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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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UN expert raises alarm over migrant, asylum seeker ‘pushbacks’ at Turkey-Greece border

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Women and children at the the Turkey-Greece border at Pazarkule. © IOM/Uygar Emrah Özesen

Greece must take immediate action to end the violence against migrants and asylum seekers at the border between Turkey and Greece, an independent UN human rights expert said on Monday, expressing alarm at reports of violence at the hands of some Greek security officers and unidentified armed men.

“I am very concerned about the reported pushbacks of asylum seekers and migrants, which constitutes a violation of the prohibition of collective expulsions and the principle of non-refoulement,” said Felipe González Morales, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.

On 1 March, Greece suspended for 30 days, asylum applications for anyone who crossed the border irregularly, which prompted the Special Rapporteur to urge the country to “immediately reverse its decision”, saying it “has no legal basis in international human rights law”.

Migrants who managed to cross into Greece were allegedly intercepted by Greek border guards, detained, stripped, looted and pushed back to Turkey. 

And alleged excessive use of force seems to have led to deaths and injuries, including the death of a Syrian asylum seeker.

“The right to individual assessment is the cornerstone of human rights and refugee protection”, warned Mr. González Morales. “It cannot be put on hold”.

He pointed out that returning people without due process “will inevitably result in cases of refoulement to situations where they may face the risk of death, torture, ill-treatment, persecution or other irreparable harm”.

Humanitarians in crosshairs

The Special Rapporteur also raised the alarm over an increase in hostility and violence against humanitarian workers, human rights defenders and journalists working at the border and in the Greek Aegean Sea. 

“Greece has the responsibility to ensure that migrants and those assisting them are protected from threats and attacks”, he said. “The authorities should condemn promptly and ensure accountability for any such acts.”

The independent UN expert has shared his concerns with the Greek Government along with the relevant European Union institutions and the Government of Turkey. 

The Special Rapporteurs are part of the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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UN human rights chief: Racism and xenophobia are ‘contagious killers’ too

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The coronavirus outbreak may have forced millions around the world already into “social distancing”, keeping a metre apart to prevent its spread, but it will not stop them from uniting to combat racism, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights declared in Geneva on Friday. 

Michelle Bachelet was addressing the Human Rights Council as members met to debate progress since the launch of the International Decade for People of African Descent in 2014. 

“Like COVID-19, racism and xenophobia are contagious killers”, she said.  “In the current context, we, at this Council, need to come together and work for the common good by maintaining physical distances between us. But our conviction, and our determination to advance human rights, are as forceful as they have ever been.” 

Stop discrimination, promote inclusion 

The UN General Assembly established the International Decade to promote and protect the human rights of people of African descent, who number around 200 million worldwide. 

Ms. Bachelet described it as “a unique platform” that emphasises their important contributions to society.  It also promotes measures to stop discrimination and support their full inclusion. 

“Indeed, throughout the world – and regardless of whether they are descendants of victims of enslavement, or recent migrants – people of African descent endure intolerable discrimination and constitute some of the poorest and most marginalized groups”, she said. 

The General Assembly will hold a midterm review of the International Decade when it meets later this year.  Countries will assess progress, share good practices and decide on further actions. 

Ms. Bachelet expressed hope that they will soon establish a Permanent Forum on people of African descent, and draft a related UN declaration on respecting their human rights:  the first step towards a treaty that would be legally binding. 

In the interim, the UN human rights office (OHCHR) has been working with countries, civil society and UN agencies in its role as Coordinator of the International Decade. 

This engagement has sparked numerous initiatives such as the adoption of national action plans against discrimination, the establishment of national monitoring and complaint mechanisms, and the creation of an annual fellowship programme that has benefited more than 80 people from 32 countries. 

Although she acknowledged these steps forward, the UN rights chief stressed the need for more action: “We need to tackle disproportionate police violence, racial profiling, mass incarceration, and structural racial discrimination in health, employment, education and housing”, she said. 

COVID-19 and the Human Rights Council 

While Ms. Bachelet said COVID-19 will not stop action to advance human rights, the disease had impacted this latest session of the Human Rights Council. 

On Thursday, the Council moved to suspend meetings from Friday onwards, taking into consideration measures adopted by the Swiss government to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. 

“The Council has never been suspended for a (pandemic). It has been suspended for technical reasons at various moments in time, so there is no real comparison, but it’s the only sensible and reasonable and responsible thing to do at this stage”, President Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger told UN News in Geneva that day. 

Prior to concluding, the Council appointed 19 human rights experts under its Special Procedures system and extended all mandates which would have expired this session. 

Special Procedures mandate holders research and gather information on a vast range of human rights violations worldwide.  They are independent of the UN and are not paid for what they do.   

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Democracy is sliding away in Myanmar, warns top rights investigator

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Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. Ms Lee and Special Rapporteur David Kaye condemned a Myanmar Court’s decision to charge two Reuters journalists for their reporting on Rohingya killings in Myanmar. UN Photo/Kim Haughton

Daily fighting in Myanmar, widespread internet blackouts and reporting restrictions, indicate that the shift to more democratic rule is “sliding away”, a senior UN-appointed independent rights investigator said on Wednesday.

Two-and-a-half years after hundreds of thousands of mainly Muslim ethnic Rohingya fled a campaign of State-led violence, Yanghee Lee said it was no longer enough for the international community to simply monitor grave abuses happening there.

In particular, the Special Rapporteur urged the UN Security Council in New York to establish an international tribunal “to adjudicate the crimes against humanity and war crimes” since 2011.

‘Walk the walk’

“This is where the international community must really walk the walk not talk the talk”, she insisted.

Speaking at a press conference in Geneva after presenting her last report to the Human Rights Council at the end of her six-year mandate, Ms. Lee highlighted concerns that Myanmar’s civilian Government had done too little to promote democratic rule.

There were still a lot of “old draconian laws” that could be “amended, reformed repealed” by the civilian administration, which rules the country in a power-sharing arrangement with the military, Ms. Lee explained.

Rather than tackle legislative reform, the civilian Government had passed even more repressive measures that had “stifled” freedom of expression.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t too late for its leader, former rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi, to do something about it,” the independent rights expert maintained.

“There is no evidence that shows that civilian Government is truly genuine about its commitment towards democracy…but when I said it’s not too late, it’s because the civilian Government still has a lot of power if it exercises it power in the right places.”

In addition to Human Rights Council resolutions condemning abuses in Myanmar and calling for victims’ justice, consternation about the alleged massacre of ethnic Rohingya has also led to recent rulings at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

In addition to this last initiative, brought by The Gambia on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), other countries have also expressed concern, including the Netherlands, Canada and the Maldives.

“I urge others to join in, who are parties to the Genocide Convention”, she said.

Rakhine state violence ongoing

Asked about the situation inside troubled Rakhine State, the Special Rapporteur noted that armed conflict was continuing there between the Arakan Army – an ethnic Rakhine armed group – and State forces known as the Tatmadaw.

“All sides to the hostilities are responsible for the violations and abuses that happen. But the Tatmadaw is the one that is systematically targeting civilian villages and even cultural sites,” she said, in particular, the Mrauk-U World Heritage Site, which has been destroyed.

Journalists gagged

On the issue of press freedom, the Special Rapporteur condemned new restrictions on journalists, including international wire reporters covering the Tatmadaw’s use of civilians as porters and labourers.

“That is what Reuters has been trying to do and the Tatmadaw doesn’t want them to do any more”, she said.

Energy investment leaving poorest behind

Turning to development challenges inside Myanmar, Ms. Lee acknowledged the Government’s bid to increase electricity supply throughout the country by building coal-fired power stations.

Shan state and Rakhine state needed energy investment, she said, noting that around half of the population doesn’t have access to enough electricity and many areas experience regular blackouts.

“My concern particularly when it comes to oil and gas particularly in relation to Rakhine where a lot of this investment activity is taking place, that Rakhine still remains one of the poorest parts of the country.”

Responding to the Special Rapporteur’s report in the Human Rights Council, Myanmar Progress insisted that despite many challenges, it had been “striving” to build an all-around democratic society.

Efforts had been made on national reconciliation, it insisted, while “battling” hate speech “offline and online” ahead of elections later this year. 

Amid appeals for much quicker action from Myanmar to repatriate nearly a million Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Bangladesh, the delegation maintained that this was the first priority of the Government.

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