Spotlighting Human Rights Violations in Six Countries, Including Ethiopia, Ukraine, Third Committee Denounces War Crimes, Sexual Violence, Shrinking Civic Space

Some Delegates Laud Reporting Mechanisms, Others Bemoan Lack of Objectivity, Bias

Special rapporteurs and independent experts addressing human rights situations in the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Belarus, Ethiopia, Burundi, and Eritrea defended their methods and mandates amid a chorus of opposition during interactive dialogues today with the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural), while they warned of severe human rights violations, war crimes and disappearing civic space in those countries.

In the morning, Mohamed Chande Othman, Chair of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, recalled wide-ranging atrocities committed by all parties to the conflict in Ethiopia since 2020.  He expressed regret that the Commission has not been granted access to Ethiopia since its initial visit in 2022.

Despite the ceasefire between the Government and Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Eritrean troops and the Amhara militia remain present in the Tigray region and continue to commit atrocities against civilians, including rape and sexual violence against women and girls, he said.  The Human Rights Council’s decision to discontinue the International Commission’s mandate and terminate the African Union’s Commission of Inquiry means there is no longer any trusted independent mechanism investigating atrocities in Ethiopia.  Many victims “feel abandoned by the international community” he said.

Addressing the report, the delegate of Ethiopia denounced it as “substandard and deficient”, political, and a disservice to human rights.  It contradicts findings made by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, he added, stressing that it is the prerogative of States to investigate and address human rights violations within a sovereign territorial jurisdiction.  He expressed profound regret that the International Commission does not recognize the tremendous progress the country has made in the preceding period.

During an ensuing interactive dialogue, many delegates expressed regret that the International Commission’s mandate was discontinued and deep concern with ongoing human rights violations as well as the Government’s approach to transitional justice.  Others echoed their Ethiopian colleague, maintaining that individual States bear the responsibility for the protection of human rights.

The representative of Iceland urged the Government to pursue a credible and inclusive transitional justice process, while the representative of Switzerland insisted on the need for a credible and transparent investigation of ongoing human rights violations in Ethiopia.

The representative of the Russian Federation stressed that the creation of a separate International Commission within the Human Rights Council is unnecessary.  A final settlement is only possible through constructive negotiations that account for the concerns of all parties based on the principle of “African solutions to African problems”.  The representative of Zambia, speaking on behalf of the African Group, reaffirmed the responsibility of States to preserve the implementation of human rights and the importance of using the universal periodic review, opposing the politicization of human rights.

Next briefing the Committee, Gaetan Zongo,Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi, rightfully anticipated similar rejections to his work and mandate on principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity.  He said Burundi has substantial room for progress in human rights noting that weak institutions are instrumentalized to commit human rights violations, while the legal system is wrought with executive interference and corruption.  The national human rights institution in the country only echoes official political points, while media and civil society actors are subject to threats and harassment.  His requests for mandate holder visits have gone without reply, in great contrast to the country’s open invitation to them in 2013, he said.  In the afternoon, Mariana Katzarova, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Russian Federation, said that despite the State party’s attempts to hinder her work, almost 200 sources in and outside of the country lent support to her report, which details the rapid deterioration of the human rights situation since Moscow’s full-scale armed attack against Ukraine on 24 February 2022.  “Independent civic space no longer exists in Russia,” she said, highlighting systematic dismantling of human rights organizations by labelling them as “foreign agents”.

Meanwhile, the Government saturates the media that has not been shut with war propaganda and incitement of hatred against Ukrainians, she said.  The most severe clamp-down is reserved for those who demonstrate solidarity with Ukrainians, she added, lamenting that over 20,000 people were detained between February 2022 and June 2023 over their participation in peaceful anti-war protests.  Victims of human rights violations within the country have little prospect of accountability, she said, adding that the Russian Federation must bear responsibility for its violations of international law.  In the ensuing interactive dialogue, delegates expressed grave concern for the deteriorating human rights situation in the Russian Federation, while others rejected the creation of mechanisms and politically motivated resolutions with respect to specific countries citing double standards and politization.

Ukraine’s delegate said the Kremlin regime wages war not only against her country but against its own citizens.  She raised serious concern over Moscow’s propaganda, which incites hatred and violence against Ukrainians, noting that the rejection of Ukraine’s existence as a State, along with the deportation of Ukrainian children to the Russian Federation “find clear definition in the genocide convention”.

Echoing her point, Georgia’s delegate recalled that torture, kidnapping, arbitrary detention, and violation of the right to education were status quo for decades when the Russian Federation occupied her country’s territory.  This continued wave of ethnic cleansing must end, she said.

To counter, the representative of Venezuela called for all unilateral coercive measures against the Russian Federation and other countries to be lifted.  Agreeing, China’s delegate warned that certain countries have politicized and instrumentalized human rights issues, interfering in the internal affairs of other States, and undermining the credibility of UN human rights work.  Erik Møse, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, presented its latest report, which concludes that Moscow has continued to commit war crimes in Ukraine, including torture, wilful killings, rape and other sexual violence, and the deportation of children.  Mandated to investigate all allegations of crimes, the Commission confirmed three cases in which Ukrainian authorities committed human rights violations against persons accused of collaboration with Russian Federation authorities.  Carrying out field work in Ukraine, the Commission met with survivors of a missile attack by the Russian Federation’s armed forces, which hit a residential building in Uman city, on 28 April 2023, killing 24 civilians, mainly women and children.

Continuing, he said a lack of access to areas occupied by Russian Federation authorities has hindered investigations, expressing deep concern by the geographical spread, frequency and gravity of crimes and violations by Russian Federation authorities.  Against this backdrop, he underscored that thorough investigations and accountability for all violations and crimes are paramount, noting the importance of both judicial and non-judicial accountability.

Interactive Dialogues — Human Rights in Ethiopia

The Committee began the day with interactive dialogues featuring presentations by Mohamed Chande Othman, Chair of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia; Fortuné Gaetan Zongo, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi; and Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea.

Mr. OTHMAN  said a year has passed since his Commission last addressed this Committee.  Just days later the federal Government and Tigray People’s Liberation Front signed a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement meant to end one of the twentieth-first century’s deadliest conflicts.  Yet, early optimism has since given way to deep concern over lack of its full implementation, as the country appears to be spiralling into renewed conflict and instability.  The Commission presented its latest, and now final, report to the Human Rights Council.  It described wide-ranging atrocities committed by all parties to the conflict in Ethiopia since 3 November 2020, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.  He expressed regret that the Commission was not given access to Ethiopia after its initial visit to Addis Ababa in July 2022.

Even with the signing of the Agreement, Eritrean troops and the Amhara militia remain present in the Tigray region and continue to commit atrocities against civilians, including rape and sexual violence against women and girls.  The establishment of a Command Post system in Amhara — a militarized governance structure — and increased securitization in the region is especially alarming.  Such structures in other regional States have been accompanied by serious human rights violations.  In a recently published report, the Commission concluded that the situation in Ethiopia exhibits most of the indicators for future atrocities identified in the UN Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes. In addition to ongoing conflict and instability across the country, the Ethiopian Government and forces under its control have a clear record of committing serious violations as well as the continued capacity to commit atrocity crimes — as do the Eritrean forces still present in Ethiopia, regional State and non-state armed groups, and militias. 

There are significant weaknesses in State structures tasked with ensuring accountability for serious violations and abuses and an absence of mitigating factors, which could help prevent future atrocity crimes. This includes extremely restricted civic space, as human rights defenders, including journalists, face arrest, detention, harassment and other reprisals.  The Government has begun a transitional justice process, and earlier this year initiated public consultations with a view to developing a national transitional justice policy.  After a careful review, the Commission has found the process seriously deficient and failing to comply with African Union and international standards. The Human Rights Council’s decision to discontinue this Commission’s mandate and terminate the African Union’s Commission of Inquiry means that there is no longer any trusted independent mechanism — whether domestic, regional or international — investigating atrocities in Ethiopia. 

Victims are devastated by the decision, he said, adding “many told us they feel abandoned by the international community”.  It is essential that other organizations and United Nations institutions enhance their monitoring, reporting, evaluation and advocacy on the human rights situation in Ethiopia.  This includes the General Assembly, Secretary-General, Human Rights Council, High Commissioner for Human Rights, Special Procedures mandate holders and overall multilateral system.  Individual Member States also have an important responsibility, which might include the use of universal jurisdiction.

When the floor opened for questions and comments, the representative of Ethiopia said it is essential to emphasize that States bear the primary responsibility to uphold human rights and their protection and fulfilment.  Similarly, it is the sovereign prerogative of States to investigate and address human rights violations within a sovereign territorial jurisdiction.  This should be underlined in all multilateral settings. As a State party to major international and regional human rights treaties and conventions, Ethiopia submits its universal periodic review regularly, and its Constitution underscores the protection of human rights and freedoms.  The Government fulfils its international obligations.  Since the African Union-facilitated Agreement signed on 2 November 2022, Ethiopia has redoubled its efforts to consolidate peace, ensure accountability and redress violations of human rights. Yet he expressed profound regret that the International Commission does not recognize the tremendous progress the country has made in the preceding period.

The International Commission’s findings were compiled based on a highly questionable approach from remote locations, he said.  They have “grossly mischaracterized the positive political developments”, he said.  It also contradicts the findings made by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.  He is not surprised that the International Commission has produced another substandard and deficient political report that does a great disservice to human rights.  To protect human rights, the Government has set up an interministerial task force that the International Commission forgot to mention.  It will oversee the implementation of the recommendations of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and OCHA joint investigation report.

In the ensuing dialogue, many delegates expressed their regret that the International Commission’s mandate has not been renewed and their deep concern with ongoing human rights violations and the Government’s approach to transitional justice.  Yet many other delegates maintained that individual States bear the responsibility for the protection of human rights within their territory and the International Commission is no longer needed.

Expressing regret that the International Commission’s mandate was not renewed, the representative of Iceland urged the Government to pursue a credible and inclusive transitional justice process, asking what the international community should look for to determine if the Government’s transitional justice efforts are effective.  Echoing this sentiment, the representative of Switzerland insisted on the need for a credible and transparent investigation of ongoing human rights violations and asked what measures could be taken to better protect human rights in Ethiopia.

The representative of the European Union, in its capacity as observer, said his delegation joins the African Union and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission in calling for the protection of civilians and supports the Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission as it organizes a constructive dialogue process.  As recommended by the International Commission, the establishment and implementation of a robust transitional justice framework is essential.

Among those delegates supporting the International Commission’s termination, the representative of Cameroon said artificial divisions between States will not improve human rights situations and “national solutions to national problems” are needed.  The representative of the Russian Federation said the creation of a separate International Commission within the Human Rights Council, as a permanent mechanism for gathering facts, is not necessary.  A final settlement is only possible through constructive negotiations that account for the concerns of all parties based on the principle of “African solutions to African problems”.  The representative of Zambia, speaking on behalf of the African Group, reaffirmed the responsibility of States to preserve the implementation of human rights and the importance of using the universal periodic review.  He opposed the politicization of human rights.  Aligning himself with Zambia, the representative of Zimbabwe confirmed the importance of dialogue and cooperation and non-interference in the affairs of States.  The delegation does not support country-specific reports purely on principle.

Several delegates used the dialogue to express their opposition to interference in the internal affairs of a State.  The representative of Cuba said these exercises are selective processes and double standards do not contribute to the promotion of human rights.  Cooperation and dialogue are the best ways to protect human rights in all countries. Echoing that view, the representative of Nicaragua said her delegation opposes the use of the human rights agenda to interfere in the affairs of individual States.  The representative of China supports the African Union’s role to “settle African issues in the African way”.  He opposed country-specific mechanisms.

Responding to the comments, the representative of Ethiopia said he was grateful to the delegates who understood and praised the Agreement that was “an African solution to an African problem”.  He said the Government’s transitional justice process is a highly consultive process being carried out across the nation.  It is based on the African Union’s Transitional Justice Policy Framework.  He said the Government will work with relevant regional and international organizations, including the United Nations.

Responding to delegates’ concerns, STEVEN RATNER, member of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, said the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia’s north is deeply concerning, noting that the scale of sexual violence is enormous.  There remains the risk of atrocity crimes in the future, he said, adding that the International Commission is seriously concerned with the prevalence of these crimes and weak State structures.  He acknowledged some of the Government’s positive steps in creating a complex transitional justice process.  Yet the International Commission maintains significant reservations based on its conversation with victims and is concerned with the credibility of the process.  The International Commission has outlined some immediate steps that the Government can take, such as issuing public orders to State security forces.  Going forward, the international community can assist the process by observing the work being done, he said, noting that there are important roles to be played by the African Union and OCHA.  While appreciating the Government’s hard work, he said certain actions have been more about avoiding international scrutiny than upholding standards.  He expressed hope that the Security Council and General Assembly will consider these points.

Human Rights in Burundi

Mr. ZONGO, anticipating interventions by delegations rejecting his report on the situation of human rights in Burundi (document A/78/204) and mandate on principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity, underscored the importance of his work, as Burundi has substantial room for progress in human rights.  Its nomination as a member of the Human Rights Council does not exempt the country from human rights obligations, but provides an opportunity to lift its standards in this regard, he said.  Highlighting improvements in the country, he said Burundi’s border with Rwanda has been reopened, the Government completed its fourth Universal Periodic Review in 2023 and the Supreme Court has voided the five-year prison sentences for the lawyer Tony Germain Nkina as well as his client Apollinaire Hitimana.  Further, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has approved a $271 million loan to address long-term needs and the country’s balance of payments and to deal with the fallout of financial shocks, both in and outside the country.

Such developments should not indicate that the human rights situation has substantially improved, he stressed, noting that challenges remain enormous.  Weak institutions are used as tools for human rights violations, while a lack of control by the National Intelligence Service has had drastic effects on human rights in detention.  Further, the Service undermines domestic security by mounting lawsuits for “rebellion”, while in most cases the targeted are carrying out legal political or social activities, he said.  Challenges also remain for the country’s legal system and its lack of oversight, which has led to executive interference and corruption.  Moreover, the judicial system must be reformed entirely.  Voicing concern that the national human rights institution in the country only echoes official political points, while media and civil society actors are subject to threats and harassment, he recalled his recommendation in the report that the Global Association of National Human Rights Institutions re-evaluate the status for Burundi’s institution in line with the Paris Principles.  While his requests for mandate holder visits have gone without reply — in 2013, Burundi sent out a permanent, open invitation to human rights mandate holders — he voiced hope that the human rights situation will improve, recalling a better situation before former President Pierre Nkurunziza’s third term in 2015.  The international community can act to prevent violence before, during and after upcoming elections in 2025, he said, calling for it to support Burundians both in and outside the country.  Dialogue and cooperation must remain focused on the interests of the people of Burundi, he said.

Burundi’s delegate reiterated his Government’s firm opposition to any kind of mechanism targeting certain States to the detriment of others without the consent of the State concerned, as it goes against the principles of impartiality, objectivity, transparency and non-selectivity.  He rejected the content of the document in its entirety, noting the useless nature of this human rights mechanism, which is imposed and voted on by all Western countries and rejected by all African countries and other nations that are against politicization of human rights.  It contains deeply defamatory elements against the Burundian people, he said, emphasizing that the UN is an intergovernmental Organization consisting of States and not regimes.  The legitimate Government of Burundi stems from pluralist, peaceful and transparent elections, which were recognized by the international community in its entirety. He further recalled that in 2015, the radical opposition carried out terrorist activities with the sole objective of undermining democratically elected institutions.  The world witnessed attacks in several neighbourhoods of his country’s capital, he said, adding that all over the world, whether in Africa or Europe, Governments use legal means to combat terrorism, and this is not a crime against humanity.

In an ensuing dialogue, many delegates warned against country-specific and politicized human rights agendas, with the representative of Zambia, who spoke on behalf of the African Group, calling for objectivity and non-selectivity in addressing human rights everywhere. Spotlighting the complex challenges the Government of Burundi has faced, he endorsed the country’s candidature to the Human Rights Council.

Adding to that, Venezuela’s delegate rejected the creation of any instrument, report or resolution against a specific country without the consent of its Government, as it constitutes an expression of politicization and selectivity in the treatment of human rights and violates the principles of impartiality, objectivity and transparency.  Instead, he expressed support for the universal periodic review, which constitutes the quintessential instrument for addressing human rights issues, underlining the need to promote dialogue with the countries concerned.

Agreeing, the representative of the Russian Federation highly appreciated Burundi’s efforts to normalize the human rights situation in the country.  The Government is carrying out consistent steps to stabilize the internal political situation, ensuring the safety of citizens.  In this context, he positively assessed the actions of the Burundian authorities aimed at preventing discrimination against national and religious minorities. Despite the difficult socioeconomic situation of the country, its Government is systematically working to facilitate the return of refugees.  Against this background, he considers the criticism against the Burundi authorities “completely unfounded”, calling on Western States to abandon the practice of putting pressure on the Burundian authorities under the pretext of human rights.

Meanwhile, others reiterated their strong support for the Special Rapporteur’s mandate, with the representative of the European Union, in its capacity as observer, expressing concern about persistent allegations of acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, enforced disappearances and unjustified restrictions on fundamental freedoms by State agents, youth movements affiliated to the ruling party and rebel groups.  He underlined the need to ensure political pluralism in view of the coming elections, calling for independent and impartial investigations into all human rights violations and abuses committed in the country.  Further, he urged the Government of Burundi to cooperate fully with the Treaty Committees, special procedures in general and the Special Rapporteur, in particular by allowing the latter to visit the country.

Echoing those concerns, the representative of the United States said that, despite Burundi’s progress in combating trafficking in persons and judicial corruption, the lack of accountability for numerous accounts of reported extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention and other human rights violations by State security forces and their proxies remains concerning.  Accordingly, she called on Burundi to cooperate with UN mechanisms, including the Special Rapporteur on Burundi, and ensure accountability for human rights abuses.  She asked how to best promote judicial independence in the country.

Mr. ZONGO responded that the Human Rights Council gave him the mandate to address the situation of human rights in Burundi, which presupposes that the State concerned cooperates in the process of report preparation.  However, Burundi has systematically rejected such cooperation.  Responding to Burundi’s criticism over the length of the document, he said it may be a brief document but is a summary of a summary. On politicization, he said that the mandate has the legitimacy of the Human Rights Council, which is a UN body. On ways to help Burundi in implementing the report’s recommendations, he stressed the need for political will and technical assistance.

Human Rights in Eritrea

Mr. BABIKER, presenting his report (document A/78/244), said that, since his briefing last year, there has been no progress in the human rights situation in Eritrea.  The Cessation of Hostilities Agreement signed between the Government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in November 2022 has not had the positive impact that could be expected. In fact, he has observed deterioration regarding the system of indefinite national military service, further compounding the already dire internal human rights situation in the country. Eritrean troops have not been demobilized, and the roundup of men, women and children for military conscription continues unabated.  He has further documented the use of coercive practices, which include applying collective punishments on entire families and communities to force individuals to join the Eritrean Defence Forces.  This includes detaining family members, including vulnerable persons such as elder parents or pregnant women, evicting the families of those who refuse to fight and even destroying their homes. 

Thousands of Eritreans are estimated to have lost their lives in the Tigray conflict, he said, adding that almost a year after the signature of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, Eritrean families are still waiting to hear from their loved ones.  Calling on Eritrea to urgently notify their families about their fates, he said “they deserve to know”.  Considering the central role of Eritrean forces in the commission of human rights and humanitarian law violations in Tigray — including the perpetration of large-scale massacres, sexual and gender-based violence, obstruction of humanitarian assistance, destruction of humanitarian infrastructure, kidnapping and attacks against refugees — it is crucial for the sustainability of peace in Ethiopia and the region that these crimes do not remain in impunity.

The continued presence of the Eritrean Defence Forces in disputed areas in Ethiopia, as well as the presence of a large contingent of Eritrean Defence Forces along the Eritrean-Ethiopian border is of great concern, he said.  Moreover, the repression of freedom of religion or belief has escalated, with renewed waves of mass arrests of people of faith and attempts to control and interfere in all aspects of religious life, both in Eritrea and in the diaspora. “Civic space remains completely closed,” he said, noting that Eritrea is a single-party State, where no political groups, movements or civil society are allowed to organize.  Eritreans have no avenues to participate in decision-making in their own country, with hundreds of journalists, political opponents, artists, people of faith and draft evaders being subjected to grave human rights violations, including enforced disappearance, torture and arbitrary detention in inhuman or degrading conditions, in some cases over prolonged periods of time spanning several decades. 

He also highlighted the plight of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers, who face perilous journeys to safety and are often subjected to grave human rights violations along the way.  According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 577,000 Eritreans had sought asylum as of the end of 2022.  There were over 130,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers in Sudan at the onset of the conflict on 15 April 2023.  A large proportion of them have been displaced again, facing violence, heightened difficulties to move safely and the increased activity of human trafficking networks in the region.  Pointing to several reports about missing Eritrean refugees, he raised alarm that they may have been kidnapped by traffickers or by the Eritrean authorities.  He emphasized that Eritrean asylum seekers may be subjected to grave human rights violations at their return to Eritrea, namely arbitrary detention, torture and inhuman or degrading conditions, and indefinite conscription in the national service, a practice “analogous to slavery”.  Also, little is known about the fates of the hundreds of Eritreans summarily and collectively deported from Ethiopia at the end of June, in violation of the non-refoulement principle.  He further underscored that Eritrea continues its policy of non-cooperation with the Human Rights Council’s own Special Procedures and with other human rights mechanisms, including UN treaty bodies, and he called its Government to cooperate with his mandate.

In the ensuing interactive dialogue, the delegate for Eritrea said her country has been targeted through politically motivated country-specific resolutions and mechanisms in the Human Rights Council for over a decade.  She noted that, once again, the Committee is presented with a flawed report by the Special Rapporteur.  It repeats many of the same unsubstantiated allegations that have characterized the report since 2012.  The underlying purpose and objectives of the reports were, and remain, the vilification, isolation and destabilization of the country for wider political aims, she said. These reports continue to ignore key contextual factors and deliberately downplay Eritrea’s earnest progress and achievements.  Ensuring social justice and the dignity and welfare of all citizens is the foundation of all policies and laws in Eritrea, as enshrined in the National Charter, national policies and regulations.

The delegate called on the Special Rapporteur to accept responsibility for submitting a fallacious report in violation of the principles of accountability, in which the principles of independence, impartiality and objectivity are compromised.  It is marred by extreme bias, selectivity and partiality, and Eritrea’s exemplary customs and traditions of ethnic and religious respect and tolerance are grossly misrepresented.  Further, the Special Rapporteur has failed in his duties to collect objective information from a wide range of primary and secondary sources.  While it recently celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world remains unjust and unequal.  The politicization of human rights only further aggravates the dire state of current affairs.  The world needs a sound system that truly works for the improvement of human rights for all, she said.

Following on from issues raised by Eritrea, numerous delegates rejected the use of country-specific measures that underlie the report.  The delegate for Venezuela said such reports violate the principles of impartiality, objectivity, transparency, non-politicization, non-confrontation, equality and mutual respect.  The representative of Cuba said such exercises are used as tools of pressure against the South, in response to hegemonic and politically motivated interests.

The representative of Zambia, speaking on behalf of the African Group, called the country-specific approach counterproductive and confrontational, noting that it fails to achieve a meaningful outcome in protecting and promoting human rights. Further, the African Group takes the view that positive engagement and cooperation can be effective means for promoting human rights in all countries and reaffirms its commitment to enhancing constructive international cooperation.

On a similar note, the delegate for China said his country opposes the use of human rights as a political tool to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs.  Taking up the theme, the delegate for Cameroon said her country believes in national solutions to national problems and emphasized the capacity of Eritrea to find its own solutions.

Further, the representative of Pakistan said that, rather than selective targeting of countries like Eritrea, the international community should assist developing countries in implementing their international human rights obligations.  The representatives of Belarus and South Sudan said the appropriate intergovernmental mechanism for addressing human rights issues is the universal periodic review in the Human Rights Council.

The representative of the European Union, in its capacity as observer, said large numbers of people continue to be arbitrarily detained, and many Eritreans remain disappeared, calling for their cases to be addressed.  He asked what new opportunities there are for progress in the enjoyment and protection of human rights in Eritrea.

The delegate for the United States said her country remains deeply concerned by continued reports of unlawful killings, disappearances, torture, unjust detentions and undue or unjust restrictions on freedom of expression.  She asked what efforts the United Nations should be taking to secure the release of the 16 journalists whom Eritrea has unjustly kept in indefinite detention, many for more than 20 years.

Mr. BABIKER responded that he sought to engage in a constructive dialogue with Eritrea, although his calls and letters went unanswered.

In response to assertions that his report is based on non-credible data, he said that he follows and implements a code of conduct in his methodology.  What is actually affecting the integrity of the system is the politicization of the human rights system by Member States, he said.

With respect to sourcing, he referred to the case of detained journalists mentioned in his report.  He reminded members of the African Group that the submission in that case was made through the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which he noted is an African mechanism.

Further, he hopes that country representatives who spoke in this session, among them Cameroon, Sudan, Algeria, Mali, Burundi and South Sudan, will engage constructively with the Eritrean Government to address human rights concerns.

In response to the European Union’s question, he expressed hope that Member States will encourage Eritrea to cooperate with his mandate and implement recommendations made since 2012 by different Special Rapporteurs about the appalling human rights situation in Eritrea.

Given the floor for a final comment, the delegate for Eritrea said it is entirely untrue to assert that the Eritrean Government employs coercive measures against families in connection with national service or other issues.  Further, the claim that Eritrea is not engaged with African human rights mechanisms is not based on facts.  In talking about Eritrea’s role in the conflict in Ethiopia, he also goes beyond his mandate.

Human Rights in Belarus

In the afternoon, the Committee further elaborated on the theme “Promotion and protection of human rights”, with interactive dialogues featuring presentations by Anaïs Marin, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus; Mariana Katzarova, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Russian Federation; and Erik Møse, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine.

Ms. MARIN presented her report on the situation of human rights in Belarus (document A/78/327).  Its main findings show that the authorities have been labelling and prosecuting as terrorists or extremists all those who dare to speak up against the Government and its violations of human rights law.  The scope of the death penalty has been extended to include loosely defined crimes of planned or attempted acts of terrorism.  Capital punishment can now be applied against State officials and military personnel convicted of high treason.  In addition, a seven-year term of imprisonment has been introduced for propaganda of terrorism or its public justification.  Dozens of individuals who have sought to document or obstruct the transit through Belarusian territory of Russian troops and military equipment for the war in Ukraine have been convicted of terrorism.  When it comes to fighting extremism, the law was amended to close public space for the free expression of any dissenting opinion.  This allowed for the prosecution for extremism of opposition-minded civil society activists and politicians, human rights defenders, lawyers, independent journalists, academics and cultural workers. The weaponization of the law is possible because of the absence of fair trial guarantees.  The presumption of defendants’ innocence is always violated. Individuals accused of crimes who reside abroad can now be tried in absentia online, although defendants in exile have reported being systematically denied the possibility to participate.  Additionally, if convicted of extremist activities or damaging the interests of Belarus, these exiles can now be stripped of their citizenship.

Pro-government media are systematically labelling as extremists anyone who participated in protests following the contested 2020 election, including journalists, human rights defenders who offer legal assistance to detained protesters and those who raised funds in support of their families, she said.  Those accused of involvement in so-called extremist activities are systematically harassed, shamed and sanctioned.  Some 3,429 individuals are listed as extremists, she said, adding that the Ministry of Information maintains a list of extremist materials subject to censorship. The list has grown exponentially to include the websites, social network accounts and YouTube or Telegram channels of human rights organizations.  In 2021 alone, 426 such materials were recognized as extremist.  Since 2022, over 1,000 new entries were added, including fiction, poetry and history books.  In recent years, numerous show trials have deterred anyone disagreeing with the authorities from expressing their opinions, while the right to freedom of assembly has been virtually eradicated.  In 2021, a new code of administrative offences came into force, increasing fines and terms of administrative detention for violating the procedure for organizing or holding mass events.  People convicted on extremism charges are shamed and banned from pedagogical activities, publishing and holding Government or elected positions. In some cases, courts have reportedly ordered compulsory treatment in a psychiatric hospital for people charged with extremist activities.  She demanded that all those sentenced to prison terms on politically motivated charges, including alleged extremism or terrorism, be immediately and unconditionally released.

When the floor opened for comments and questions, delegates expressed grave concern over the number and treatment of political prisoners and deported Ukrainian children in the country and asked the Special Rapporteur how to ensure accountability for Belarusian authorities.

The representative of the United States strongly condemned the Lukashenko regime in its attempt to stifle democracy.  Calling for the release of all unjustly imprisoned, she underscored the importance of upholding Belarus’ commitments to fair treatment to those in detention, including access to medical attention and attorneys.  She urged the Government to grant access to the Special Rapporteur and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to conduct assessment visits and end their complicity in the Russian Federation’s war of aggression in Ukraine, as well as the transfer of Ukrainian children to so-called “summer camps”. She asked how the international community can hold Belarus accountable for holding deported children.

The representative of the Netherlands decried the stifling of all forms of opposition and expressed concern over sham trials in Belarus, resulting in long prison sentences.  In addition to the 1,500 political prisoners, many Belarusians who fled the country are targeted abroad with threats to revoke passports or refusal to issue passports abroad.  He asked how European Union member states can support Belarusians against abuses of their Government.

The representative of Poland said that the human rights situation in Belarus is appalling.  A large part of civil society is destroyed, and media remains repressed, she said, expressing concern over Polish nationals in the country, who suffer oppression through the stifling of their culture and language and the demolishing of Polish cemeteries and memorials.  She urged Belarus to release all political prisoners and engage in inclusive national dialogue and stop its militarization of migrants.  She asked what actions can be taken to secure the release of political prisoners.

The representative of Lithuania, speaking on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic countries, voiced concern over the extent of repression with total impunity that civil society is facing in the country. Recent reports indicate large-scale actions by the Belarusian Government to aid in deporting Ukrainian children. He asked how the international community can support accountability mechanisms for victims and survivors.

The representative of Ukraine voiced deep concern over the escalating state of repression against the people of Belarus, noting the rescinding of consular services abroad, constituting a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The Lukashenko regime plays a crucial role in the Russian Federation’s aggression in Ukraine, she said, expressing grave concern for deported children from her country. She called on the Special Rapporteur for her support in holding Belarus accountable and facilitating the deported children’s safe return home.

The representative of the European Union, in its capacity as observer, said three years have passed since the country conducted a widespread crackdown on civil society, targeting media workers, human rights defenders and minorities.  Expressing alarm that the Viasna Human Rights Centre has been designated as an “extremist formation”, she called on the country to release all political prisoners and cease harassment of civil society actors, as well as for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.  She denounced the country’s role as an accomplice to the Russian Federation’s war in Ukraine and the recent deployment of the Wagner Group in Belarus, also voicing alarm over the announced transfer of nuclear warheads into Belarus.  She called on Belarus to stop enabling the Russian Federation’s war and cooperate with all international human rights mechanisms and mandates.  She asked how the UN system can bring Belarus’ counter-terrorism legislation, used to target civil society actors, in line with UN standards.

In response, Ms. MARIN said the adoption of a decree limiting consular services for Belarusians abroad affects the exiled and those abroad alike, including children.  It is a form of discrimination, affecting those who cannot travel back to Belarus to renew a passport either due to physical or financial constraints, she said, inviting host countries of the diaspora to show flexibility to such individuals in issuing alternative travel documents. Continuing, she said accountability is extremely important, especially for the gravest violations, such as torture and forced disappearance.  As accountability cannot take place in Belarus, it might take place in countries for those who recognize universal jurisdiction.  Further, the International Criminal Court has received a referral to qualify the act of deportation as a war crime, she said, adding that Member States can support this action by submitting follow-ups.  Victims of deportation are probably now in the hundreds of thousands.

Civil society activism is dangerous in the country, she said, noting that the international community must trust human rights defenders and organizations on the ground, ensuring no one is endangered through breaches of confidentiality.  While the international community might be able to grant access to the Rapporteur, it would put her at risk of imprisonment, she said, stressing the importance of getting used to the idea that some human rights work must be done from abroad.  This year, Belarus forbade its citizens to call on the Human Rights Council by revoking the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, further restricting their avenues for redress. For lack of access to so-called “summer camps”, she cannot assess deported children’s’ conditions, but the international community can demand access to them to ensure their well-being, she said.

Human Rights in the Russian Federation

Ms. KATSZAROVA, addressing the Committee for the first time in her mandate, said that compiling the report on the human rights situation in the Russian Federation (document A/78/375) was difficult, not only because of the large number of issues addressed, but a lack of cooperation and active attempts to hinder her mandate by the State party.  Denied access to the country, she said that almost 200 sources in and outside of the country lent support to the report, which details the rapid deterioration of the human rights situation since Moscow’s full-scale armed attack against Ukraine on 24 February 2022, along with its roots, which stretch back two decades.  The majority of cases analysed relate to violations such as torture, sexual violence and arbitrary detention for those voicing dissent or anti-war expression, all of which contribute to a climate of fear and rampant impunity in a context of drastically reduced civic space and judicial oversight. 

“Independent civic space no longer exists in Russia,” she said, noting that authorities have shut down all human rights and civil organizations, including the reputable “Moscow Helsinki Group”, by labelling them as “foreign agents” and criminalizing their cooperation with 114 non-governmental or international groups.  To avoid prison, many human rights defenders and journalists work abroad, while others face trial.  Voicing horror over the 500 people arbitrarily detained on politically motivated grounds last year alone, she said figures like Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza have received lengthy prison sentences of up to 25 years following unfair trials.  Charges of espionage are levelled against investigative journalists with no access to State secrets, while charges of “extremism” are levelled against lawyers who dare to take on politically sensitive cases. 

Following the Russian Federation’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, media have been saturated with war propaganda and incitement of hatred against Ukrainians, she said, noting that independent media sources have been closed through charges of “fake news”, “discrediting the army” or being labelled as a “foreign agent” — which may lead to criminal prosecution with heavy prison sentences.  The most severe clamp-down is reserved for those who demonstrate solidarity with Ukrainians, she said, lamenting that over 20,000 people were detained between February 2022 and June 2023 over their participation in peaceful anti-war protests.  Children are not spared.  Primary and secondary schools are required to hold mandatory classes designed to propagate rhetoric inciting hatred and violence against Ukrainians among children while they, their parents and teachers face criminal prosecution if a child expresses dissent. 

Victims of human rights violations within the country have little prospect of accountability, she said, calling on the Russian Federation to engage in constructive dialogue with her mandate.  The country must bear responsibility for its violations of international law, including in the context of the Russian Federation’s war against Ukraine. Finally, urging the international community to encourage the Russian Federation to engage in constructive dialogue to that end, she called for policies to protect the vital work of human rights defenders in and outside of the Russian Federation.

In the ensuing interactive dialogue, numerous delegates highlighted the deteriorating human rights situation in the Russian Federation, with the representative of the European Union, who spoke in its capacity as observer, voicing concern over systematic restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, dramatic shrinking of civic space and increasing persecution of civil society actors.  She strongly condemned the country’s systematic repression against civil society, human rights defenders, members of religious minorities and conscientious objectors, as well as the unabated crackdown on independent media, individual journalists and opposition politicians.  Against this backdrop, she called on the Russian Federation to end the climate of fear and impunity, respect and fulfil its international human rights obligations, and fully cooperate with all UN special procedures related to the human rights situation in the country.

Echoing those concerns, the representative of the Netherlands, aligning with the European Union, said the Russian Federation’s war in Ukraine has intensified the domestic crackdown.  Restrictive measures, including legislation, are being used to target individual critical voices, civil society and independent media alike.  Accordingly, she called on the country to uphold its obligation to protect freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and media freedom.  Further, the extension of the LGBTQ+ propaganda law is a violation of the right of people to autonomy, dignity and equality, she observed, asking how the international community can continue to support these organizations under the current repressive climate.

Along similar lines, the representative of the United States said that, in line with the Kremlin’s intensification of its domestic crackdown on independent voices, virtually all independent media outlets have been forced to close or relocate outside the Russian Federation.  The country now holds hundreds of political prisoners, including Alexei Navalny, she said, calling for their immediate release. She asked how the international community can better amplify the voices of civil society in the country.

Ukraine’s delegate said that the Kremlin regime wages war not only against her country but also against its own citizens. The Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Federation are the most disproportionally targeted.  She raised serious concern over Moscow’s propaganda, which incites hatred and violence against Ukrainians, noting that rejection of Ukraine’s existence as a State along with the deportation of Ukrainian children to the Russian Federation “find clear definition in the Genocide Convention”.

Likewise, Georgia’s delegate said repressive tools are applied in Georgia’s regions by the Russian Federation — the occupying Power — for decades, noting that torture, kidnapping, arbitrary detention and violation of the right to property and education are among those infringements that the population in the occupied regions must endure.  This continued wave of ethnic cleansing must end, she said.

However, many delegates rejected the creation of mechanisms and politically motivated resolutions with respect to specific countries, as they violate the principles of impartiality, objectivity, transparency, non-selectivity, non-politicization and respect for national sovereignty. Among them was Venezuela’s delegate, who called for all unilateral coercive measures against the Russian Federation and other countries to be lifted.

In the same vein, Burundi’s delegate opposed any country-specific mechanism that goes against the principle of equality, impartiality and non-selectivity. The question of human rights must be evaluated fairly and equally, with full respect to national sovereignty, he underscored.

Agreeing, China’s delegate warned that certain countries have politicized and instrumentalized human rights issues, interfering in the internal affairs of other States under the pretext of human rights.  This undermines the credibility of UN human rights work, he said, reiterating his country’s principled position of opposing the establishment of country-specific human rights mechanisms without the consent of the country concerned.  Instead, the international community should respect the sovereignty of the Russian Federation and play a constructive role in its socioeconomic development.

Ms. KATZAROVA responded that “human rights are not an internal matter of a State” and underscored the importance of mandates like hers.  Independent experts can assist Governments in protecting the rights of their people. She outlined ways to provide help to the Russian Federation’s civil society, noting that, in the climate of repression, Government propaganda serves as the only source of information in the country.  The Russian Federation’s delegation is not in the room to engage with her mandate, she said. Turning to individuals who left the country to avoid mobilization, she voiced particular concern over men belonging to ethnic minorities in distinct regions.  Mobilization has sometimes involved torture and ill-treatment, forcing people who refused to participate in the war against Ukraine to join the armed forces.  She called on countries to offer those people temporary protection.

Human Rights in Ukraine

Mr. MØSE, noting that this is the first time the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine makes an oral statement before the Committee, recalled that, in its previous reports, the Commission has found that the Russian Federation’s authorities have committed a wide range of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law in many regions of Ukraine and in their own territory.  Many of those amount to war crimes.  In addition, the Commission found that the waves of attacks on Ukraine’s energy-related infrastructure since 10 October 2022, as well as the widespread and systematic use of torture by Russian Federation authorities, may amount to crimes against humanity.  The evidence collected in its latest report shows that Moscow has continued to commit many war crimes in Ukraine, including torture, wilful killings, rape and other sexual violence, and the deportation of children.  Its armed forces have also carried out indiscriminate attacks with explosive weapons.  

In its previous reports, the Commission also documented a small number of violations committed by Ukrainian armed forces, including likely indiscriminate attacks and two incidents that qualify as war crimes, he continued.  In the recent report, it found three cases in which Ukrainian authorities committed human rights violations against persons they accused of collaboration with Russian Federation authorities.  The Commission’s mandate requires it to investigate all allegations of violations and crimes.  A major challenge in its investigations has been the lack of access to areas occupied by Russian Federation authorities.  The Commission is deeply concerned by the geographical spread, frequency and gravity of certain patterns of crimes and violations by Russian Federation authorities.  These violations and crimes have both immediate and long-lasting effects on the population, causing loss of lives and injuries, psychosocial trauma and immense suffering.

The latest report continues to examine attacks with explosive weapons affecting numerous civilians and a wide range of civilian objects, he said, recalling the Commission’s last visit to Ukraine.  It met with survivors of a missile attack by the Russian Federation’s armed forces, which hit a residential building in Uman city, Cherkasy region, on 28 April 2023.  The strike led to the death of 24 civilians, mainly women and children, and left many injured.  During both its first and second mandates, the Commission interviewed numerous persons who were tortured by Russian authorities in detention facilities in seven regions of Ukraine and in the Russian Federation.  Particularly striking was the recurrent use of electric shocks as a method of torture.  The evidence collected overall has led the Commission to conclude that the use of torture by Russian authorities has been widespread and systematic.  The Commission has investigated cases of rape and sexual violence committed by the Russian Federation’s soldiers as they broke into houses in villages where they were deployed.  Additionally, the Commission continues to be concerned about the deportation of children to the Russian Federation, he said, adding that it recently concluded that the deportation of 31 children in an incident in May 2022 amounts to a war crime.  Against this backdrop, he underscored that thorough investigations and accountability for all violations and crimes are paramount, noting the importance of both judicial and non-judicial accountability.

In the ensuing interactive dialogue, the delegate for Ukraine said investigations continue to uncover shocking evidence of the Russian Federation’s widespread and systematic violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Over the past 20 months, the Russian Federation has engaged in unprovoked and unjustified aggression, committing severe abuses with utter disregard for human life, their daily indiscriminate missile and drone attacks on Ukrainian cities and towns resulting in the loss of innocent lives and spreading destruction. She also expressed serious concern about Russian Federation propaganda that promotes hatred and violence against Ukrainians, dehumanizes the Ukrainian people and denies the existence of Ukraine as a sovereign State with its own national identity and culture.

These actions, including the deportation of Ukrainian children to the Russian Federation, find clear definition in the Genocide Convention, she said.  The report also reveals additional appalling cases of rapes and sexual and gender-based violence committed by Russian Federation military forces.  In one incident, victims ranged from a girl aged 16, who was pregnant, to a woman of 83.  In several instances, family members were forced to witness these horrific acts.  Additional crimes and violations include killings, attempted killings and torture.  She highlighted devastating consequences of the breach of Kakhovka Dam, causing the biggest industrial and ecological disaster in Europe.  Its impact on the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment will be felt for years to come and well beyond Ukraine’s borders.

Several Member States took up the issue of accountability for crimes committed by the Russian Federation in Ukraine. The delegate for Canada asked if the Special Rapporteur believes the Russian Federation has taken active measures to ensure all perpetrators are held to account for those acts.

Taking up the theme, the delegate for Finland, on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic countries, asked how the international community can further ensure accountability for atrocious crimes committed against civilians.  Citing horrific reports of torture and sexual violence, the representative of the United Kingdom said there can be no impunity.  The Ukrainian people deserve justice, and the United Kingdom will stand by them for as long as it takes.

The delegate for Liechtenstein asked if the Commission has been collecting evidence on the crime of aggression, and if so, if it is planning to cooperate and share this evidence with accountability mechanisms.

The delegate for Poland expressed grave concern at the evidence of numerous war crimes in Ukraine by the Russian Federation, including wilful killings, torture, rape and other sexual violence, as well as unlawful transfers.  Taking a similar line, the representatives of Switzerland and Israel expressed deep concern at reports of killing, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence.

The representative of the United States asked how the international community can support accountability for war crimes involving the environment in Europe.  On a similar theme, the delegate for the Czech Republic asked what steps are being taken to document the impact on the economy and the ecology of the region.

The representative of the European Union, in its capacity as observer, asked how the Commission is collaborating with other national and international accountability mechanisms to ensure the maximum effectiveness of its efforts.

The delegate for the Netherlands, aligning with the European Union, asked how the international community can further assist Ukrainian authorities in identifying and tracing children that have been forcibly transferred and deported.  Further, how can these children be reunited with their families?

The representative of Australia asked what more the international community can do to end this terrible war and ensure that those responsible for war crimes are held to account.

In his response, Mr. MØSE observed that the bulk of questions related to accountability issues.  He stressed that the work of the Commission is based on the premise that accountability is of the essence.

The Commission will first pursue a national approach to accountability, primarily through the Ukrainian prosecution and judicial system.  Faced with a high number of cases — he noted over 100,000 — there will be a need for an investigation strategy, and also for coordination and support to that process or to prosecution and judicial authorities.

At the international level, he said the Commission is in contact with the International Criminal Court.  It is ensuring that contact takes place both on a bilateral and multilateral basis.

With respect to the forced deportation of children, one of the main challenges is the lack of exact information about how many have been deported and what their situation is once they have been transported into the Russian Federation.

In response to questions about engaging the Russian Federation, he said the Commission has tried various avenues. If it is refused access to some territories, the Commission will seek information through other sources.

He said a victim-centred approach is at the essence of the Commission’s work.

Logo-favicon

Sign up to receive the latest local, national & international Criminal Justice News in your inbox, everyday.

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

Sign up today to receive the latest local, national & international Criminal Justice News in your inbox, everyday.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

This post was originally published on this site