Justice, human rights and accountability at UNGA

The role of technology in protecting civilians in conflict zones, efforts toward justice and accountability in Sudan, standing in solidarity with Uyghurs, and protesting human rights violations in Syria received particular attention and was the subject of manifold discussion during the 78th Session of the UNGA. The observations made therein were followed carefully by strategic analysts. 

There was also an important event on the Rohingya crisis. Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, Uzra Zeya delivered remarks and was joined by the governments of Bangladesh, Canada, the Gambia, Malaysia, Turkey, and the UK as co-sponsors. This gained attention because of international efforts to demonstrate solidarity with Rohingya victims and survivors, who, notwithstanding their precarious economic and security circumstances, continue to call for justice and accountability, with faith in the ability of the international community to deliver justice for the genocide and crimes against humanity they have experienced at the hands of the Myanmar military.

During and sometimes after the discussions on this significant issue Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice Beth Van Schaack provided an interesting overview of justice and accountability issues to the media that were receiving attention at the UNGA Session.

Attention was drawn to the fact that global leaders around the world are trying to address planetary crisis and how they can better work together on the multilateral stage in order to improve the lives of people around the world.  This was seen against the backdrop of efforts aimed at accelerating progress around sustainable development goals.

In this context it was explained that the paradigm included advancing three broad policy goals– (a) the importance of partnership in tackling global challenges and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, (b) reinforcing the core collective obligations outlined in the UN Charter and the commitments that are contained within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and (c) strengthening multilateral institutions so they are more effective, inclusive, transparent and accountable.

Reference at that time was made to the need to focus on Sustainable Development Goal number 16 pertaining to peace, justice, and strong institutions.  It was also correctly underlined that this SDG aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, to enhance access to justice, and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels. In this context during discussions attention was also drawn to the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 42/17 on human rights and transitional justice which recognised that transitional justice can contribute to SDG 16 through its objectives of “combating impunity, granting access to justice, and transforming conflict.”  Analysts have appreciated such an approach because there is universal belief that if there is lack of access to justice, conflicts remain unresolved, and survivors, their families, their communities cannot obtain judicial protection or legal redress.  Institutions that do not function according to the rule of law are also prone to arbitrariness and abuse of power and are less capable ultimately of delivering justice. 

Some within the structure of the United Nations responded by pointing out that the existing inability to assure true justice by relevant institutions was partially due to challenges created by artificial intelligence, machine learning, and new digital technologies, used within conflict scenarios. In this regard Van Schaack observed that “the volume of data being generated and ingested has vastly outpaced the ability of justice actors within these mechanisms to verify, authenticate, and even to use this information at scale”. 

This scenario has apparently started to worsen because malign actors are “creating and disseminating shallow fakes and deep fakes” that are emerging as a concern in the world’s justice institutions. Mis- and dis-information have already started featuring prominently in international justice processes.

It was, however, underlined that the private sector has the tools, people, and knowledge to provide solutions and international institutions now feel that they should create ways and means to formulate partnerships between the private sector, tech sector, and international accountability mechanisms to address these challenges together. 

In addition, there were efforts by some Members of the United Nations to draw attention to the alleged crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other ethno-religious minorities in Xinjiang in China, there was also reference to the on-going conflict in the Ukraine and the human rights consequences taking place there.

However, discussion also took place subsequently around the situation in Syria and 12 years of suffering by the Syrian people for human rights abuses and other international crimes. The emphasis on this aspect was provided by representatives of Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Qatar, and members of Syrian civil society.  Van Schaack also had remarks to share with others. All of them underlined the developments with respect to accountability for crimes committed in Syria.  This matrix according to the participants should include the exercise of national jurisdiction by courts around the world when they are able to assert jurisdiction over members of the current Syrian administration. It was also pointed out that Canada and the Netherlands have initiated proceedings against Syria, alleging state responsibility for violations of the Convention Against Torture and also for Syria’s industrial-grade torture system.

There was also the question of collecting crucial information and evidence by two international mechanisms: (a) International Impartial Independent Mechanism for Syria, and (b) UNITAD, which are devoted to crimes committed by Daesh.  Both of these institutions have been critical in feeding information in and also analysis for accountability exercises in domestic and international courts.

From this point of view many strategists welcomed the renewal of UNITAD’s mandate last week at the Security Council.  It may be recalled that UNITAD has over the years identified its utility in collecting and analysing information about crimes committed by ISIS.  It has assisted Iraq in the exhumation of mass graves containing the remains of Yezidi victims.  It has also trained justice anchors, including holding a training held just towards the third week of September this year with the Iraqi judiciary. Similarly, it is involved in addressing the lack of codification of atrocity crimes, including war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity, in Iraqi domestic law, which has been preventing, at this point, comprehensive accountability. 

However, these measures have underlined that it is clear that UNITAD’s work is not complete.  It will be important for them to work closely with the government of Iraq and other stakeholders to ensure that UNITAD can effectively advance and finalise its mandate while protecting vulnerable witnesses and survivors. The international community needs to be ready to continue the work of UNITAD beyond the upcoming year should the demand remain. 

The atrocities occurring in Darfur and other areas of Sudan have similarly been a threatening reminder of the horrific events that led to the United Sates in 2004 declaring this as genocide in Darfur.  Fighting and violence are gradually getting worse, not only in Darfur but also through indiscriminate bombing, shelling, gender-based violence, and harm to individuals in custody in Khartoum and in North and South Kordofan and other parts of the country.  Lack of justice and accountability is clearly driving the current cycles of violence.  Consequently, discussion participants on Sudan welcomed the high-level side-event aimed at generating and galvanising support for accountability in Sudan.  Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who participated in the discussion, spoke of her recent visit to Chad, where she heard directly from survivors – men, women, children – who have been attempting to flee violence in neighboring Darfur.

Another aspect received particular attention from the participants. It related to conflict-related sexual violence which is devastating for survivors, families, and their communities. The trauma and stigma that survivors experience can exert a long-term negative cross-generational impact.

Reparations in this context can serve as one important accountability tool.  The United States has been taking special interactive action in this regard. For some time now USA has been assisting others and also urging them to be part of the constructive role within the matrix of the Global Survivors Fund and the United Nations community. It has been correctly felt that such a shared effort will assist in exploring the prospect of innovative solutions to finance reparations that will tackle conflict-related sexual violence reparations.

Before concluding one needs to remember that the United Nations (UN) is not only a multilateral governmental agency with universally accepted international authority for universal human rights legislation but also that all UN organs have advisory roles within the context of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and also the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). There are also other Committees within the UN with responsibilities for safeguarding different human rights treaties. The most senior body of the UN in this regard is the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Article 1-3 of the Charter of the United Nations also clearly states that the United Nations has an international mandate to- “…achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”.

The UNHRC, created in 2005, is based in Geneva and has a mandate to investigate alleged human rights violations. 47 of the 193 UN Member States sit on the UNHRC, which is elected by simple majority in a secret ballot of the UNGA. Members serve a maximum of six years and may have their membership suspended for gross human rights abuses. The HRC meets three times a year; with provision for additional meetings to respond to urgent situations. Independent experts are retained by the UNHRC to investigate alleged human rights abuses and to report to the Council. It also needs to be remembered that the Human Rights Council may request that the Security Council refer cases to the ICC (the International Criminal Court) but that is where it gets stuck as we have seen in the case of the Rohingyas who have fled from Myanmar and then taken shelter in adjoining Bangladesh. The use of Veto greatly complicates the scenario.

It is good that this time there were encouraging discussions but we need to try and reach solutions that can and should be implemented.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

[email protected]

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