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Brazil: UN rights office urges independent probe into deadly police operation in Rio de Janeiro

The operation started in the early hours of Thursday when police officers on the ground and in helicopters overhead opened fire across the Jacarezinho neighbourhood – in a operation allegedly aimed at suspected drug traffickers. 

In addition to the deaths, an unknown number of people, including bystanders and those inside their homes, were also wounded.

‘Deadliest operation’ in over a decade

OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville said that the incident appeared to have been the “deadliest such operation in more than a decade” in Rio de Janeiro.

“[It] furthers a long-standing trend of unnecessary and disproportionate use of force by police in Brazil’s poor, marginalized and predominantly Afro-Brazilian neighbourhoods, known as favelas.”

There are also reports that after the incident, the police did not take steps to preserve evidence at the crime scene, which could hinder investigations into this lethal operation, the spokesperson said.

Court restrictions

Mr. Colville said that it was “particularly disturbing” that operation took place despite a Federal Supreme Court ruling last year, which restricted police operations in Rio’s favelas during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We remind the Brazilian authorities that the use of force should be applied only when strictly necessary, and that they should always respect the principles of legality, precaution, necessity and proportionality”, he said.

“Lethal force should be used as a last resort and only in cases where there is an imminent threat to life or of serious injury.”

Ensure protection of witnesses 

Mr. Colville called on the Office of the Prosecutor to conduct an independent, thorough and impartial investigation into the incident in accordance with international standards, particularly in line with the Minnesota Protocol on the Investigation of Potentially Unlawful Death. 

“This lays down that authorities must ensure the safety and security of witnesses and protect them from intimidation and retaliation”, he said.

The OHCHR spokesperson also urged for a broad and inclusive discussion in Brazil about the current model of policing in favelas – which are trapped in a vicious cycle of lethal violence, with a dramatically adverse impact on their already struggling and marginalized populations.

Stop evictions in East Jerusalem neighbourhood immediately, UN rights office urges Israel

Eight Palestinian refugee families residing in Sheikh Jarrah are facing forced eviction due to a legal challenge by the Nahalat Shimon settler organization, with the risk “imminent” for four of the families, according to the office.

OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville said that the evictions, if ordered and implemented, would violate Israel’s obligations under international law.

“Given the disturbing scenes in Sheikh Jarrah over the past few days, we wish to emphasize that East Jerusalem remains part of the occupied Palestinian territory, in which International Humanitarian Law applies. The occupying Power must respect and cannot confiscate private property in occupied territory, and must respect, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country.”

He went on to note that Israel cannot impose its own set of laws in occupied territory, including East Jerusalem, to evict Palestinians from their homes.

On Thursday, Tor Wennesland, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, also urged Israel to stop demolitions and evictions in the neighbourhood, in line with its obligations under international humanitarian law.

Prohibited under international law

“In addition, the Absentee Property Law and the Legal and Administrative Matters Law are applied in an inherently discriminatory manner, based solely on the nationality or origin of the owner”, OHCHR spokesperson Colville said.

“In practice, the implementation of these laws facilitates the transfer by Israel of its population into occupied East Jerusalem. The transfer of parts of an occupying Power’s civilian population into the territory that it occupies is prohibited under international humanitarian law and may amount to a war crime”, he added.

Violation of right to adequate housing

The OHCHR spokesperson also said that forced evictions could violate the rights to adequate housing and to privacy and other human rights of those who are evicted.

“Forced evictions are a key factor in creating a coercive environment that may lead to forcible transfer, which is prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention and is a grave breach of the Convention.”

Mr. Colville also called on Israel to respect freedom of expression and assembly, including of those who are protesting against the evictions, and to exercise maximum restraint in the use of force while ensuring safety and security in East Jerusalem.

Latin America rights groups face growing threats, attacks: Bachelet

“Governments and others in positions of power” including members of parliament and vigilante groups were at the root of the problem in a dozen countries, the High Commissioner for Human Rights said, in a statement.

Close ties

These rights institutions (NHRIs) “work closely” with Ms. Bachelet’s Office and UN human rights mechanisms, she added, before insisting that they “must not face any form of abuse or interference, especially political pressure”.

Incidents reported to the UN Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) in the past two years have covered Bolivia, Chile, El Salvador and Haiti, along with Guatemala and Mexico, where there were attempts “at the State level” to remove the head of the independent rights office in those countries.

Rights institutions in Ecuador and Uruguay also faced public statements discrediting their work, while the head of the Peruvian national human rights body had their immunity lifted.

She also voiced concern at the failure by Argentina, to appoint an Ombudsperson to monitor human rights, for the past decade.

Protect their independence

“I urge governments across the region to abide by their responsibilities, and respect and protect the independence of the national human rights institutions”, said Ms. Bachelet.

She added that the fact that complaints had come from a dozen countries in the region was “striking testimony to the expanding trend, and magnitude of the problem”.

She acknowledged that NHRIs could post challenges for governments, because their mandate meant they had a duty to expose gaps in the protection of human rights, but she highlighted that governments could benefit from their independent assessments to improve conditions – “a role that any democratic society should welcome.”

The rights chief called on authorities to establish “prompt, thorough, independent and effective investigations into each and every alleged attack, act of reprisal, threat or intimidation against these key institutions.”

UN launches key initiative to protect seafarers’ human rights amid COVID-19 crisis

The Human Rights Due Diligence Tool, provides a wide-ranging checklist co-developed by the UN Global Compact, the UN Human Rights Office, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO), for all businesses involved in the maritime industry.

The agencies are warning about a possible surge in the number of crewmembers stranded at sea due to new COVID-19 variants and government-imposed travel restrictions.

Unchecked, they fear the situation could return to the heights of the September 2020 crew change crisis, when 400,000 seafarers were stranded at sea around the world.

“Seafarers are at the heart of the global supply chain. They are also at the mercy of COVID-19 restrictions on travel and transit. This has led to hundreds of thousands of seafarers being denied repatriation, crew changes, shore leave and ultimately being forced to stay working on ships long beyond their contracts”, explained IMO Secretary General, Kitack Lim.

He added that the new tool represents an important step forward for the maritime industry. It provides a practical approach for cargo owners, charterers, and logistics providers to “ensure [seafarers] are put first and foremost as they work to deliver the goods that people need and want”.

The IMO has called on governments to designate seafarers as essential workers.

Human rights must go first

Physical and mental health, access to family life, and freedom of movement are some of the human rights considerations included in the new guidance, with the agencies expressing concern at reports of seafarers working on board well beyond the 11-month maximum that is set out by the ILO Maritime Labour Convention (MLC). 

The UN agencies also expressed apprehension at reports of companies avoiding chartering vessels where a crew change is due.

Some have demanded ‘no crew change’ clauses in charter agreements, preventing required crew changeovers from taking place.

Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies engaged in the maritime industry have a clear responsibility to respect the human rights of seafarers in all economic decision-making. 

The COVID-19 seafarer’s crew change crisis sparked by the pandemic, has shone a spotlight on one the “weakest links” in global supply chains, said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. “This is an urgent and grave humanitarian and human rights crisis that is impacting the lives of thousands of maritime workers. All companies involved in global supply chains may be linked to this crisis.”

The new human rights tool complements current industry-led collective action, such as the Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing, signed by more than 750 companies. 

USA: Rights expert decries wave of anti-protest laws ‘spreading through the country’

Special Rapporteur Clément Voule said the laws adopted in Florida and Oklahoma appear to be part of an ongoing effort to curtail demonstrations, such as those which took place following the killing of George Floyd last May. 

‘Snowball effect’ 

He feared they are part of a wave of legislation to restrict racial justice protests in the US, where more than 90 anti-protest bills have been introduced in 35 state legislatures since May 2020. Seven other states have draft laws which are moving towards enactment. 

 “I am afraid that the adoption of anti-protests laws in Florida and Oklahoma may be part of a snowball effect which started in 2017 with anti-protest legislation spreading through the country”, said Mr Voule, who is the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly. 

“I strongly urge all states to refrain from going down the same path.”  

Vague definitions, immunity from killing 

The rights expert added that the two new laws are riddled with vaguely defined offences and draconian penalties. 

 “Vague definitions of ‘riot’, ‘mob intimidation’, and ‘obstruction’ as set out in these laws provide excessive discretion to law enforcement authorities to intimidate and criminalize legitimate protest activities”, he said. “Any restrictions on this fundamental freedom must be narrowly and clearly defined.”  

Mr. Voule was also concerned that the laws create new legal immunity for people who injure or even kill peaceful street protestors. 

For example, a driver who injures or kills someone while “fleeing from a riot” is protected from civil and criminal liability under the Oklahoma law. 

Incentivizing white supremacy 

In Florida, a defendant in a civil lawsuit will now be able to avoid liability by establishing that the injury or death they caused “arose from” conduct by someone “acting in furtherance of a riot”. 

Mr. Voule said civil society advocates have pointed out that such immunity will provide incentives for the actions of white supremacist vigilante groups and allow further violence against Black Lives Matter protesters. 

 “The targeting of the Black Lives Matter movement, while creating legal protections for those who attack them, is deeply disturbing”, he said. 

Special Rapporteurs like Mr. Voule are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor specific country situations or thematic issues. 

They serve in their independent capacity and on a voluntary basis.  They are neither UN staff, nor do they receive a salary from the Organization.

FROM THE FIELD: Uganda conflict survivor helps communities find ‘ways forward’

As many as 25,000 children were abducted as soldiers and forced labourers, as the Ugandan government fought a civil war with the LRA from the 1980s onwards.

Okello Tito says he was “one of the lucky ones” because he was not kidnapped or killed, even though his family did have to flee their home in the middle of the night after rebels set it alight.

Today, he works as a community leader in northern Uganda, the epicentre of the conflict. Where he spends his time “calming people down, negotiating, finding solutions and ways forward”.

© UNICEF/Chulho Hyun
In 2004 in northern Uganda, ‘night commuters’ left their homes each night to stay in shelters fearing that children would be forcibly abducted by the LRA.

He has told his story as part of an initiative called “Life after conflict” focused on international justice, which was launched by the UN-backed International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Hague-based ICC, is the world’s first permanent international court to prosecute some of the most heinous of crimes, including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

On Thursday, the court is due to pass sentence on Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA leader who was found guilty of 61 charges, between 2002-2005, of crimes against humanity and war crimes, in the context of the conflict in northern Uganda.

Read more here about how Okello Tito is trying to heal communities after decades of conflict.

UN human rights office urges calm, after bloodshed in Colombian city of Cali

Spokesperson Marta Hurtado said that the OHCHR office in Colombia is working to verify the exact number of casualties, and establish how the incident came about in Cali.

“We express our profound shock at the events there and stress our solidarity with those who have lost their lives, as well as the injured and their families”, she said.

Mr. Hurtado added that human rights defenders also reported having been harassed and threatened.

The protests, which began last Wednesday with a general strike over proposed tax reforms, continued despite an announcement from the Colombian presidency on Sunday that the reform bill would be removed from Congress. The Finance Minister is also reported to have resigned.

According to the UN human rights office, the majority of the protests so far have been peaceful but it has received allegations of at least 14 deaths in different parts of Colombia, including at least one police officer, since the demonstrations started.

‘Extremely tense situation’

There have also been calls for a “massive demonstration” on Wednesday.

“Given the extremely tense situation, with soldiers as well as police officers deployed to police the protest, we call for calm”, the OHCHR spokesperson said.

She also reminded the State authorities of their responsibility to protect human rights, including the right to life and security of person, and to facilitate the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

“We stress also that law enforcement officers should abide by the principles of legality, precaution, necessity and proportionality when policing demonstrations. Firearms can only be used as a measure of last resort against an imminent threat to life or of serious injury.”

Release jailed dissident on medical grounds, UN experts urge Iran

Filmmaker Mohammad Nourizad received multiple sentences in February last year, including a seven-and-a-half-year prison term, after being convicted on charges relating to an open letter he and others signed calling for the Supreme Leader’s resignation and for constitutional changes, according to a news release by the experts.

The Iranian authorities must release him immediately in line with medical opinions and give him free access to the required medical care and treatment 
–  Human rights experts

“We are seriously concerned at the mistreatment of Mohammad Nourizad and his continued imprisonment for expressing his opinion”, the rights experts said, noting that his “case is emblematic of the situation many Iranian political activists face in detention”.

They added that Mr. Nourizad’s continued detention despite medical professionals’ finding he cannot stay in prison given his serious health condition, and the resulting denial of adequate medical care, may amount to torture.

“He must be immediately released”, the experts said.

While in detention, Mr. Nourizad carried out hunger strikes and refused to take medications, most recently starting 10 March, to protest against his imprisonment and his family’s mistreatment by authorities. He also reportedly attempted suicide in prison, and began to self-harm as a form of protest on 19 February.

The experts previously raised concerns with the Iranian Government about Mr. Nourizad detention as well as access to medical care, according to the news release. The Government sent comments in response to the concerns raised.

In no medical state to remain in prison

According to the news release, Mr. Nourizad was diagnosed with a heart condition while in detention and frequently lost consciousness.

Last month, he was transferred to a hospital in capital Tehran, after fainting. When he regained consciousness, he found someone injecting him with an unknown substance, which he did not consent to or was informed of. He was also not provided any information, in spite of requesting officials what he was injected with and why.

“It is clear that Mr. Nourizad is not in a medical state to remain in prison,” the experts said, noting also that Legal Medical Organization of the Iranian judiciary and other medical professionals reportedly found that he should be released on medical grounds.

“The Iranian authorities must release him immediately in line with these medical opinions and give him free access to the required medical care and treatment.”

Many imprisoned for exercising their rights

The experts also said that many individuals in Iran are detained for merely exercising their right to freedom of expression. They reminded the Government that detention on such a basis is a clear violation of several of the country’s human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

“We remain extremely disturbed by continued reports of detainees, including those imprisoned for exercising their human rights, being denied or unnecessarily obstructed from receiving adequate medical treatment or care”, the experts added.

“In extreme cases the denial of adequate treatment has resulted in death. The Iranian Government and judiciary has an obligation to ensure that all detainees receive proper treatment as prescribed not only under domestic law, but also under its international human rights obligations and the Nelson Mandela Rules on the minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners.”

The human rights experts making the call include the special rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Iran; on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression; on rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; on the right to physical and mental health; and on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. 

Free press ‘a cornerstone’ of democratic societies, UN says

In a message on World Press Freedom Day, marked annually on 3 May, Secretary-General António Guterres underscored the importance of reliable, verified and accessible information.

“During the pandemic, and in other crises including the climate emergency, journalists and media workers help us navigate a fast-changing and often overwhelming landscape of information, while addressing dangerous inaccuracies and falsehoods”, he said.

“Free and independent journalism is our greatest ally in combatting misinformation and disinformation.”

Mr. Guterres also noted the personal risks journalists and media workers face, including restrictions, censorship, abuse, harassment, detention and even death, “simply for doing their jobs”, and that the situation continues to worsen.

The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic has hit many media outlets hard, threatening their very survival, he added.

“As budgets tighten, so too does access to reliable information. Rumours, falsehoods and extreme or divisive opinions surge in to fill the gap”, the Secretary-General said, urging all governments to “do everything in their power to support a free, independent and diverse media”.

Contributing to humanity’s well-being

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, also highlighted the importance of free, uncensored and independent press as “a cornerstone of democratic societies”, conveying  life-saving information, improving public participation, and strengthening accountability and respect for human rights.

“Around the world, people have increasingly taken to the streets to demand their economic and social rights, as well as an end to discrimination and systemic racism, impunity, and corruption”, she said.

However, journalists fulfilling their fundamental role of reporting on these social protests have become targets, with many becoming victims of unnecessary and disproportionate use of force, arbitrary arrests, and criminal prosecution, Ms. Bachelet added.

In addition to dissuading other journalists from critically reporting on relevant issues, such attacks weaken public debate and hamper society’s ability to respond effectively to challenges, including COVID-19, she said.

World Press Freedom Day 

Marked annually on 3 May, World Press Freedom Day celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom. It is also an occasion to evaluate press freedom globally, to defend the media from attacks on their independence, and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.

The date marks the adoption of the landmark Windhoek Declaration for the Development of a Free, Independent and Pluralistic Press at a UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) conference in the Namibian capital, in 1991.

This year, the World Day focuses on the theme of “Information as a Public Good”, affirming the importance of information as a public good, and exploring what can be done in the production, distribution and reception of content to strengthen journalism, as well as to improve transparency and empowerment.

Helping platforms become more transparent

The theme ties in with UNESCO’s work to ensure the long-term health of independent, pluralistic journalism, and the safety of media workers everywhere, Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of the UN agency tasked with defending press freedom, said.

“As part of these efforts, we are working to create more transparency on online platforms in areas such as content moderation, while respecting human rights and international freedom of expression rules”, she said.

She also highlighted the agency’s work to equip people globally with the media and information literacy skills they need to navigate this new information landscape, so they can avoid being duped or manipulated online.

“As we mark World Press Freedom Day, I call on everyone to renew their commitment to the fundamental right to freedom of expression, to defend media workers, and to join us in ensuring that information remains a public good”, Ms. Azoulay added. 

Chad: UN rights office profoundly disturbed over violence against protesters

Six people were reportedly killed and several wounded in the capital, N’Djamena, on Tuesday – and in the second largest city, Moundou, Marta Hurtado, spokesperson for OHCHR, told the regular press briefing in Geneva. 

And while more than 700 people have been arrested, it is not clear how many are still in detention. 

Respect human rights

With further protests and general strikes due to take place in the coming days, Ms. Hurtado said that Chad remains “bound by its obligations” under international human rights law to “protect and respect human rights”, including the right to life, and to “facilitate the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly”.  

She told journalists that a blanket ban on demonstrations may “undermine the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly”.  

Reminding that the Transitional Military Council itself declared on 20 April that it would abide by Chad’s international treaty obligations, she urged the authorities to do so. 

Follow the rules 

Defence and security forces must receive clear instructions to refrain from the use of force against peaceful protesters, said the UN official, adding that the handling of violent incidents must be aligned with the rule of law and relevant international human rights laws and standards.  

Firearms should only be used against individuals representing “an imminent threat to life or of serious injury, and only as a matter of last resort”, Ms. Hurtado said, adding that all those detained for exercising their rights to peaceful assembly must also be “promptly released”. 

“We also call on all relevant State institutions to conduct impartial, prompt, effective and transparent investigations into any human rights violations that may have occurred – including the apparent use of unnecessary or disproportionate force to disperse protests”, she said. 

Chart peaceful way forward 

At this is a “delicate period for the country”, the OHCHR official stressed the crucial importance of putting human rights at the centre of all efforts. 

Ensure an “inclusive, participatory process in charting the way forward towards a return to civilian rule and constitutional order, she said. 

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