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More ‘can and must be done’ to eradicate caste-based discrimination in Nepal

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People walk down a street of shops in Kathmandu, Nepal. (file) photo World Bank/Peter Kapuscinski

Shocked over the killing last weekend of five men in Nepal, who had planned to escort home one of their girlfriends from a higher caste, the UN human rights chief on Friday stressed that ending caste-based discrimination is “fundamental” to the overall sustainable development vision of leaving no one behind.

“It is distressing that caste-based prejudices remain deeply entrenched in our world in the 21st century, and I am filled with sadness for these two young people who held high hopes of building a life together despite the obstacles presented by their accident of birth” said High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, referring to the couple at the centre of the tragedy.

Last Saturday, a 21-year-old man from the ‘untouchable’ Dalit caste, known as Nawaraj BK, and his friends, traveled some 32 km from Jajarkot district, to Western Rukum district, the home of the man’s girlfriend, who belongs to a higher social caste.

They intended to escort the young woman back to their home district, reportedly at her request, but were attacked and chased into a river. Five men, four of whom were also Dalits, were later found dead, while another is still missing.

“Caste-based discrimination remains widespread, not only in Nepal but other countries, and often leads to serious harm and, as in this case, even loss of life”, lamented Ms. Bachelet. 

Dalits under attack

Nawaraj’s case is not an isolated one.

Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables”, have suffered for generations of public shaming at the hands of upper-caste Hindus and continue to face widespread atrocities across the country, with any seeming attempts at upward social mobility, violently shut down.

In a similar case, disturbing reports have also emerging about a 12-year-old Dalit girl who was killed in a separate attack in the village of Devdaha, in the Rupandehi district in southern Nepal.

She is said to have been forcibly married to her alleged rapist from a dominant caste. The girl’s body was reportedly left hanging from a tree on Saturday.

The High Commissioner called for an independent investigation into the attacks, underscoring that the victims and their families have the right to justice, truth and reparations.

Searching for justice

The killings have triggered outrage in Nepal, prompting the federal Ministry of Home Affairs to establish a five-member “high-level investigation committee” to look into the incident. 

On Tuesday, police reportedly filed a complaint against 20 alleged perpetrators. 

“Despite constitutional guarantees, impunity for caste-based discrimination and violence remains high in Nepal”, according to the UN human rights office (OHCHR). 

And while the country has taken “big strides to address this scourge”, she maintained that “so much more can and must be done, to eradicate this blight on society”.

The Nepali Parliament’s Law, Justice and Human Rights Committee has asked authorities to immediately investigate two cases of gang-rape of Dalit women, as well as other caste-based cases involving murder, enforced disappearances and forced abortion.

Although Nepal is party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Committee tasked with monitoring the treaty observed that despite the abolition of “untouchability” in Nepal, Dalits continue to face deep-rooted discrimination, including issues surrounding inter-caste marriages.

Discrimination at every turn

And the risks for this vulnerable caste has only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On Monday, the parliamentary committee directed the Government to investigate all incidents of caste-based discrimination and violence during the coronavirus lockdown. 

Dalits in Nepal and other countries experience discrimination at every level of their daily lives, limiting their employment and educational opportunities, the places where they can collect water or worship, and their choice of who to marry, says OHCHR.

Structural barriers and discrimination force Dalits to continue low-income and dehumanizing employment, such as manual scavenging, disposing of dead animals, digging graves or making leather products.

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Human Rights

UN rights experts call for decisive measures to protect ‘fundamental freedoms’ in China

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The repression of “fundamental freedoms” by the Chinese Government prompted nearly 50 UN independent experts on Friday to express their continuing alarm, urging the country to “abide by its international legal obligations”.

After having “repeatedly communicated” their concerns, they highlighted the repression of protests and democracy advocacy in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR); impunity for excessive use of force by police; the alleged use of chemical agents against protesters; the alleged sexual harassment and assault of women protesters in police stations; together with the alleged harassment of health care workers.

The experts also raised their “grave concerns” on issues ranging from the collective repression of specific communities – “especially religious and ethnic minorities, in Xinjiang and Tibet” – to the detention of lawyers and prosecution – in addition to disappearances – of human rights defenders across the country. 

Moreover, they expressed alarm over allegations of forced labour in both formal and informal sectors of the economy, as well as arbitrary interferences with the right to privacy, cybersecurity laws that authorise censorship; and anti-terrorism and sedition laws, applicable in Hong Kong. 

The independent experts also voiced their concern for journalists, medical workers and those speaking out about COVID-19 online inside China, who have allegedly faced retaliation from the authorities, including being charged with “spreading misinformation” or “disrupting public order.”

‘Violation’ of legal obligations

Most recently, say the experts, and without meaningful consultation with the people of Hong Kong, China has drafted a national security law that would undermine the right to a fair trial, and open the door to a “sharp rise in arbitrary detention”, undermining the “one country, two systems” governance framework that was introduced at the end of British rule; enabling the Chinese Government to establish “agencies” in Hong Kong “when needed.”

If adopted, the law would “violate China’s international legal obligations and impose severe restrictions on civil and political rights in the autonomous region”, according to the independent experts.

“The draft law would deprive the people of Hong Kong…the autonomy and fundamental rights guaranteed them under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration”, they maintained.

The experts urged China to “withdraw the draft national security law for Hong Kong”.

Standing up, speaking out

After actions taken by the Government towards Hong Kong, Xinjiang minorities, the Tibet Autonomous Region, and rights defenders across the country, the independent experts are calling for “renewed attention on the human rights situation in the country”.

They urged China to invite civil and political rights monitors to conduct independent missions “in an environment of confidentiality, respect for human rights defenders, and full avoidance of reprisals” and encouraged the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to urgently monitor Chinese human rights practices. 

Click here for the full list of names of the UN experts.

Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based HRC to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honourary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.

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Human Rights

US sanctions against international court staff a ‘direct attack’ on judicial independence

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Many schools in Afghanistan have suffered the effects of long-term conflict. ©UNICEF/Marko Kokic

The decision by the United States to authorize sanctions targeting staff at the International Criminal Court (ICC) is “a direct attack to the institution’s judicial independence”, UN human rights experts said on Thursday.

Washington announced this month that it would launch an economic and legal offensive against ICC officials investigating alleged war crimes committed by all sides in the conflict in Afghanistan, including US troops.

“The implementation of such policies by the US has the sole aim of exerting pressure on an institution whose role is to seek justice against crimes of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression”, said Diego García-Sayán, UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, speaking on behalf of the 34 experts.

“It’s a further step in pressuring the ICC and coercing its officials in the context of independent and objective investigations and impartial judicial proceedings.”

Afghanistan probe ‘important’

The ICC, which is based in The Hague, in the Netherlands, prosecutes the most serious crimes of concern to the international community, including cases related to conflict in the Central African Republic, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It was established in July 1998 under a treaty known as the Rome Statute, which more than 120 countries have signed. The US is not a party.

The ICC’s Appeals Chambers authorized the Afghanistan probe in March, overturning an earlier decision.

Speaking at the time, Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda called it “an important day for the cause of justice in the situation of Afghanistan, for the Court, and for international criminal justice more broadly.”

Assets blocked, visas revoked

In response to the court’s decision, US President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order on 11 June, blocking the financial assets of certain ICC staff and imposing visa restrictions on them and their immediate family members.

Speaking at a press conference that day, US Attorney-General William Barr said the measures “are an important first step in holding the ICC accountable for exceeding its mandate and violating the sovereignty of the United States.”

The president of the body which overseesthe  ICC, O-Gon Kwon, has denounced the measures, stating “they undermine our common endeavour to fight impunity and to ensure accountability for mass atrocities.”

‘Broad spectrum’ of rights violated

The UN experts said sanctions targeting international judges and international civil servants violate their privileges and immunities, as well as “a broad spectrum” of rights.

Specifically, the Executive Order “would result in the violation of the prohibition of punishment for acts that did not constitute criminal offences at the moment of their commission, the right to a fair trial, the right to freedom of movement and the right to privacy and family life,” they added.

They also recalled that the US has warned it would “exact consequences” against the ICC for any “illegitimate” investigations into Israeli practices in the occupied Palestinian territory.

The experts, who are neither UN staff nor paid by the Organization, have been in contact with the US authorities on these issues.

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Digital tools being used to track people as never before

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The internet and new digital tools are being manipulated as never before to infringe on people’s right to free assembly, the UN’s top rights official said on Thursday, in a call for a moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology during peaceful demonstrations.

Amid global protests against systemic racism, corruption and economic woes exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet also expressed concern about the use of non-lethal weapons against demonstrators.

These emerging devices include pepper ball launchers, acoustic weapons and drones and other “autonomous systems” that release tear gas, Ms. Bachelet’s Office, OHCHR, said in a report, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council.

The High Commissioner urged States and businesses to ensure that these and other fast-developing technologies are developed and used in ways that do not disrupt and prevent people’s participation in public affairs.

“New technologies can be used to mobilize and organize peaceful protests, form networks and coalitions…thus driving social change”, Ms. Bachelet said, a former two-term president of her native Chile. “But, as we have seen, they can be – and are being – used to restrict and infringe on protesters’ rights, to surveil and track them, and invade their privacy.”

Training call

In a call for mandatory training for law-enforcement personnel on the use of crowd control weapons – and accountability for rights violations related to their misuse – the High Commissioner explained that they “can kill if …improperly used, whether deliberately or accidentally”.

According to OHCHR protests took place in some 80 countries around the world in 2019, with many grievances at the core of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

This year, people in thousands of cities worldwide took to the streets in the wake of the death in the U.S. of George Floyd, whose death on 25 May in Minneapolis was captured on video, while a police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes.

More facial recognition

In a worrying development, more States are increasingly using facial recognition technology to identify protesters, “sometimes in real time”, said OHCHR’s Peggy Hicks, Director of Thematic Engagement.

This was despite the fact that the technology was allegedly “prone to errors”, she continued, urging its proportionate use.

“That means in this context that misidentification could lead to wrongful arrest for example, or prosecution. These risks we know are substantially greater for women and people of colour, raising the likelihood that facial recognition technology may perpetuate and amplify discrimination.”

Calls blocked, accounts hacked

It was also deeply concerning that protesters faced having their cell phone calls intercepted or blocked by “many” police forces, or their social media accounts hacked and systematically monitored.

“Too often authorities have viewed peaceful assemblies as something that needs to be controlled or managed, rather than as critical vehicles for public participation in democracy”, Ms. Hicks told journalists via video conference in Geneva.

Among its recommendations, the OHCHR report urged States to avoid resorting to internet shutdowns, which happened during at least 65 protests in 2019.

Addressing the fact that only around half of the world’s people have access to the internet today, Ms. Bachelet also insisted that it was “crucial” that States ensure secure and affordable online access for everyone.

“Given the importance of the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly for democracies, and the role Internet-based technologies can play, it is crucial that States close the digital divide and ensure the greatest number of people possible can get secure, affordable Internet access”, the High Commissioner said.

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