent. I am also deeply concerned by repressive measures taken by Israel against human rights defenders and civil society actors based on vague and unsubstantiated allegations, and with potentially far-reaching consequences for their activity. In my report I also refer to actions by the Palestinian Authority that curtailed civic space.
Libya, I am disturbed by the postponement of elections scheduled for 24 December, amid rising political tensions and attacks on people based on perceived opinions or political affiliation, as well as attacks on the judiciary. The elections in June must be based on full respect for the political rights of all candidates and voters, including the right to raise their voices without fear. Serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law continue to be perpetrated by armed groups, militia associated with the Government, and Libyan National Army units. Torture, unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, sexual violence and arbitrary arrests and detention remain extremely widespread, with almost complete impunity. Migrants in Libya continue to suffer horrific forms of abuse.
Iraq, we welcome Iraqi authorities' expressed interest in deepening a constructive and sustainable partnership with OHCHR, including through more exchange between UNAMI Human Rights Office and relevant Government entities. Persistent impunity for killings and disappearances of civic activists, as well as arrests, threats and online attacks against human rights defenders, continue to seriously impact human rights. I encourage the newly formed Government to intensify its efforts to ensure accountability for these violations, and I urge the authorities both in Federal Iraq and in the Kurdistan Region to take the steps necessary to sufficiently protect civic and democratic space. In particular, the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression must be safeguarded, including in the digital sphere. We continue to engage with the national Fact-Finding Commission mandated to investigate violations in the context of demonstrations, and I urge the authorities to provide resources and support to enable the Commission to carry out its work.
Iran, while noting increased efforts by the authorities to engage with my Office and human rights mechanisms on a range of human rights issues, I am concerned that persistent impunity for human rights violations continues to undermine human rights. As in Khuzestan last July, excessive use of force was deployed against protestors in Esfahan in December – but neither incident appears to have led to any form of accountability for the deaths and injuries caused. Imposition of the death penalty continues, including for offenses that do not under international law amount to the most serious crimes. In the first two months of this year, at least 55 people have been executed, including for drug charges. At least 85 child offenders remain on death row, and at least three child offenders were executed in 2021. I urge the Iranian authorities to promptly bring their policy and practice in this area into line with international standards.
Algeria, I am concerned by increasing restrictions on fundamental freedoms, including an increase in arrests and detentions of human rights defenders, civil society members and political opponents. I call on the Government to change course and take all necessary steps to guarantee its people's rights to freedom of speech, association and peaceful assembly.
The free exercise of journalism is essential for every healthy democracy. But in numerous countries, media workers face alarming levels of violence, including killings – often with impunity.
Mexico, we documented the killing of four journalists and one media worker in just the first two months of this year, with two additional cases still being verified. In 2021, eight journalists and two guards from a media outlet were killed, and two other journalists disappeared. Reporters working on local politics, corruption and crime face greater risks of attacks. Unfortunately, at times officials have contributed to the climate of fear in which they work by denigrating journalists and the relevance of their investigative work.
El Salvador, I have been deeply concerned by reportedly massive use of malware to spy on journalists and civil society organizations until at least as late as November 2021. These reports emerged months after
warnings, including from ourselves, about the serious risks of malware spywares such as Pegasus, and our calls for a moratorium on the sale and use of these technologies.
I call on all Governments to strengthen the protection of journalists as well as accountability for crimes that target them. The legitimate work of journalists deserves fostering, protection and follow-up – not censorship and stigmatisation.
I am alarmed by the escalating protection crisis in Haiti, with rising insecurity, declining access to basic services and overall lack of accountability. Port-au-Prince experienced an unprecedented expansion of gang violence in 2021, with at least 2,344 people killed, injured or kidnapped, amid an increasing proliferation of weapons. According to estimates, between 1 million and 3.5 million people have seen their protection situation worsened. Sexual violence is used as a weapon by gangs to terrorize and reinforce control over residents. Gang violence has also severely affected access to basic services, with severe impact on people in vulnerable situations. In a longstanding context of corruption and impunity, the crisis further undermines fragile institutions, including the judiciary, the police and Parliament. Measures to re-establish security should go beyond only strengthening national security forces' capacities and focus on accountability, prevention and protection. Against the background of ongoing assessment of the BINUH mandate, it is vital to ensure that the future UN presence in the country retains a strong human rights mandate and focus, with adequate resources and capacities to support national institutions.
Deaths of people of African descent at the hands of law enforcement continue to occur at disproportionately high levels in many countries. In the United States, civil society groups have advanced a figure of
266 killings of people of African descent by the police in 2021 – indicating that they are "almost three times more likely to be killed by police than white people"– while other research suggests the figure could be even higher. In
Brazil,79% of people killed in police interventions in 2020 were of African descent, according to a non-governmental organization. Troubling statistics in this same vein arise in a number of other countries. I urge national authorities – in all regions of the world - to ensure prompt and effective accountability for deaths at the hands of law enforcement, and I am glad to note that the newly-established
international independent expert mechanism to advance racial justice and equality in law enforcement held its first session in Geneva last week. I call on all States to facilitate country visits by the experts and to share all relevant information with them.
We welcome the recent announcement by the United States signalling its support for the Global Compact for Migration. To implement the Compact's vision and guiding principles in line with obligations under international law, we call for an end to use of Title 42 powers which have to date facilitated the expulsion of more than 1.3 million migrants, without individual screening and without adequate access to protection, on the grounds of public health. Other health measures, such as vaccines and testing, are readily available and can be put in place without jeopardizing migrants' rights to protection.
China, I remain concerned about the treatment of individuals who speak up on human rights issues that are deemed critical of the policies of the authorities at the local or national level- some of whom have faced restrictions on their freedom of movement, including house arrest, or in some cases have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment based on criminal charges stemming from their activities. My office has raised a number of such cases with the Government and encourage the authorities to take steps to ensure that freedom of expression and opinion are fully respected and protected. I am pleased to announce that we have recently reached an agreement with the Government of China for a visit. Hence, my Office and the Government of China have initiated concrete preparations for a visit that is foreseen to take place in May of this year. Preparations will have to take into account COVID-19 regulations. The Government has also accepted the visit of an advanced OHCHR team to prepare my stay in China, including onsite visits to Xinjiang and other places. This team will depart to China next month.
Cambodia, I am troubled by the authorities' use of COVID-19 restrictions to further erode democratic and civic space, including as a pretext to break a lawful strike by casino workers. My Office witnessed recent violence by authorities, who forced women strikers onto buses and away from a strike site. In contrast to measures applied to the general public, strikers have been arbitrarily detained and forced to test multiple times for COVID-19. I call on the authorities to respect the right to peaceful assembly and engage in dialogue to address the strikers' legitimate requests. Protecting fundamental freedoms will be important as the country approaches local elections, in which the country's largest opposition party is precluded from running and many of its leaders and supporters are exiled, detained and even facing prosecution for conduct legitimate under international law.
India, I am concerned by recent statements and actions expressing hatred and violence against religious minority communities. Notably, at two events in December, Hindutva leaders called for the murder of Muslims, in a context purporting to make India a Hindu nation. I encourage full, transparent and prompt accountability. Rising violence against the Christian community is also deeply concerning. Faith-based organisations recorded over 305 cases of attacks on Christians from January to November 2021, many involving Hindu-supremacist groups. Over the past year, problematic laws banning religious conversions have been enacted or proposed in several States. Such laws may foster hatred or even violence. I urge India's leaders to publicly condemn any form of hate speech and incitement to religious hatred, regardless of religious or ethnic origin.
Thailand, I am dismayed by the dramatically shrinking civic space and ongoing use of serious criminal charges against individuals –including children – for exercising the rights to expression and peaceful assembly, both on- and off-line. A number of draft bills under review could have far-reaching human rights implications and further undermine civic space. Notably, proposed legislation on non-profit associations enables excessively broad discretionary powers to deny registration, curtail activities and impose criminal charges against civil society organizations and individuals. I call on the Government to bring these draft laws into full compliance with international human rights standards, and to uphold its obligations to safeguard people's fundamental freedoms, including online. People must be empowered to safely raise and advocate their views on all issues of public interest without fear of reprisal.
Vietnam, I remain concerned about the recent sentencing of a number of individuals on charges related to their human rights work. In reference to the SG's recent report on reprisals, I would continue to urge the government to ensure that people's right to freedom of expression, assembly and association is respected in an environment that is free of harassment, intimidation and reprisals
This Council stands for preventing the human rights violations that create conflict and unbearable suffering. It stands for the principles that will carry forward a healthy, peaceful and sustainable future for our children – and their children, for generations to come. That path towards peace, security and sound and sustainable development begins by meaningfully including all members of society in representative and accountable decision-making, with a view to ensuring greater justice and fulfilling the human rights of all. Our work here is to advance all countries along that path.
Thank you Mr President.