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”.
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.
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.”
ILO calls on Belarus President to respect workers’ rights and freedoms amid protests
The Director-General of the International Labour Organization, Guy Ryder, has called on the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, to prevent human rights violations and “ensure full respect for workers’ rights and freedoms” during the wave of protests that have swept the country in recent weeks.
In his letter to the Belarus President, Ryder urged President Lukashenko to release and drop charges against six trade unionists who have been detained by the authorities after participating in peaceful protests and industrial action.
He reminded the President that it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure a climate free from violence, threats or pressure against peacefully protesting workers and that any such allegations should be rapidly and independently investigated.
“I must urge you to do all in your power to prevent the occurrence of human rights violations and ensure full respect for workers’ rights and freedoms,” Ryder’s letter said.
He expressed his deep concern at reports coming out of Belarus on the arrest, detention, imprisonment and mistreatment of workers’ leaders.
‘No one should be deprived of their freedom or be subject to penal sanctions for the mere fact of organizing or participating in a peaceful strike or protest,’ Ryder wrote.
The letter recalls that the ILO has been working with the Belarus government, and the national workers’ and employers’ organizations, for 16 years, helping to address issues raised by an ILO Commission of Inquiry in 2004 which was set up following serious infringements of trade union rights and freedoms in the country.
Ryder notes that while there has been some progress on these issues, “the Commission’s recommendations are far from being fully implemented.”
The intervention by the ILO Director-General follows a request made by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
Switzerland: Draft anti-terrorism law sets ‘dangerous precedent’
A proposed new anti-terrorism law in Switzerland could set a dangerous precedent for the suppression of political dissent worldwide, a group of five independent UN human rights experts warned on Friday.
The draft legislation, currently before the Swiss Parliament, expands the definition of terrorism and no longer requires the prospect of any crime at all, they said, in a plea for a last-minute reversal by legislators.
‘Expansive’ definition of terrorism
Citing international standards, the experts defined terrorism as the intimidation or coercion of populations or governments through violence that causes death or serious injury, or the taking of hostages.
Under the bill, “terrorist activity” may encompass even lawful acts aimed at influencing or modifying the constitutional order, such as legitimate activities of journalists, civil society and political activists.
“Expanding the definition of terrorism to any non-violent campaign involving the spreading of fear goes far beyond current Swiss domestic law and violates international standards”, said the experts, all of whom were appointed by the UN Human Rights Council.
“This excessively expansive definition sets a dangerous precedent and risks serving as a model for authoritarian governments seeking to suppress political dissent including through torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Other sections of the draft law have also raised concerns, such as those giving the federal police extensive authority to designate “potential terrorists” and to decide preventive measures against them.
The rights experts had earlier written to the Swiss authorities, expressing their concerns about the incompatibility of the bill with human rights and international best practices in counter-terrorism. However, no changes were implemented.
“While we recognize the serious security risks posed by terrorism, we very much regret that the Swiss authorities have declined this opportunity to benefit from our technical assistance and expertise on how to combine effective preventive measures with respect for human rights”, they said.
The experts called on Swiss parliamentarians to keep in mind their country’s traditionally strong commitment to human rights, urging them to reject a law which “is bound to become a serious stain on Switzerland’s otherwise strong human rights legacy.”
Burkina Faso: Over 535,000 children under five ‘acutely’ malnourished
New data from UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has revealed worsening nutritional situation for children in Burkina Faso, with more than 535,000 children under the age of five suffering from acute malnutrition – an unprecedented level.
Among them, some 156,500 children are “severely” malnourished, leaving them nine times more likely to die than well-nourished children, according to UNICEF.
“The aggravating factors causing the nutritional situation of children to deteriorate are primarily linked to the displacement of populations due to insecurity, reduced access to livelihoods and reduced access to health care and nutrition,” said James Mugaju, UNICEF Deputy Representative in Burkina Faso.
“The coronavirus pandemic has had a brutal impact on households and their ability to provide for the basic needs of their children. Children are paying the highest price, facing a triple crisis: security, health and food,” he added.
Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in west Africa, has over one million internally displaced persons – 60 per cent of whom are children, and 3.3 million suffer from acute food insecurity.
Worst affected regions
According to the survey, the town of Gorom-Gorom in the Sahel region and the Barsalogho site for internally displaced persons in the Centre-Nord region are worst affected, where children under five suffering from global acute malnutrition recorded 18.4 per cent and 16.1 per cent, respectively. The figures exceed the World Health Organization (WHO) emergency threshold of 15 per cent.
Equally alarming is the situation in Dori, Gorgadji, Bourzanga and Fada N’Gourma communes, all of which have a high prevalence of global acute malnutrition, ranging from 12.5 per cent to 13.6 per cent. Children in the Barsalogho, Kongoussi, Ouahigouya, Kaya and Matiacoali communes also have concerning prevalence rates of acute malnutrition, ranging from 8.6 per cent to 9.6 per cent.
Areas where children are particularly affected by acute malnutrition are also those with the highest number of acutely food-insecure families, said UNICEF, calling for intensified efforts to ensure the continuity of nutrition services to provide an integrated package of prevention and treatment of malnutrition to reach the children in urgent need.
“This is essential because good nutrition for children, from their first days and months, protects them from disease and infection, and helps them to recover when they fall ill,” said Mr. Mugaju.
UNICEF and its partners have stepped up their response. Community health workers have been mobilized to travel to the most remote areas to screen and treat malnourished children at the community level, where they also provide advice on the best feeding practices for infants and young children, including in emergency situations.
The UN agency is also supporting health authorities and is strengthening efforts to procure and deliver therapeutic foods, such as milk and ready-to-use therapeutic foods, to treat acute malnutrition. More than 52,600 cartons or about 737 tonnes of therapeutic food have been delivered to healthcare facilities and 51,685 children with severe acute malnutrition have been treated since January 2020.
UNICEF Deputy Representative James Mugaju highlighted the importance of working together to support children.
“Well-nourished girls and boys ensure good physical and cognitive development, which will give them equal opportunities to grow up fulfilled and reach their full potential,” he said.
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