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Pandemic pushing people ‘even further behind’, UN rights chief warns

Delivering a global update to the Human Rights Council, Michelle Bachelet said people everywhere were being excluded from not only development, but also opportunities.  

At the same time, civil society activists were being denied the right to voice opposition to government. 

“This makes us all weaker”, she told the virtual meeting. “It heightens grievances that are destabilizing. It means we miss perspectives and expertise that could inform and strengthen our initiatives. It shields corruption and abuses, by silencing feedback.” 

Engage the public 

While acknowledging the major health and financial challenges facing governments in the pandemic, the rights chief underlined that “a country’s people are its leader’s finest and most important resource” and must be involved in policy making. 

“Participation is a right – and it is also a means that ensures better, more effective policy,” she said.  “To help heal harms, bridge deep fractures, and lead change that meets expectations, every society, and every leader, needs to engage the public’s participation, fully and meaningfully.” 

The High Commissioner’s speech addressed human rights issues in some 50 countries. 

Improve social protection 

She welcomed the cessation of hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, announced in November by the leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia and the Russian Federation, and called for investigations into all alleged violations that occurred during fighting there. 

Moving to Asia and the Pacific, Ms. Bachelet encouraged governments to improve social protection systems as the pandemic has shown their value. On average, countries devote less than two per cent of GDP to social protection, compared with the global average of 11 per cent, she said.  

The UN rights chief addressed the “serious concentration” in civic space across Southeast Asia, including what she described as “the alarming situation” in Myanmar, where the military seized power at the beginning of the month. 

Turning to India, she said ongoing protests by thousands of farmers in India highlight the importance of having laws and policies based on consultations with concerned parties. 

“Charges of sedition against journalists and activists for reporting or commenting on the protests, and attempts to curb freedom of expression on social media, are disturbing departures from essential human rights principles”, she added. 

Tackle remaining issues 

In the Americas, Ms. Bachelet welcomed “broad new measures” to tackle structural inequalities and racism in the United States, which include action to redress racially discriminatory federal housing policies.  

“We also welcome new steps to end several migration policies that violated the human rights of migrants and refugees, including executive orders to end the family separation policy. I encourage further measures to tackle remaining issues, such as the massive detention of migrants, through the implementation of alternatives to detention”, she added. 

A decade on from the “Arab Spring”, many countries in the Middle East and North Africa continue to suffer very serious inequalities, as repressive policies have been strengthened in some cases.  

“Despite these setbacks, I remain optimistic that justice and human rights can be realized across the Middle East and North Africa – and that progress in this direction will ensure deep and lasting progress for development and peace,” Ms. Bachelet said. 

© UNICEF/Abdulaziz Aldroubi
Children stand outside the tent where they live in a remote desert camp in southern rural Homs, Syria.

Syria’s ‘grim anniversary’ 

Next month will mark 10 years since the start of the Syrian crisis, which the High Commissioner called a “grim anniversary”. She expressed hope that the Constitutional Committee will realize “tangible progress” and that the international community will work to bridge divides while also putting the needs of Syrians first.   

Ms. Bachelet underscored that humanitarians and human rights workers must have immediate access to the Tigray region of Ethiopia, where government and regional forces have been clashing since November. She said credible investigations into allegations of violations such as mass killings, extrajudicial executions and other attacks on civilians are critical. 

The human rights chief warned that the conflict in Tigray, coupled with rising insecurity in other parts of Ethiopia, could have serious impact on regional stability and human rights, underlining the need for a peaceful solution.

USA: Rights experts call for reforms to end police brutality, systemic racism

Affected communities must be included in shaping these reforms, which include diverting funding from policing to alternate safety measures, they added. 

“We have repeatedly raised our concerns about the excessive force used by American police in the context of peaceful demonstrations, and the use of lethal force against individuals who did not present a threat to life at the time of the police intervention”, the experts said in a statement. 

“In this time of political change, the United States must initiate far-reaching reforms to address police brutality and systemic racism.” 

Excessive force used 

African American communities have long decried police brutality and racial profiling. 

The issue gained global attention last year when protests broke out across the US, some of them violent, following the death of George Floyd, the unarmed African American man whose death while in police custody was captured on video. 

The rights experts welcomed a recent report on protest response in the city of Philadelphia which found authorities failed to sufficiently plan for the demonstrations and that excessive force had been used. 

They urged other municipalities to assess their response and allegations of systemic racism. 

“In Philadelphia, as in other parts of the country where Black Lives Matter protests took place, law enforcement interventions were not limited to areas where lootings and vandalism had allegedly occurred”, they said. “Police officers fired tear gas, rubber bullets and used pepper spray from close range against protesters, residents and bystanders indiscriminately. Tear gas canisters even landed in home yards hurting children.” 

 Revise laws on use of lethal force 

The experts were also concerned that law enforcement officers in the US are allowed to use lethal force whenever it is deemed “reasonable”. They called for relevant legal and policy frameworks to be revised urgently to reflect established international human rights standards. 

“The use of potentially lethal force is an extreme measure, which may be resorted to only when strictly necessary to protect life or prevent serious injury from an imminent threat”, they said. “Likewise, less lethal weapons must be employed only subject to strict requirements of necessity and proportionality, in situations where less harmful measures would be ineffective.” 

Relatedly, they called for reform of laws and policies regarding the use of tear gas, pepper spray and other “so-called less-lethal weapons” during protests. 

“The expanding and improperly regulated use of less-lethal weapons raise serious and dramatic concerns for the respect of the right to life and the right to be free from torture and other ill-treatment”, the experts said. “They can kill and have killed; they can harm and wound horribly, leading to permanent disability.”  

Against ‘militarisation’ of policing 

Noting the increased “militarisation” of policing, the experts said the use of military equipment by law enforcement cannot be justified, adding that studies show military gear and armored vehicles do not reduce crime or increase officers’ safety. 

With misdemeanours accounting for some 80 per cent arrests in the US, the rights experts said reducing “unnecessary interactions” between the police and community members would lead to decreased violence and deaths. 

“We have witnessed many police killings that have resulted from police action related to petty offences. Instead, non-serious offenses, including minor traffic violations, should be addressed through mechanisms outside the criminal legal system”, they recommended. 

The experts said ensuring equality and justice in law enforcement will require the participation of affected communities, who must be involved in shaping policing and related reforms. 

 “Policing reforms must adopt genuine and substantive measures to dismantle systemic racism in policing, including against racial, ethnic and other minorities, by divestment from current policing budgets and reinvestment in alternative social and economic resources that are vital for the safety of these communities”, they stated. 

“We hope that the new US administration will be able to pursue the necessary reforms with resolve, determination, and a strong political and financial commitment.” 

The role of UN experts 

The 18 experts who issued the statement were appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor and report on specific thematic issues.  They include members of a Working Group studying racial discrimination faced by people of African descent globally. 

The experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid by the Organization. 

UN envoy: Democratic processes ‘pushed aside’ in Myanmar, as Ambassador denounces coup

Speaking at an informal General Assembly meeting on the Myanmar crisis, Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener said, “I told you in 2019 that I would sound the alarm if necessary…This is now the case”. 

‘Fragile and fluid’ situation 

The situation in Myanmar is “fragile and fluid”, the UN envoy said, calling it “a people’s fight without arms”.  

Ms. Schraner Burgener strongly condemned the military’s “recent steps” and urged the Ambassadors to “collectively send a clear signal” supporting democracy. 

She underscored the urgency in helping to lay the foundations of a “pluralistic democracy”, balanced with the complex domestic challenges of the civilian leadership.  

“I have tried again and again to explain the complex situation, namely that the army holds the real power”, the UN envoy said. “Genuine democracy requires civilian control over the military”. 

Reject regime 

Noting that “the takeover has not stabilized”, the UN official upheld that the international community must “not lend legitimacy or recognition to this regime”. 

She labeled it a “coup”, calling the military takeover and declaration of the state of emergency “a clear violation of the constitution regardless of what they claim”.  

Recalling that the National League for Democracy (NLD) had won the November election with 82 per cent of the vote, Ms. Schraner Burgener emphasized: “There is no justification for the military’s actions, and we must continue to call for the reversal of this impermissible situation, exhausting all collective and bilateral channels to restore Myanmar’s path on democratic reform”. 

Myanmar ambassador denounces ‘coup’

Responding to the envoy, Myanmar’s Ambassador to the UN, Kyaw Moe Tun, announced that he was representing not the military leadership, but the NLD, saying he was speaking instead, for the democratically-elected parliamentarians of the country. 

Denouncing the coup, he said that the continued and strong support for the people, was “imperative”, and appealed for all Member States and the UN, to condemn the takeover, and take “all strongest possible measures to stop the violent and brutal acts committed by the security forces against peaceful demonstrators, and end the military coup immediately”.

His voice breaking in the General Assembly Hall, he gave the three-fingered salute adopted by protesters in Myanmar.

The Ambassador said he would join those continuing “to fight for a government which is of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

‘Egregious’ violations 

Although the Secretary-General had called on Myanmar’s military and police to ensure the right of peaceful assembly, hundreds of people are being detained without charges or fair trial proceedings, leaving frantic families unable to locate or contact them, according to the UN envoy. 

“Ongoing violence, intimidation and harassment by security personnel, and deliberate acts to create insecurity and instability, as well as the enactment of draconian laws which deprive people of their basic human rights, some of which are also in violation of their own Constitution, are egregious”, she said. 

Among other grievances, Ms. Schraner Burgener pointed to the release of some 23,000 prisoners associated with political murders as “regretful”, and the ensuing chaos as a lost opportunity for an inclusive response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ongoing violence, intimidation and harassment by security personnel… are egregious — UN envoy

Collective responsibility 

With her “unique access to key stakeholders”, the UN official has directly relayed international concerns, advocated for dialogue and requested a country visit in which she meets with detained government leaders, which was rejected.  

“It seems they want to continue making large-scale arrests and have been coercing people to testify against the NLD Government”, she said. “This is cruel and inhumane”.  

Ms. Schraner Burgener urged influential Member States to step up, saying they have “a collective responsibility towards the people of Myanmar and safeguard their democratic aspirations”. 

“Clearly, regional engagement is needed on all fronts”. 

If there is any escalation in terms of military brutality against people exercising their basic rights, “let us act swiftly and collectively”, the UN envoy said. 

End the crackdown, urge rights experts 

At the same time, independent UN human rights experts called on the military to end the violent crackdown on peaceful protests. 

“The people of Myanmar have the right to protest peacefully and express their discontent with the military coup”, the experts said. “We call on the military to refrain from using force against peaceful protests, stop using live bullets against protesters immediately and respect their right to peaceful protest”. 

The experts also spoke against the arbitrary detention and harassment of those voicing their dissent or organizing and participating in peaceful protests as well as the journalists covering the events.  

“Deliberate attacks on journalists and their arbitrary detention are serious violations of international human rights law and must immediately stop.” 

Worrying measures 

The experts noted “a worrying series of regulatory measures” that would entrench military control over internet information and strip individuals of their human rights. 

“These vague and overly broad provisions would give the military unfettered power to censor dissenting voices on social media, disrupt the internet at will and access user information with no restraint or regard for their right to privacy”, they said. 

The experts urged the military to restore democratic institutions and ensure the release of all those detained for exercising their human rights. 

“We warn the military junta that those who are responsible for repression and killing of peaceful protesters as well as the detention of government officials and journalists will be held accountable before international jurisdictions”, the experts said. 

Independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific country situation. The experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work. 

Click here for names of the experts.

Belarus human rights situation deteriorating further, warns UN rights chief

In comments to the Geneva forum on Thursday, the High Commissioner for Human Rights insisted that curbs on demonstrators had got worse since last August’s poll returned President Alexander Lukashenko to office.

Those protests had led to “mass arbitrary arrests and detentions” of largely peaceful demonstrators, along with “hundreds of allegations of torture and ill-treatment”, Ms. Bachelet said, before noting that “not one of the hundreds of complaints for acts of torture and ill-treatment” had been investigated.

The High Commissioner highlighted concerns about Government proposals which would reportedly “enable harsher punishments” for those taking part in peaceful demonstrations from now on.

To date, nearly 250 people have received prison sentences on allegedly politically-motivated charges context of the 2020 presidential election, Ms. Bachelet said.

‘Unprecedented’ human rights crisis

The OHCHR report “covers serious violations” of rights between 1 May and 20 December last year. “The events that unfolded before and immediately after the election have led to a human rights crisis of unprecedented dimension in the country”, added Ms. Bachelet.

All of the violations detailed “committed with impunity, created an atmosphere of fear”, she said, noting the further deterioration since December.

She said journalists were being increasingly targeted, “and human rights defenders both institutionally and individually. Just last week, large-scale searches of human rights defenders, journalists, and organizations such as the Belarusian Association of Journalists and Viasna (A Minsk-based human rights centre) were conducted, reportedly in connection with criminal investigations for ‘mass disorder’”.

Release innocent protesters

She told the Council it was “essential for the future of the country that respect for human rights, and the broadest possible civic space, be established. All those who have been detained for peacefully exercising their rights should be released.”

The rights chief called for “thorough, effective, credible and transparent investigations” into all the allegations of serious violations, with perpetrators being brought to justice, as well as an “immediate end” to the Government policy of harassment and intimidation of civil society and media workers.

“I further recommend comprehensive reform of the national legal framework”, she concluded. “Our report includes specific recommendations, which address key systemic issues, including with respect to fair trials, due process and the independence of the judiciary.”

Pandemic recovery presents historic opportunity to ensure human rights for all: Guterres

The UN chief addressed ambassadors exactly one year after he issued a Call to Action for Human Rights, a seven-point blueprint aimed at boosting equality and reducing suffering everywhere. 

Amid budget cuts and financial crisis, he appealed for support for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and related bodies, noting that funding is critical to achieve transformational change. 

“Much like COVID-19 vaccines, human rights will not lead to a healthier world if they are only available to the privileged few”, he cautioned. 

Pandemic exposes inequalities 

The Secretary-General launched his Call to Action just weeks before the pandemic was declared. 

The biggest international crisis in generations has exposed inequalities and discrimination, with women, minorities, older persons, and persons with disabilities, among those disproportionately affected.  

At the same time, rights and protection systems have been tested, weakened, and even shattered, and emergency measures during the pandemic have even been used as a pretext to crush dissent or criminalize basic freedoms. 

“In building forward together, we have a unique and historic opportunity to forge a world where every person is afforded dignity; where every society can withstand crises; where everyone’s future is built upon a foundation of inalienable rights,” said Mr. Guterres. 

The President of the UN General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, underlined that a human rights-based approach is always the right choice, whether in times of crisis, conflict, peace or pandemic. 

“All responses to the COVID-19 pandemic must be shaped by, and uphold respect for, human rights”, he said. 

“Stakeholders need to participate in decision-making and provide feedback so that we can identify: who is suffering the most; why that has transpired; and how we can protect individuals and communities now and when we face the next global challenge.” 

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Human rights at the centre of response 

Human rights are a top priority for people worldwide, according to a global survey conducted last year to mark the UN’s 75th anniversary, the Secretary-General reported.  

“With your support over the last year, the Call to Action is making important progress”, he told ambassadors. “The United Nations family is working together to ensure that human rights are at the heart of COVID-19 socio-economic response plans.” 

The UN has issued several policy briefs which outline action in vital areas that incorporates a human rights perspective, such as in maintaining food security or inclusion of refugees and migrants, or in dismantling outdated laws that discriminate against women. 

A collective responsibility 

UN teams in countries across the world have also been engaging with governments and civil societies, and children and young people are increasingly becoming part of the conversation on human rights. 

“Building on the youth climate movement, I launched my Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change to amplify youth voices and draw on the energy and ideas of young people as we work to raise ambition and accelerate action to tackle the climate emergency”, Mr. Guterres said. 

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“We are developing a plan of action to protect environmental human rights defenders, who have sadly often been victims of violence and abuse.” 

Steps like these are just the beginning, he said, as the Call to Action extends beyond the UN “family” to countries, the business community, civil society and people everywhere. 

“We shoulder a collective responsibility. Transformative change will take the full commitment and support of us all”, he said, adding “and, of course, it will take resources.”

UN independent experts ‘appalled’ by deportation of migrants to Myanmar, in defiance of court order

Malaysian immigration authorities returned 1,086 migrants, including unaccompanied minors and toddlers as young as three, the UN experts said in a statement on Wednesday. 

In defiance of the Kuala Lumpur High Court’s order, the Malaysian authorities “breached the principle of non-refoulement, a rule of jus cogens, which absolutely prohibits the collective deportation of migrants without an objective risk assessment being conducted in each individual case”, they said.  

“Children should not have been separated from their family or returned without determining that their return is in their best interests”, they insisted. 

Unwelcome return 

Following a coup d’état in Myanmar on 1 February, which was followed by the military’s systematic violation of fundamental rights and freedoms, the UN experts expressed concern for the rights those returning. 

They upheld that identification processing and analysis of the migrants’ individual protection needs had not been adequately carried out. 

On grounds of their irregular migration status, the migrants had been held in Malaysia’s immigration detention facilities for prolonged periods.  

The Myanmar military regime had offered to send three navy ships to transport a total of 1,200 migrants. 

Concern over violations 

The UN experts raised their concerns in a letter to the Malaysian authorities, urging the absolute prohibition of refoulement to prevent the likely persecution of the returnees. 

They reminded that States are obliged not to repatriate a person to a country where there are substantial grounds to believe that he or she may be the victim of serious human rights violations. 

“The failure to ensure due process safeguards for all migrants, including through case-by-case risk assessments and adequate protection measures on an individual basis, heightened their vulnerabilities and risk of exploitation and other violations upon return”, they said.  

The experts also stressed that any migrant asked to be voluntarily returned must be “fully and meaningfully” informed of their choices and that their consent must be given “free of coercion”, including the threat of indefinite detention. 

The UN experts are encouraging the Malaysian authorities to conduct an adequate assessment of the remaining migrants and accord them the necessary protection, as required. 

They also said that they would continue to closely monitor the situation. 

Independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. Their positions are honorary, they are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work. 

Click here for the UN experts who signed this statement.  

Experts accuse Iran of rights violations in shooting down Ukraine airlines flight

Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country, have consistently expressed concern over the 8 January 2020 incident. 

Flight PS752 was heading from Tehran to Kiev when it was struck down by two missiles fired by the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), killing all 176 people on board.    

Iran said the military personnel mistook the civilian aircraft for a US missile. 

The strike took place in the context of heightened tensions following the targeted killing of General Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian official, by the United States, and Iran’s subsequent retaliations on US bases in Iraq, where he was killed. 

Following a six-month inquiry, Ms. Callamard wrote to the Iranian Government last December. outlining observations and circumstances surrounding the strike. She said she has yet to receive a response. 

The letter remained confidential for 60 days, in line with the Human Rights Council’s policy on communications to States, and was published on Tuesday.

Her letter concluded that the Iranian authorities violated the right to life of the passengers and crew onboard the plane. 

Avoidable deaths 

“In situations of high military tension, the most effective means to prevent attacks on civil aviation is to close the airspace”, she said. “Had Iran, knowing full well that hostilities with the US could readily escalate, closed its airspace for civilian traffic that evening, 176 human beings would not have been killed.” 

She said Iran’s explanations for downing the flight present many inconsistencies and contradictions. 

“The inconsistencies in the official explanations seem designed to create a maximum of confusion and a minimum of clarity. They seem contrived to mislead and bewilder,” she wrote. 

‘Reckless disregard’ 

“As for the mistakes that have been admitted, they suggest at minimum a reckless disregard for standard procedures and for the principles of precaution, which should have been implemented to the fullest given the circumstances and the location of the missile unit in the proximity of a civilian airfield.” 

Ms. Callamard and Mr.Rehman were among a group of independent experts who also wrote to the Iranian authorities last February, expressing concern over the use of force in protests that followed the attack. 

In his latest report to the Human Rights Council, Mr. Rehman has also raised concerns over harassment of families of the victims of Flight PS752, including death threats. 

Special Rapporteurs are not UN staff, nor are they paid by the Organization.  They are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor and advise on specific country situations or thematic issues. 

UN rights experts call for US to address ongoing violations at ‘Kafkaesque’ Guantánamo military prison

This should include investigating alleged torture and other ill-treatment at the facility, which was set up to house foreign terrorist suspects in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, said a statement from the UN rights office, OHCHR.

The new United States administration said on 12 February, it was launching the formal review in an effort to finally close the military prison, reviving a stalled effort to shutter it during the Obama administration, where Mr. Biden served as Vice President.

“We welcome the goal of closing the detention facility, consistent with our previous calls to end impunity for the human rights and humanitarian law violations committed during the ‘war on terror’” said the group of UN experts.

“As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 looms, we urge a transparent, comprehensive, and accountability-focused review of the operation and legacy of the prison and the military commissions”, they added.

‘Unending deprivation’

The experts said that many of the remaining detainees are vulnerable and now elderly, according to the statement. In many cases, their physical and mental integrity has been compromised by “unending deprivation of freedom and related physical and psychological torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

The experts stressed “the need to repudiate the policies of and practices that led to the creation of the prison and the military commissions, in order to prevent recurrence of practices that are in clear breach of international law.” 

They also said it was now essential that those who had been subjected to enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, torture and denied fundamental rights under international law – including right to a fair trial – were given adequate remedy and reparation.

The experts are calling on the US to ensure independent and impartial investigations and prosecutions of all credible allegations of violations committed including allegations of extraordinary rendition, torture, secret detention and unfair trial proceedings.

‘Kafkaesque situation’

“Many of the individuals currently and previously held at Guantanamo Bay have spent the bulk of their lives in a Kafkaesque situation where the rule of law was meaningless and the coercive and brutal power of the State ascendant”, the UN experts said, stressing the need to enable and support resettlement for those who remain, in line with human rights law.

“Democracies can and should do better, and the United States must clearly put this dark chapter in its history behind it and demonstrate that it is not only prepared to close the prison facilities but ensure that such practices cannot be used again, and that the crimes committed there will not remain unpunished,” the experts said.

A full list of the experts signing the statement can be found in the news release. Special Rapporteurs are part of the so-called Special Procedures mandate of the UN Human Rights Council, and are not UN staff, nor do they receive a salary. They serve entirely in their individual capacity.

‘Disturbing spike’ in Afghan civilian casualties after peace talks began: UN report

In their annual Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Annual Report, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN Assistance Mission in the country (UNAMA) documented some 8,820 civilian casualties (3,035 deaths and 5,785 injuries) in 2020, about 15 per cent less than in 2019.  

It was also the first time the figure fell below 10,000 since 2013. 

However, the country remains amongst the “deadliest places in the world to be a civilian”, according to Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

“I am particularly appalled by the high numbers of human rights defenders, journalists, and media workers killed since peace negotiations began in September”, she said. 

At least 11 rights defenders, journalists and media workers lost their lives since September, resulting in many professionals exercising self-censorship in their work, quitting their jobs, and even leaving their homes and the country – in hope it will improve their safety. 

Rise in ‘targeted killings’ 

According to the report, the overall drop in civilian casualties in 2020 was due to fewer casualties from suicide attacks by anti-Government elements in populated areas, as well as drop in casualties attributed to international military forces.  

There was, however, a “worrying rise” in targeted killings by such elements – up about 45 per cent over 2019. The use of pressure-plate improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by the Taliban, air strikes by the Afghan Air Force, and ground engagements also resulted in increased casualties, the report said. 

According to the report, anti-Government elements bore responsibility for about 62 per cent civilian casualties, while pro-Government forces were responsible for about 25 per cent casualties. About 13 per cent of casualties were attributed to crossfire and other incidents. 

2020 could have been ‘a year of peace’ 

Deborah Lyons, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan and head of UNAMA, called on all parties to take immediate and concrete action to protect civilians, urging them “not to squander a single day in taking the urgent steps to avoid more suffering”. 

“2020 could have been the year of peace in Afghanistan. Instead, thousands of Afghan civilians perished due to the conflict”, Ms. Lyons said. 

The “overriding objective” of the report is to provide the parties responsible with the facts, and recommendations, so they take immediate and concrete steps to protect civilians, she added. 

Ms. Lyons highlighted that “ultimately, the best way to protect civilians is to establish a humanitarian ceasefire” – a call consistently made by Secretary-General António Guterres and the Security Council. 

“Parties refusing to consider a ceasefire must recognize the devastating consequences of such a posture on the lives of Afghan civilians.” 

UNAMA-OHCHR report
Women casualties (killings and injuries) documented between 1 January 2009 and 31 December 2020

‘Shocking toll’ on women and children 

The report went on to note that the years-long conflict in Afghanistan “continues to wreak a shocking and detrimental toll” on women and children, who accounted for 43 per cent of all civilian casualties – 30 per cent children and 13 per cent women. 

“This report shows the acute, lasting needs of victims of the armed conflict and demonstrates how much remains to be done to meet those needs in a meaningful way”, High Commissioner Bachelet said. 

“The violence that has brought so much pain and suffering to the Afghan population for decades must stop and steps towards reaching a lasting peace must continue.” 

Attacking civilians ‘serious violations’ 

With the conflict continuing, parties must do more to prevent and mitigate civilian casualties, the report said, urging them to fully implement the report’s recommendations and to ensure that respect and protection of human rights is central to the ongoing peace negotiations. 

It also reminded the parties that deliberately attacking civilians or civilian objects are serious violations of international humanitarian law that may amount to war crimes. 

‘No place’ for coups in today’s world, UN chief tells Myanmar military 

“Coups have no place in our modern world”, Mr. Guterres said in a pre-recorded video address at the Council’s 46th regular session, his comments coming after the forum held a special session on 12 February, in which it adopted a resolution expressing deep concern at the junta’s move. 

“Today, I call on the Myanmar military to stop the repression immediately”, the UN chief continued. “Release the prisoners. End the violence. Respect human rights and the will of the people expressed in recent elections. I welcome the resolution of the Human Rights Council, pledge to implement your request, and express my full support to the people of Myanmar in their pursuit of democracy, peace, human rights and the rule of law.” 

14-year old victim 

Mr. Guterres’s comments followed his censure at the weekend of the use of “deadly force” in Myanmar, in which a protester – reportedly 14 years old – was killed in Mandalay, along with one other. 

Also addressing the Council at the start of its month-long session, which is being held almost entirely remotely to prevent the spread of COVID-19, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, focused on the massive and negative impact of pandemic. 

“I think we all realise that the use of force will not end this pandemic. Sending critics to jail will not end this pandemic. Illegitimate restrictions on public freedoms, the overreach of emergency powers and unnecessary or excessive use of force are not just unhelpful and unprincipled. They deter public participation in decision-making, which is the foundation of sound policy-making.”  

Help for the most vulnerable 

In another video message, President of the UN General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, underscored the need to focus on people’s basic needs – including new coronavirus vaccines – as the best way to recover from the pandemic. 

“It is essential that all responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are centred around human rights, and promote the protection of our citizens, including the most vulnerable who need our care and consideration the most”, he said. “This includes ensuring the equal and fair distribution of vaccines for all. It is critical that civil society, the private sector, and all stakeholders are facilitated to participate and provide feedback throughout the planning and assessment of responses.” 

Vaccine unfairness 

Echoing the call for equitable vaccine access in a wide-ranging address that included a broadside against right-wing extremists becoming a “transnational threat” and the manipulation of personal digital data by Governments to control citizens’ behaviour, the Secretary-General described the fact that only 10 countries had administered “more than 75 per cent of all COVID-19 vaccines” as “the latest moral outrage”.  

Vaccine equity “affirms human rights”, he said, but “vaccine nationalism denies it. Vaccines must be a global public good, accessible and affordable for all.” 

Taking up that theme, Ms. Bachelet insisted that the new coronavirus crisis had illustrated the “deadly realities of discrimination”. 

Deep inequalities and chronic under-funding for essential services were to blame, she added, with policymakers largely responsible for ignoring these basic needs. 

Pandemic rolls on 

“Today, the medical impact of the pandemic is far from over – and its effects on economies, freedoms, societies, and people have only just begun”, she said. “The global rise in extreme poverty, accelerating inequalities; setbacks to women’s rights and equality; to education and opportunities for children and young people; and to the Sustainable Development Agenda are shocks that could shake the foundations of societies.” 

Despite the scale of the challenges posed in this second year of the pandemic, the High Commissioner struck a positive note, insisting that “we have the possibility of rebuilding better, more inclusive systems, which address root causes and prepare us to meet the challenges we will certainly face”.  

Among the many major problems facing people everywhere, the UN Secretary-General highlighted the disproportionate gender impact of COVID-19. 

WFP/Saikat Mojumder
Fatema, a mother of four children, lost her husband in Myanmar and is now living in Bangladesh. She works in a chicken shop making $1.18 per a day.

Crisis ‘has a woman’s face’ 

“The crisis has a woman’s face”, he said. “Most essential frontline workers are women — many from racially and ethnically marginalized groups and at the bottom of the economic ladder. Most of the increased burden of care in the home is taken on by women.”  

Persons with disabilities, older persons, refugees, migrants and indigenous peoples had also paid a higher price than others during the first year of the pandemic. Mr. Guterres continued, before calling for “a special focus on safeguarding the rights of minority communities, many of whom are under threat around the world”.  

Cautioning against “policies of assimilation that seek to wipe out the cultural and religious identity of minority communities”, the UN chief maintained that the diversity of communities was “fundamental to humanity”.

Extremists a ‘transnational threat’ 

And without identifying any specific countries, Mr. Guterres also spoke out against the rising and potentially international threat of right-wing extremist movements. 

“White supremacy and neo-Nazi movements are more than domestic terror threats. They are becoming a transnational threat”, he said. “Far too often, these hate groups are cheered on by people in positions of responsibility in ways that were considered unimaginable not long ago. We need global coordinated action to defeat this grave and growing danger.” 

Under the presidency of Jordanian Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan, the 46th Human Rights Council session is due to meet until Friday 23 March.

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