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Iraq: UN human rights report voices concern over conduct of ISIL fighter trials

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UN Special Representative Hennis-Plasschaert visits Sinjar on the fifth anniversary of the gross atrocities committed by ISIL terrorists against Iraq’s Yazidi community. (August 2019) UNAMI PIO/Sarmad As-Safy

A new UN report published on Tuesday shows that while considerable effort has been made by Iraqi authorities to bring former ISIL terrorist fighters to justice, there are “serious concerns” about the fairness of the proceedings. 

The joint report by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the UN human rights office found that basic fair trial standards were not respected in terrorism-related trials, thus placing defendants at a serious disadvantage. 

“A fair and just criminal justice system is a central element to the democratic way of life, and key to building trust and legitimacy, and promoting and protecting human rights”, said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.  

“Those responsible for widespread atrocities against the Iraqi population must be held to account for their crimes, and it is important that the victims see that justice is delivered. At the same time, those accused have the right to a fair trial, and these standards must be strictly applied.” 

Nearly 800 trials monitored 

The terrorist group ISIL, most commonly referred to in Arabic as Daesh, waged a campaign of widespread violence against the Iraqi population between June 2014 and December 2017, holding large swathes of territory across the country, as well as northern Syria, until its military defeat. 

Fighters committed atrocities, including mass murder, abductions, sexual slavery and destruction, which may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide. 

The report is based on independent monitoring of 794 criminal court trials mainly involving ISIL defendants held in eight Iraqi provinces from 1 May 2018 through 31 October 2019. The majority of the hearings, 619, concerned people facing anti-terrorism charges. 

Overreliance on confessions 

While proceedings were generally orderly and well organized, with judges who were routinely prepared with investigation files, UN human rights officers found defendants had ineffective legal representation and limited possibilities to present or challenge evidence. 

Prosecutions mainly focused on “association” or “membership” of a terrorist organization, with no distinction being made between people who participated in violence and those who joined ISIL for their own survival, or through coercion. 

For example, UNAMI observed a trial in Erbil where the wife of an ISIL fighter was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment based on an informer’s evidence that she used to cook meals for her husband and other fighters.   

In another case, a 14-year-old boy in Baghdad was condemned to 15 years in jail based on the admission that his family was among civilians forced to act as “human shields” to protect ISIL fighters from aerial attack. 

Furthermore, the report stated “the over-reliance on confessions, with frequent allegations of torture that were inadequately addressed—while constituting a human rights violation in itself—further added to the concerns”. 

Strengthen criminal justice proceedings 

Through its mission, UNAMI, the UN supports Iraq in promoting accountability, protection of human rights, and judicial and legal reform. 

The joint report praises the efforts made by the authorities to seek justice and accountability for the crimes committed by ISIL, with more than 20,000 terrorism-related cases processed between January 2018 and October 2019, and thousands pending. 

However, the authors call for a thorough review of trial and sentencing practices, aimed at strengthening criminal justice procedures. 

Report recommendations 

Recommendations include revising the anti-terrorism laws to comply with international law, and ensuring defendants have sufficient time to prepare and present their cases. 

“Robust safeguards for detention, due process and fair trials not only demonstrate commitment to justice: they are a necessary building block for resilience. We are well aware that a variety of grievances, including unfair trials and detainee abuse, have been exploited in the past by ISIL to fuel its violent agenda,” said UNAMI chief, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert. 

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Human Rights

ILO calls on Belarus President to respect workers’ rights and freedoms amid protests

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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).

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Switzerland: Draft anti-terrorism law sets ‘dangerous precedent’

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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.  

Expertise declined 

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.” 

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Burkina Faso: Over 535,000 children under five ‘acutely’ malnourished

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Members of family, who fled conflict, at their shelter in the Pissila camp for internally displaced persons in Burkina Faso. WFP/Marwa Awad

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 response 

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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