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World’s human rights watchdog spotlights Afghanistan, Yemen and 12 others

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The United Nation Human Rights Council (HRC) kicked off its Universal Periodic Review, or UPR, on Monday at the Palais des Nations in Geneva to examine the human rights situation in 14 countries, including Afghanistan and Yemen.

What exactly is the Universal Period Review?

On a rotational basis each four and a half years, all UN Member States undergo an interactive review of their human rights situation – treating all countries equally and allowing them to exchange best practices.

Who conducts the reviews?

As part of a general wave of UN system reforms in 2006, the Human Rights Council was created. It is comprised of 47 UN Member States who are elected by the full 193 membership. While each inspection is led by groups of three randomly chosen countries, called troikas, any State can take part in review discussions.

Just what is an ‘interactive review’?

Designated independent experts called “Special Rapporteurs” present information and evidence on specific rights violations to which UN Member States raise questions. Civil-society organizations can also submit questions and evidence through their country’s representatives. The State under review is permitted to explain their actions or offer plans to resolve the issues presented. Recommendations are officially made, and, as needed, technical assistance is provided. Each State review lasts about three and a half hours.

Which countries are being reviewed on this rotation?

The UPR sessions take place for two weeks, three times a year, during which 14 countries are reviewed, totaling 42 per year. This year, in its 34th session, the UN Working Group will meet until 1 February to audit Yemen, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Vanuatu, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Eritrea, New Zealand, Cambodia, Cyprus, Comoros, Slovakia, Chile, Afghanistan and Uruguay with the goal of improving human rights for every person around the world.

Which human rights are assessed?

The UPR assesses the human rights obligations set out in: the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the human rights treaties ratified by the reviewed State, and international humanitarian law.

What is the outcome of the review?

In conjunction with the State under review and technical assistance from the UN human rights office (OHCHR), the troika prepares a report summarizing the actual discussion – complete with questions, comments and recommendations, as well as responses from the State being audited. A few days after the review, the report is discussed and adopted at a plenary session of the Human Rights Council.

Is there any follow-up, any accountability?

It is the primary responsibility of the evaluated State to implement the recommendations set out in the adopted report. During its review, the country is expected to provide information on measures it has taken to remedy the situation, and at the next UPR, report on its human rights developments. In consultation with the country concerned, the international community and OHCHR are available to assist and provide technical help.

What happens if a State is not cooperating?

The Human Rights Council can take a series of measures, such as specific investigations; setting up dedicated committees to pressure a non-cooperating Member State; and drawing the world’s attention to its unacceptable behaviour.

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Human Rights

Gender equality, justice in law and practice: Essential for sustainable development

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Young girls in Gumam primary school, Kassala state, Sudan. Photo: UNICEF/Sari Omer

Fundamentally linked to human development, gender justice requires ending inequality and redressing existing disparities between women and men, according to a high-level United Nations forum on the situation in Arab States.

Laws that promote gender equality “will help the Arab region move forward on the issue of justice and equality for women”, Jordan Ambassador to the UN Sima Bahous, told UN News after chairing the forum centered around the study with the same name: Gender and Law Justice, Evaluation of Laws Affecting Gender Equality in the Arab States.

Gender equality is achieved when both sexes enjoy the same rights and opportunities across society, including access to justice and to economic and social gains. The study stressed that sustainable development goals cannot be achieved without ensuring gender equality in law and practice.

On 14 March, on the margins of the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA), Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Women’s Fund (UNIFEM) organized the conference, which discussed discrimination and criminal, personal status and labour laws across 18 Arab countries.  

“Human development means expanding opportunities for women and men to improve their lives and education, and create better opportunities”, Ms. Bahous explained.  

Room in Arab region for women’s equality

Gender justice relies on accountability and equality.  

Salma Al-Nemes, Secretary General of the Jordanian National Committee for Women, spoke about the forum’s importance, saying that it aims to “emphasize that there is still room in the Arab region to achieve women’s equality.”  

She stressed that problems can only be solved if they are recognized, and that countries can benefit “from the experiences of the Arab and Islamic countries that have achieved equality and build on this by adapting it to national reality.”  

Because national and local contexts differ, Ms. Al-Nemes acknowledged that “we must examine how to meet these challenges in an appropriate context so that we can achieve equality not only in legislation, but in practice as well”. 

For her part, Naziha el Obaidi, Minister of Women, Family, Childhood and the Elderly of Tunisia, told UN News about her Government’s decree that “when considering the appointment of a senior official in the country, four biographies of candidates, two for women and one for men, should be submitted.” 

Also in Tunisia, the law of ‘horizontal equinoxes and vertical equinoxes’ states that if an electoral list is headed by a woman, a man must hold the second position, and vice versa. Ms. el Obaidi credited this with women’s participation nearly 48 per cent of municipalities, noting that this law will also be implemented in the legislative elections. 

Honour crimes

Because gender-based violence is a major barrier to gender justice, Gender justice and the law closely examines its various forms, including sexual, physical and psychological and economic violence, assessing laws and policies that affect gender equality and protect against gender-based violence.

For example, the penalties for committing so-called honour crimes – which include murder, wounding and beating – vary, depending on the country.

In Algeria, Bahrain, Morocco, Qatar, Syria and Yemen a sentence can be reduced if a “spouse” is caught in an act of adultery.

Whereas in Djibouti and Sudan there are no specific provisions identified in the Penal Code to reduce penalties for these crimes.

Leniency for perpetrators of honour crimes against women in Saudi Arabia is not codified in the law, so men are sentenced at the court’s discretion.

Meanwhile, the Penal Code in Egypt spells out that if a husband kills his wife committing adultery, he and the man with whom she was with would receive reduced penalty not to exceed three years in prison.

Should “a person” kill a wife, daughter or sister, or her sexual partner, in the sudden heat of rage after finding her in a sexual act in Somalia, the penal code requires a reduced sentence.

If a man kills his wife or one of his female relatives while engaging in the act of adultery in Iraq, he would be incarcerated for no more than three years. In Libya the sentence would not exceed eight years.

At the same time, some countries repealed reduced sentences for honour crimes, such as Lebanon in 2011, Oman in 2001 and Tunisia in 1993.

While the penal code in Jordan was amended in 2017 to prevent reduced penalties for honour crimes, the original mitigated penalties for murdering a spouse caught in the act of adultery has yet to be removed. Similarly, mitigation of penalties for honour crimes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories were repealed in 2011 in the West Bank and 2018 in Gaza, however, the Government there has not applied the reforms. 

Honour crimes are just one of the topics addressed in the study. Violence manifest itself in many ways, including rape, sexual harassment, child and forced marriage, female genital mutilation/cutting and other harmful traditional practices – all of which the study covers.  

It is worth mentioning that the UN Commission on the Status of Women is responsible for developing global policies to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. The annual session, which drew to a close on 22 March, provides an opportunity to review progress and identify difficulties, challenges and policy formulation. 

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UNESCO research on AI’s implications on human rights

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“Artificial Intelligence (AI) is increasingly becoming the veiled decision-maker of our times.  AI has profound implications on human rights ranging from freedom of expression, privacy, to right to equality and participation; a human rights based approach must be mainstreamed to guide the development AI through inclusive multi-stakeholder participation,” said UNESCO programme specialist Xianhong Hu, when she spoke at the 40th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council last week.

She was presenting the summary findings of UNESCO’s new report Steering AI for Knowledge Societies: A ROAM Perspective, during the panel discussion on Human Rights in the Era of Artificial Intelligence: Exploring the AI development from UNESCO’s prism of Internet Universality, this report shows these principles are intended for all interested stakeholders and AI development should align with human Rights, Openness, Accessibility and Multi-stakeholder governance.

This ROAM approach can serve to guide the ensemble of values, norms, policies, regulations, codes and ethics that govern the development and use of AI – a theme that was echoed by a number of delegates in the room.

“The complexity of AI calls for an interdisciplinary, comprehensive, global and multi-stakeholder reflection on the opportunities and challenges that come with such advanced ICTs,” stated Abdulaziz Almuzaini, Director of the UNESCO Geneva Liaison Office.

UNESCO’s ROAM framework was highly commended by delegates, professionals and academic representatives present during the panel session. “We appreciate our cooperation with UNESCO. AI is transforming our lives, the use of AI in the exploitation of big data is essential. These are all areas we need to protect human rights,” said Omar Zniber, Permanent Representative of Morocco. H.E. Zniber elaborated that AI-generated content sometimes boosts “fake news” and blurs the lines for accountability of produced content. Moreover, AI’s consequences will be felt strongly the Global South, where the potential for digital divide are stronger.

Further insight was provided by Francois Gave, Deputy Permanent Representative of France, regarding France’s position on AI and technology. Stating that AI has been placed on the G7 agenda, he noted that democracy itself could be at stake in the grander scheme of human rights, because some people do not realise that their information is being gathered and retained. At the level of the European Union, many principles surrounding human rights and data privacy exist. However, he held that “now is the time to take things further and work together.”

Dr. Eileen Donahoe, Executive Director, Stanford Global Digital Policy Incubator, moderated the session and pointed that the implication of AI for human rights are vast and multilayered. She believes the existing universal human rights framework including UNESCO’s ROAM principles, can serve as a primary guide for technologist and for policy-makers to help ensure that AI development is beneficial for humanity.

The UNESCO summary report also reveals that privacy is often infringed when AI involves opaque data collection, de-anonymization, third-party data-sharing, and the tracking and profiling of individuals.

 “Increasing Information personalization and content moderation by AI enhance users’ access to information, but at the same time can narrow down the scope of Information and the pluralism of ideas to which they are exposed. Particularly, when Internet intermediaries are pressured to use AI to combat hate speech and disinformation, this can risk removing legitimate content and thus undermine the free flow of information”, stressed UNESCO’s Hu in her presentation.

Vidushi Marda, Legal Scholar from Article 19, stressed that some people may be “forsaken” with the development of AI. She held that the unintended consequences of AI are not being considered as much as they ought to be.

Coining AI as a “trend” word, Jovan Kurbalija, Executive Director and Co-Lead of the United Nations Secretary General High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, emphasised that using AI in local scenarios is of utmost importance. In addition to the protection of human rights, “human happiness and appreciation” must also be considered.

UNESCO’s new summary report is about ongoing research and  the final publication will elaborate key options for actions for different stakeholders as well as overarching options for shaping the future of AI development. The preliminary brochure is online at https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/unesco-steering_ai_for_knowledge_societies.pdf as well as on UNESCO’s webpage dedicated to Artificial Intelligence https://en.unesco.org/artificial-intelligence.

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The struggle for gender equality: ‘Power is not given, power is taken’

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After hearing from many of the world’s top women politicians on Tuesday in a session on “Women in Power”, Secretary-General António Guterres, held a Town Hall meeting for civil society activists where he underscored the importance of women seizing the initiative in the struggle for gender equality.

 “The central question of gender equality is a question of power”, he stressed, noting that we continue to live in a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture.

 “Power is not given, power is taken”, he stressed, adding that “we have to push back” against the resistance to change “because people do not like power being taken”.

institutional approaches, like the ones the UN develops, with the approaches at the civil society [level], the grassroots movements and the public opinion in general”, he elaborated.

In enumerating the UN’s internal priorities, he listed the first as parity, telling the meeting that at the senior Under-Secretary-General (USG) and Assistant-Secretary-General (ASG) levels, “we are now at 53 per cent men and 47 per cent women, which means that we are in line to the commitment I made to reach full parity in senior management in 2021”, he stated.

He added that while there are 26 women and 16 men in senior management, peacekeeping remains a male-dominated field. “We need to have probably a majority of women in headquarters” at the USG and ASG level, he said, “to compensate for what is still a minority in the field, but we are making progress very quickly”, he explained.

Notwithstanding the progress at the top levels, where he can personally appoint women, he said he was aware of a “pushback” moving down the ranks. To remedy this, Mr. Guterres said he was encouraging all Member States to include gender as a criteria and vowed to keep pushing, adding that “the battle is enormous”.  

Ending impunity

Turning to sexual harassment, he flagged that the victims are predominantly women and girls “because of the power relations”.

The Secretary-General said the main obstacle to introducing a zero-tolerance policy was the doubt people had over its effectiveness, pointing out that often “the victim becomes a double victim” instead of the perpetrators being punished.

To combat this, “we have done something revolutionary” he told the group: “We created a team of six women experts on sexual harassment investigations” where complaints bypass the old bureaucratic system and go straight to this team, “which might make some men think twice”. This second priority was greeted with a stirring round of applause.

Sexual exploitation perpetrated by UN staff against others, namely vulnerable populations, was the UN chief’s third priority.

While cases are reported in peacekeeping operations, they also come in from agencies working in humanitarian and development fields.

“It is important to have a prevention capacity and at the same time a solid capacity to fighting impunity”, he asserted, adding that progress is being made. Specifically he said the overwhelming majority of troop and police contributing countries “are signing a contract with us in relation to prevention, training and punishment”, in addition to around 60 heads of State and Government who are championing the cause.

Searching outward

Outside the Organization, the Secretary-General expressed concern that despite many movements underway to combat gender-based violence, “we are seeing that violence against women and girls in conflict situations is not improving”.

Combatting this violence, including in families, is what Mr. Guterres called his first “outside priority”.

He identified “a wide range” of ways to do this, from prevention to training and more effective court systems.

The second priority beyond the UN he said, concerned human rights violations, which he said was “very much linked to the pushback aspect.”

Mr. Guterres cited an uptick in the persecution of women human rights defenders, online hate speech, harassment and “vicious campaigns of the worse possible kind”.

“The hatred and prejudice” against “women emerging”, is also “a question of power”, he said, lamenting that legislation, reproductive rights and “even genital mutilation” are moving backwards.

In conjunction with governments and international organizations, civil society has an important role to play in shifting this.

“We need to push back against the pushback in relation to what is a difficult environment for the human rights universe related to the question of gender,” Mr. Guterres spelled out.

The human right agenda in several parts of the world is losing ground and “it is very important that we unite our efforts to reverse this trend”, concluded the Secretary-General.

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