Letter to UN Human Rights Council members on atrocity prevention priorities at the Council’s 54th session – Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

Your Excellency,

On behalf of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, I am writing to you regarding the 54th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva.

The HRC plays an essential role in the prevention of mass atrocity crimes by responding to situations where populations are at risk of, or are experiencing, genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing. During its 44th session in July 2020 the HRC adopted Resolution 44/14 on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), recognizing the important contribution of the UN human rights system in addressing situations where there is a risk of atrocity crimes being committed. This is in line with the Council’s prevention mandate, enshrined in General Assembly Resolution 60/251, which stipulates that it shall “contribute, through dialogue and cooperation, towards the prevention of human rights violations and respond promptly to human rights emergencies.”

We strongly urge you, as a current member of the HRC, to uphold this shared commitment to prevent atrocity crimes. The Global Centre respectfully encourages you to consider the following recommendations as you engage in the 54th regular session:

Afghanistan

Since the Taliban de facto authorities took over Afghanistan two years ago, they have perpetuated extreme forms of gender-based discrimination against women and girls through implementation of restrictive policies and practices that deny them of their human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of movement, freedom of opinion and expression, employment opportunities, political and public representation, and access to education and healthcare. These restrictions are in flagrant violation of their obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The Taliban de facto authorities have also committed widespread and systematic human rights violations throughout the country, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, incommunicado detention and torture and ill-treatment against former government officials and armed forces, media workers and human rights defenders. From 15 August 2021 to 30 May 2023, over 3,774 civilians were killed or wounded mostly in attacks with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) attributed to the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K). Attacks by ISIL-K frequently target ethnic and religious minorities, including Hazara Shias, other Shia Muslims, Sufi Muslims, Sikhs and other minorities. Attacks on places of worship have increased since the Taliban forcibly took over Afghanistan. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan reported in September 2022 that attacks against ethnic and religious minorities appear to be systematic in nature and reflect elements of an organizational policy, likely amounting to crimes against humanity.

In June 2023 the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls reported that the Taliban de facto authorities’ targeting of women and girls may amount to gender persecution and can be characterized as gender apartheid as the Taliban appear to be governing by systemic discrimination with the intent to subject women and girls to total domination. The Global Centre urges you to adopt a resolution that strengthens the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan with additional resources to maintain scrutiny on the human rights situation and to ensure robust investigation and evidence collection. The Global Centre also urges you to ensure the resolution condemns violations of CEDAW and reiterates the need for member states to collectively uphold its provisions and ensure accountability for such violations.

Burundi

Burundi has endured a protracted political crisis since the late President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would seek a third presidential term in 2015. Since then, the government has persecuted alleged government opponents and civil society activists in a context of pervasive impunity. The HRC-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Burundi found that potential crimes against humanity have been committed since April 2015, including extrajudicial killings and summary executions, disappearances, sexual violence, arbitrary detention and torture. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi, Fortuné Gaetan Zongo, as well as numerous civil society organizations have further documented systematic human rights violations and abuses over the past eight years. To date, no officials have been held accountable. On 6 July Special Rapporteur Zongo warned that the monopolization of state power, including control of economic resources, and the political instrumentalization of state institutions constitutes a key factor that inhibits a return to lasting peace. He further noted that intolerance and repression of civil liberties has resulted in the shrinking of civic space, weakening of opposition political parties, self-censorship by the media for fear of reprisals, and arbitrary arrests of political opponents and civil society actors. It has also caused opponents, media and civil society organizations who previously fled to remain in exile.

Ongoing serious human rights violations and abuses and the government’s refusal to engage with the UN human rights system require continued and robust international scrutiny. The Global Centre therefore respectfully urges you, as a minimum outcome, to adopt a resolution to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur. The resolution should also ensure that the Special Rapporteur receives adequate resources and support to carry out his mandate. This is in line with a joint NGO call released on 25 August. We further encourage you to ensure that the resolution recalls that the primary responsibility to protect its population from crimes against humanity lies with the Burundian government.

Central African Republic

For more than two years a loose alliance of predatory armed groups, known as the Coalition des patriotes pour le changement, have perpetrated violence and atrocities in the Central African Republic (CAR). The Central African Armed Forces (FACA) – working closely with Russian security partners, including mercenary fighters from a private security company, the Wagner Group – have responded with counter-offensives, forcing armed groups to withdraw from major cities. Consequently, there has been a resurgence of armed group activity in the north, southeast and west. In March a predominantly ethnic Azande armed group emerged in Haut-Mbomou, forcibly recruiting Azande youth and utilizing Azande ethnonationalist rhetoric. Since then, the group has violently clashed with a predominantly Fulani armed group, exacerbating inter-communal tensions in Haut Mbomou prefecture. Myriad armed groups are also fighting to regain control of former strongholds in northern CAR, leaving civilians at risk.

The UN has documented evidence of abuses and violations perpetrated by FACA and mercenaries during counteroffensives that may amount to war crimes, including summary executions, arbitrary killings, torture, rape and forced disappearances. These forces have increasingly perpetrated targeted attacks against ethnic and religious minorities, particularly Muslim and Fulani communities. During July the UN Independent Expert on the human rights situation in CAR, Yao Agbetse, reported that “Russian bilateral forces” have committed widespread torture, rape and killings and continue to impede the freedom of movement of the UN peacekeeping mission in CAR (MINUSCA).

Near-complete impunity has enabled ongoing violence and alleged serious human rights violations and abuses, some of which may amount to atrocity crimes. In this regard, the Independent Expert, who works closely with MINUSCA, the Special Criminal Court and other UN bodies, is essential for supporting accountability and transitional justice mechanisms to help prevent further atrocities. The Global Centre respectfully encourages you to adopt a resolution to renew the mandate of the Independent Expert and to support the inclusion of R2P language in the resolution by “recalling that the authorities of the Central African Republic have the primary responsibility to protect all populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” We also respectfully encourage you to call on the Independent Expert to conduct risk assessments on structural risk factors for atrocity crimes, particularly on shrinking civic space and the propagation of hate speech and provide regular public reporting on his findings.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Recurrent attacks by armed groups have threatened populations in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for more than 30 years. Violence has escalated despite government and regional efforts to confront predatory armed groups, many of whom regularly perpetrate widespread violations and abuses that may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. According to the UN Joint Human Rights Office in the DRC, in the first six months of 2023, an average of nine civilians were killed daily in Ituri, North Kivu, and South Kivu provinces, with armed groups responsible for 95 percent of the documented fatalities – more than double the number in the same period of 2022. During military operations, some members of the government’s armed forces have been implicated in violations and abuses, some of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. During March High Commissioner Türk reported on systematic efforts to prevent journalists and civil society actors from investigating allegations involving the security forces, particularly in conflict areas. Recurring inter-communal violence in the western provinces also continues to pose a grave human rights and protection threat. Amidst armed conflict and inter-communal violence, the government has cracked down on dissent and infringed on the rights to physical integrity, freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association ahead of the December 2023 general elections.

The Global Centre respectfully encourages you to renew the mandate of the International Team of Experts on the DRC for a period of one year, requesting that the Team provide technical assistance to national authorities to combat impunity. We also encourage you to call upon the Team to regularly report on ongoing violations and abuses in the conflict-affected provinces of the eastern DRC, including possible atrocity crimes, and to conduct risk assessments on warning signs of atrocity crimes ahead of the elections and provide regular public reporting and recommendations to the HRC in this regard.

Ethiopia

Despite a November 2022 Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) populations in the Tigray, Afar and Amhara regions of Ethiopia remain at risk of further atrocity crimes by different configurations of armed groups. During the two-year conflict, civilians in northern Ethiopia endured possible war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing amidst fighting between the Ethiopian federal forces and their allies and forces loyal to the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front. Thousands of civilians were killed while millions remain displaced and in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Despite the CoHA, there have been continuing reports of serious violations and abuses of international law, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, unlawful killings and forced displacement, among others in areas of Tigray.

Since the federal government announced its plans to integrate regional security forces into the police or national army, tensions have risen in the Amhara region, culminating in violence and protests. On 4 August the Ethiopian government declared a six-month state of emergency in Amhara following the months of unrest and clashes between a local informal militia, known as fano, and national forces.

Since beginning its mandate in December 2021, the HRC-mandated the International Commission of Human Right Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) has been unable to conduct on-site visits to the conflict zone or access refugees in Sudan and remains underfunded and understaffed. The conditions have not improved following the CoHA and limited progress has been made toward national reconciliation and transitional justice. Despite these challenges, the ICHREE has made crucial assessments of the human rights situation in Ethiopia. The ICHREE remains the only international mechanism dedicated to the documentation, collection and preservation of evidence for abuses in northern Ethiopia, which remains crucial to ensuring perpetrators of atrocities are held accountable. Therefore, the Global Centre respectfully encourages you to adopt and support a resolution to renew the ICHREE’s mandate in full. We also encourage you to ensure that the resolution stresses that “the government of Ethiopia has the primary responsibility to protect its population from war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Somalia

Populations in Somalia remain at risk of atrocity crimes amidst ongoing conflict and attacks perpetrated by armed extremist groups, particularly Al-Shabaab, and the forces combating them. According to the UN Secretary-General, at least 382 civilians were killed between 23 August 2022 and 7 February 2023, representing a 153 percent increase compared to the previous reporting period. The majority were killed in mass-casualty attacks perpetrated by Al-Shabaab using IEDs. In the final quarter of 2022 civilians made up 65 percent of the victims of IED attacks.

Populations continue to face risks of the predations of various armed groups amid the drawdown of the AU Transitional Mission to Somalia (ATMIS) while the Federal Government of Somalia attempts to build capacity to adequately protect civilians. The Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Somalia plays a crucial role in assisting the Federal Government in addressing these challenges. The Global Centre therefore respectfully encourages you to renew the mandate of the Independent Expert and support the inclusion of R2P language in the resolution by recalling that “the Federal Government of Somalia bears the primary responsibility to protect civilians from war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Sudan

Since 15 April 2023 an armed confrontation between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has resulted in thousands of people killed and injured amidst heavy fighting, aerial bombardments and shelling, including in densely populated areas. There have also been reports of armed forces perpetrating widespread sexual and gender-based violence, including rape, as well as reports of forced evictions in Khartoum and other cities. Fighting between the SAF and RSF has triggered an alarming escalation in inter-communal and ethnically motivated violence in various parts of the country, particularly in the Darfur region, where the RSF and Arab affiliated militias are targeting civilians from Massalit and other non-Arab communities on the basis of their ethnic identity, possibly amounting to the crime of genocide.

Following a joint NGO call by 91 organizations, including the Global Centre, on 11 May the HRC convened a Special Session on the human rights impact of the conflict in Sudan and subsequently adopted a resolution that enhances the monitoring and reporting mandates of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and his designated Independent Expert on human rights in Sudan. However, the resolution fell short of establishing a more robust investigative mandate requested by civil society. In light of the human rights crisis in Sudan, and in line with the Council’s prevention mandate, the Global Centre respectfully urges you to explore opportunities and avenues for more robust scrutiny and engagement of the situation in Sudan by the HRC, including through the establishment of an enhanced investigative, monitoring or reporting mechanism which would support the work of the Independent Expert and the High Commissioner. During the interactive dialogue, the Global Centre also urges you to raise awareness about the atrocity risks populations are facing across Sudan, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and possible genocide.

Venezuela

Since its first report in September 2020, the HRC-mandated independent international Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela has continuously warned that the Venezuelan government is committing possible crimes against humanity in an attempt to crush political dissent and combat crime. Over the past year, the government has increased its systematic restriction on civic space and limited the work of human rights defenders, independent media and civil society and union workers. On 24 January 2023 the ruling-party dominated National Assembly provisionally approved draft legislation that essentially criminalized the work of civil society organizations. Since June, ahead of the 2024 presidential elections, as well as parliamentary, municipal and governorship elections in 2025, the government has imposed arbitrary disqualifications against leading opposition candidates. On 15 June the government also announced the replacement of the National Electoral Council, further jeopardizing the upcoming electoral process. Civil society organizations have previously warned that elections constitute a key risk factor for recurrence of crimes against humanity.

A reduction in the number of extrajudicial executions and other violations since the beginning of investigations and public documentation by the FFM suggests a possible deterrent effect of international scrutiny. Increasing engagement by Venezuelan authorities with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Criminal Court (ICC) – including through the planned establishment of an ICC country office – also highlights that the government is receptive to multilateral pressure. However, no structural changes have been implemented to the country’s judiciary, intelligence or security sector and state actors continue to perpetrate systematic abuses, including against human rights defenders. Venezuelan civil society collective Justicia y Verdad has documented that the Venezuelan government has failed to implement recommendations issued by the UN human rights system since at least 2019. The Global Centre therefore encourages you to actively participate in the interactive dialogue on Venezuela, voice your support to the FFM and express concern about the lack of implementation of the recommendations issued by the UN human rights system. The interactive dialogue also provides an opportunity to signal enhanced international scrutiny on intensifying government repression as the country enters a critical pre-electoral phase.

Yemen

Since March 2015 all parties to the conflict in Yemen have perpetrated violations and abuses of international law that may amount to war crimes, including indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling, torture, arbitrary detention and sexual and gender-based violence. More than 19,200 civilians have been killed or maimed as a result of airstrikes by the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led international coalition alone, including over 2,300 children. During October 2021 the HRC abruptly terminated the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts (GEE), the only international independent mechanism dedicated to monitoring international law violations in Yemen. The abrupt termination of the GEE was followed by a dramatic escalation in armed hostilities and indiscriminate bombing, with the Saudi/UAE-led coalition carrying out over 200 air raids per month between October and April 2022. Over 2,050 civilians were killed or injured during this period, including at least 471 due to coalition airstrikes.

Although there has not been a significant escalation in hostilities and no airstrikes have occurred since a six-month truce expired in October 2022, over 1,464 civilians have been killed or injured as occasional clashes continue across several governorates. Patterns of violations against minority communities demonstrate targeted persecution of religious minorities by Houthi security forces.

The ongoing negotiation process between parties to the conflict does not sufficiently address widespread violations and abuses of international law or accountability for previous atrocities. The termination of the GEE entrenched impunity and emboldened all parties to the conflict to continue to commit possible war crimes and other serious violations. In July 2023 over 60 Yemeni civil society organizations released the Yemen Declaration for Justice and Reconciliation, in which they set forth their common vision for achieving justice and reconciliation in Yemen. The Global Centre therefore respectfully urges you to orally express your support for this Declaration in your statements at the upcoming HRC session. The Global Centre further urges you to identify ways the HRC can support the realization of demands set forth in the Declaration, as well as request potential assessments of the extent of civilian harm in Yemen and feasibility studies on the ways in which the UN system could help address such harm.

Interactive Dialogues on country-situations at risk of, or experiencing, atrocity crimes

During its 54th session, the HRC will discuss numerous other atrocity situations. We respectfully urge your delegation to actively participate in the interactive dialogues with the High Commissioner and the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, on the High Commissioner’s report and with the Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua, with the CoI on Ukraine, with the High Commissioner on his report on Haiti, as well as his oral update on technical assistance and capacity building for South Sudan. During the General Debate under Item 4, we respectfully urge your delegation to note that possible atrocity crimes are also currently being committed in Cameroon, the Central Sahel, Syria and Nigeria, and that the international community must do more to uphold its collective responsibility to protect.

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