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Human Rights

Colombia: ‘Staggering number’ of human rights defenders killed in 2019

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A wide range of human rights activists have been targeted in Colombia, especially those living in rural areas. photo: UN Colombia

The UN human rights office, OHCHR, is “deeply troubled by the staggering number of human rights defenders killed in Colombia” last year, its spokesperson said on Tuesday.

“The single most targeted group was human rights defenders advocating on behalf of community-based and specific ethnic groups such as indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians”, Marta Hurtado told reporters in Geneva, adding that the number of women human rights defenders killed increased “by almost 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2018”.

According to OHCHR, 107 activists were killed last year.  And staff in the country are still in the process of verifying 13 additional cases reported during 2019 which, if confirmed, would raise the annual total to 120 killings.

Attacks on human rights defenders during 2018 had already intensified, with 115 killings confirmed by the UN.

Vicious cycle of violence ‘must stop’

“This terrible trend is showing no let-up in 2020, with at least 10 human rights defenders already reportedly killed during the first 13 days of January”, Ms. Hurtado lamented.

The UN office renewed its call on the Government to “make a strenuous effort” to prevent attacks on those who are defending fundamental rights, investigate each case and prosecute those responsible, including those aiding and abetting the deadly attacks.

“The vicious and endemic cycle of violence and impunity must stop”, the spokesperson spelled out. “Victims and their families have a right to justice, truth and reparations”.

Vulnerable villages

The vast majority of last year’s killings happened in rural areas, 98 per cent of which occurred in municipalities with black market economies, and where criminal groups or armed groups hold sway.

And around 86 per cent of the deaths took place in villages with a poverty rate above the national average.

Although more than half were recorded in the four provinces of Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca and Caquetá, 21 other provinces also saw fatalities.

While the figures reflect the gravity of the problem, Ms. Hurtado pointed out that “they conceal the structural causes that sustain violence against human rights defenders”.

“Any attack against human rights defenders is unacceptable and constitutes an assault against democracy, undermining participation and people’s access to their human rights”, she underscored.

Other factors

There were a number of other contributing factors including the penetration of criminal groups and armed groups linked to illicit economies in areas vacated by FARC-EP rebels, and the favouring of a military response from the Government to control the violence.

In November 2016, the Secretary-General welcomed the signing of an historic UN-backed peace agreement between the Colombian Government and the FARC-EP group, ending an armed conflict that had been ongoing since 1964.

However, continuous challenges in implementing the peace agreement have also played a role in the violence, especially the dismantling of paramilitary linked-groups; the security situation in conflict-affected communities; land restitution, illicit crop substitution programmes and the fulfilment of victims’ rights.

While OHCHR has acknowledged some positive steps, such as a recent meeting of the National Commission on Security Guarantees convened by the Government early this month, to tackle this problem, the number of killings clearly shows much more needs to be done.

“We call on the authorities to redouble their efforts to ensure a free and secure environment for civic engagement and to increase the presence of civil State authorities in rural areas to provide basic services, such as health and education”, asserted Ms. Hurtado.

She concluded by stressing the need to urgently tackle disparities in the enjoyment of all rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights – especially in rural areas, saying that “measures of a collective nature aimed at protecting geographical areas or communities must be further developed.” 

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Human Rights

Urgent action needed to protect Vietnamese workers trafficked to Serbia

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Urgent action is required to assist and protect some 400 Vietnamese migrant workers who were allegedly trafficked to Serbia, experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council said on Friday. 

Eight companies, including Vietnamese labour recruitment agencies and Chinese construction firms registered in Serbia, have reportedly been implicated in serious human rights abuses, they said, citing information received.  

The experts have written to the businesses and are also in contact with authorities in the three countries.  

Appalling conditions 

“We are deeply concerned that these migrant workers may have been trafficked for purposes of forced labour, and have been living and working in appalling conditions in Serbia, at serious risk to their lives and health,” they said in a statement. 

They were also disturbed by allegations that civil society groups wanting to assist the workers have not been allowed access to them. 

The experts urged the Governments of Serbia, Viet Nam and China to ensure that businesses based in their territory, or operating under their jurisdiction, respect the human rights of all workers. 

“This includes not only the businesses who rely on migrant labour but also labour recruitment agencies,” they said. 

Duty to protect 

Regulation and monitoring of labour recruitment agencies is also critical to effectively prevent trafficking for the purposes of forced labour, they added. 

The experts reminded governments of their duty to protect against business-related human rights abuses. 

Countries must also take appropriate steps to ensure victims have access to justice and effective remedies, and to ensure ongoing assistance and protection, including against forced return. 

They also highlighted the obligations of businesses to exercise due diligence in ensuring that the rights of all workers are protected, without discrimination, recognising the particular needs and rights of migrant workers. 

Independent experts 

The eight human rights experts who issued the statement receive their mandates from the UN Human Rights Council, located in Geneva. 

They monitor and report on specific issues of global concern, which include trafficking in persons, contemporary forms of slavery, the human rights of migrants, and implementation of UN principles on business and human rights. 

The experts operate in their individual capacity and are neither UN staff nor are they paid for their work. 

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UNRWA condemns demolition of Palestinian home in East Jerusalem

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The Salhiyya family's personal belongings after the demolition of their home in East Jerusalem. © UNRWA

The UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, on Thursday urged Israeli to immediately halt all evictions and demolitions in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, after an entire family was forced out of their long-term home the previous day.  

Israeli police evicted the Salhiyya family from their two adjacent houses, according to news reports, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem early on Wednesday, and later tore down the structures – a move which UNRWA’s West Bank field office has condemned. 

Staff who visited the scene on Thursday morning observed the total destruction of the property, with school bags, clothes and family photos still partially visible beneath the rubble. 

Against international law 

“Under international humanitarian law, the forcible transfer of protected persons, as well as the destruction of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons by Israel, as the occupying power, is strictly forbidden, except where such measures would be rendered absolutely necessary by imperative military reasons, or for the security of the population under occupation,” the agency said. 

The 15-member Salhiyya family, who include an older woman and young child, had been living in Sheikh Jarrah for nearly 40 years, according to UNRWA.   

The neigbourhood and tensions surrounding evictions, and attempted evictions, was at the heart of brutal fighting that erupted last year in Gaza, between Israel and the militant group, Hamas. 

Arrests and injuries 

Israeli forces raided the two Salhiyya houses on the property, at 3am on Wednesday, while the family was sleeping.   

In a matter of hours the homes, as well as their possessions, were destroyed, UNRWA said, adding that Israeli forces injured several family members during the eviction operations. 

The head of the family, Mahmoud Salhiyya, along with other relatives, was also arrested.  Mr. Salhiyya had threatened to set himself on fire two days ago after Israeli forces demolished his business, located next door. 

Other families at risk 

UNRWA stated that sadly, cases like the Salhiyya’s are not unique as scores of Palestine refugee families in different areas of Sheikh Jarrah alone – over 200 persons, many of them children – currently face imminent threat of eviction.  

Across East Jerusalem, an estimated 218 Palestinian households are at risk of displacement by the Israeli authorities, the agency said, citing 2020 data from the UN humanitarian affairs office, OCHA

These households comprise some 970 people, including 424 children. 

UNRWA called on the Israeli authorities to abide by international law and, as the occupying power, to ensure the protection of Palestine refugees and civilians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.  

“All individuals have a right to safe and secure housing and to live in peace and dignity,” said the agency. 

Agencies call for release of seriously ill child 

In another development in the region, UNRWA and two other UN agencies are calling for the immediate release of a seriously ill Palestinian child detained in Israel. 

Amal Nakhleh, now 18, has been held without charge for more than a year, a measure known as administrative detention.  He has a rare neuromuscular disorder, according to media reports. 

Israel has extended his detention until 18 May, according to a statement issued on Thursday by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UNRWA, and the UN human rights office, OHCHR

“Neither Amal nor his lawyers or family have been informed of the reasons for his arrest and detention. Amal suffers from a severe autoimmune disease that requires continuous medical treatment and monitoring,” they said. 

Not an isolated case 

The UN agencies called for his “immediate and unconditional release”, in line with international human rights law. 

This is not an isolated case, they added, as currently at least three Palestinians are in administrative detention who were under age 18 when they were first detained. 

“We echo the calls of the UN Secretary-General who in his Report on Children and Armed Conflict has, every year since 2015, urges Israel to end the administrative detention of children. This practice deprives children of their liberty and must immediately end.” 

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UNRWA seeks $1.6 billion to support Palestinian refugees in 2022

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A young girl takes part in UNRWA's Keeping Kids Cool summer activities in Gaza. © UNRWA 2021/Mohamed Hinnawi

The UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, on Tuesday appealed for $1.6 billion to support its lifesaving work this year amid acute regional crises and chronic funding shortfalls. 

UNRWA provides services and programmes, including education, health and food assistance, to more than five million Palestinians across the Middle East. 

The 2022 budget proposal includes additional emergency funding to address humanitarian needs arising from crises in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon. 

‘Indispensable’ to stability 

Philippe Lazzarini, the agency’s Commissioner-General, said budget shortfalls pose a serious threat to its ability to maintain operations. 

“The international community recognizes the lifesaving role of UNRWA and its indispensable contribution to stability in the Middle East. It also recognizes how cost-efficient and agile UNRWA is. In 2022, that recognition must be supported by the adequate level of funding to meet this critical moment for Palestine refugees,” he said

The budget proposal comes as UNRWA confronts chronic funding gaps as needs keep rising. 

Distress and despair 

It is estimated that 2.3 million Palestinian refugees are living in poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten health and livelihoods. 

Distress and despair have become the norm among Palestinian refugees, according to UNRWA.  Many, particularly in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon, report that they are ready to use any means to try to migrate outside of the region. 

Breaking the cycle 

UNRWA has committed to investing in comprehensive programmatic reform and modernization to meet needs in an even more cost-effective and efficient manner.  

The agency said that being fully-funded across its full range of services, will assist its efforts towards breaking the cycle of despair among Palestinian refugees through measures such as providing some $31.2 million in microfinance loans and carrying out vital structural improvements to refugee camps. 

 “The amount that UNRWA is requesting for 2022 will directly contribute to the wellbeing of Palestine refugees, to efforts to combat and contain COVID-19 and to regional stability,” said Mr. Lazzarini. urging donors to step up. 

“The international community must give UNRWA sufficient and predictable funding so we may continue to provide Palestine refugees with a sense of security and normality they deserve.” 

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