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Asian countries urged to honour right to freedom of expression, over pandemic fear

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, addresses the 41st Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva on 24 June 2019. UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferre

A dozen countries in the Asia-Pacific region have seen an alarming clampdown on freedom of expression during the COVID-19 crisis, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on Wednesday.

In her appeal to authorities that any action they take to stop the spread of false information should adhere to the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality, Ms. Bachelet said that “in these times of great uncertainty”, citizens had a right to voice their concerns.

Opinions must be heard

“Medical professionals, journalists, human rights defenders and the general public must be allowed to express opinions on vitally important topics of public interest, such as the provision of health care and the handling of the health and socio-economic crisis, and the distribution of relief items,” she said.

From Bangladesh to Vietnam and from Myanmar to the Philippines, the High Commissioner detailed how people had been fined, arrested or attacked for allegedly spreading misinformation online about COVID-19 or for criticizing their Government’s response.

In Cambodia, Ms Bachelet noted that UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) had documented multiple arrests – including that of a 14-year-old girl – for public comments and social media posts about the pandemic.

“A number have been charged with spreading so-called ‘fake news’ or ‘false information’, alleged incitement to commit a felony, and for allegedly plotting against the Government,” the High Commissioner said.

According to the UN human rights office, 14 individuals remain in detention, including 10 associated with the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the main opposition party that was dissolved in 2017.

Countries already have ‘fake news’ laws

More generally, the High Commissioner noted that many of the countries she highlighted already had laws to stop alleged “fake news” and online media that raised human rights concerns.

This legislation had also been used in other contexts to deter legitimate speech, especially public debate, criticism of government policy and suppress freedom of expression, she added.

In Myanmar, the Kayin State Court had convicted and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment the chief editor of the Dae Pyaw News Agency, on charges of wrongly publishing an article stating that one person died from the virus, the High Commissioner said.

He was arrested, charged, tried, and convicted in under one week after being accused of making a “statement that could cause or incite public fear or mutiny”.

While recognising the need to restrict misinformation or disinformation to protect public health – or incitement of hatred towards minority groups – this should not result in censorship, either purposeful or unintentional, Ms. Bachelet insisted.

“While Governments may have a legitimate interest in controlling the spread of misinformation in a volatile and sensitive context, this must be proportionate and protect freedom of expression”, she said.

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Human Rights

Impacts of COVID-19 disproportionately affect poor and vulnerable

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Addressing poverty eradication on Tuesday in front of the General Assembly, UN chief António Guterres warned that the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are falling “disproportionately on the most vulnerable: people living in poverty, the working poor, women and children, persons with disabilities, and other marginalized groups”.

The virtual high-level UN meeting was billed as the first in a series of policy dialogues on ending poverty, and also served as the official inauguration of the Alliance for Poverty Eradication, an initiative of the President of the General Assembly, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande.

In his remarks, Mr. Guterres noted that the pandemic has “laid bare” challenges –such as structural inequalities, inadequate healthcare, and the lack of universal social protection – and the heavy price societies are paying as a result.

‘People-centred’ recovery

Ending poverty sits at the heart of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and is the first of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Despite this, poverty and hunger, as the UN chief reminded his audience, are on the rise, following decades of progress.

Economic recovery plans should prioritize at-risk workers, such as those in the informal sector; protect micro, small and medium enterprises, including those owned by women; and involve an expansion of universal social protection, said Mr. Guterres. The Secretary-General has also proposed a rescue and recovery package equivalent to more than 10 per cent of the global economy’s overall value.

The UN chief called for improved international cooperation; more support for developing countries – by providing financial assistance, and relieving or postponing foreign debt – and for economies to be steered towards inclusive and green growth.

‘A blot on humanity’s conscience’

Addressing the meeting, Mr. Muhammad-Bande described poverty as a “blot on humanity’s conscience”, which is the underlying trigger of conflict and civil strife, and “the most formidable obstacle” realizing the SDGs. Research, he said, has shown that due to the sharp decline in economic activity resulting from the pandemic, more than 850 million people now risk falling into poverty.

The Alliance for Poverty Eradication, he continued, is designed to address the poverty question from all possible angles, and serve as a forum for networking, information-sharing, and bridge-building.

Mr. Muhammad-Bande pointed out that the Alliance would be the first UN group to promote ending poverty, and will provide a major opportunity to confront the challenge, which he described as “enduring, complex and multi-sided”.

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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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