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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

Only ‘real equality’ can end vicious cycle of poverty

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Children play outside a metal polishing workshop in a slum in Uttar Pradesh, India. © UNICEF/Niklas Halle'n

Although poverty and privilege “continue to reproduce themselves in vicious cycles”, it is possible to break the chain and shift the paradigm, an independent UN human rights expert told the General Assembly on Wednesday. 

Presenting his reportThe persistence of poverty: how real equality can break the vicious cycle, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Olivier De Shutter, said that “with political will”, it is possible to end centuries of entrenched inequality and “move from fate to opportunity”.  

Early investment 

“Investing in early childhood, promoting inclusive education, given young adults a basic income financed through inheritance taxes, and combating anti-poor discrimination are the key ingredients needed to break the cycles of advantage and disadvantage”, Mr. De Shutter said in his statement.  

Acknowledging that many countries pride themselves on ensuring high levels of social mobility, the human rights expert stated that “the truth is that the persistence of privilege at the top, and deprivation at the bottom, are all too commonplace.” 

“The top 10 percent of people living in OECD countries control 52 percent of total net wealth, while the bottom 60 percent own just over 12 percent, condemning the poor to a lifetime of poverty”, he said. According to the report, based on data from countries which are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), it takes four to five generations for children in low-income households to reach the mean income in their country. In emerging countries such as Brazil, Colombia or South Africa, it can take up to nine or even more generations.  

Tougher with time 

Observing that children born in disadvantaged families were denied equal opportunity, the Special Rapporteur examined the channels through which poverty is perpetuated, in the areas of health, housing, education and employment. 

“Children born in poor families have less access to healthcare, decent housing, quality education and employment than those in better-off households”, De Shutter said. “This dramatically reduces their chances of breaking free from the poverty trap”.  

Describing the outcomes as “appalling”, the Rapporteur added that children born in a family experiencing poverty are more than three times as likely to be poor, aged 30, than those who were never poor. 

Poverty costs 

The UN rights expert reminded that child poverty is not only “morally unconscionable and a human rights violation”, but also expensive. “In the United States, child poverty costs over one trillion dollars annually, or 5.4% of its GDP, but for each dollar invested on reducing it, seven dollars would be saved,” said the expert.  

Calling for and end to the myth that inequality is an incentive that encourages people to work harder, Mr. De Shutter said that the facts point to the exact opposite: “Inequality lowers social mobility and entrenches advantage and disadvantage over decades. When we fetishize merit, we stigmatize those in poverty or with low incomes, and blame them for their own condition”.  

Call for action 

Stressing that “no child should be penalized for being born in poverty” in mind, and stating that, in fact, “poverty is a failure not of the individual, but of society”, Mr. De Shutter called on governments to act now, “before another generation is condemned to the same fate as their parents”.  

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Human Rights

Restore sexual, reproductive health rights lost during COVID, rights expert urges

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Adolescent girls attend a support group discussion on women’s health. © UNICEF/Tapash Paul

Sexual and reproductive health rights, are human rights, the independent UN expert on the right to health reminded Member States in the General Assembly on Wednesday, saying that it was essential to restore services in the field, that have been eroded during the COVID-19 pandemic

“Millions of women globally had limited or no access to maternal and new-born healthcare, some 14 million women lost access to contraception, and specialized services for victims of gender-based violence became inaccessible, when they were needed most”, said Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng.

The Special Rapporteur pointed out that lockdowns, movement restrictions and diversion of funds due to COVID-19 have “jeopardized access to essential sexual and reproductive health services”.

In presenting her report on the effect of the pandemic on physical and mental health services, she also spoke of “new measures and laws in place across regions, further restricting access to safe abortion, a component of sexual and reproductive services encompassed in the right to health”.

Reversing a legacy

As part of the right to health, the UN expert called on States to move beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to rebuild and strengthen health systems for advancing sexual and reproductive health rights for all.

“Governments must remove obstacles and ensure full access to quality services, including maternal health care, contraception and abortion services, screening for reproductive cancers and comprehensive sexual education”, she said.

However, Dr. Mofokeng noted that many obstacles continue to stand between individuals and their exercise of their rights to health, rooted in patriarchy and colonialism, and others in structural and systemic inequalities.

“Patriarchal oppression is universal, permeates all societies and is at the very origin of the erosion of autonomy and the control of girls and women’s bodies and sexuality to the detriment of their enjoyment of sexual and reproductive rights”, she spelled out.

“Colonialism has permeated patriarchy across regions and its legacy continues today through laws, policies and practices that deny or restrict sexual and reproductive rights and criminalize gender diverse identities and consensual adult same-sex acts”, added the Special Rapporteur.

Rooted in law

She reminded governments that sexual and reproductive health rights are rooted in binding human rights treaties, jurisprudence, and consensus outcome documents of international conferences.

“I call on States to respect and protect key principles of autonomy, bodily integrity, dignity and well-being of individuals, especially in relation to sexual and reproductive health rights”, she said.

“I pledge to engage with States and all relevant actors to uphold the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”.

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Human Rights

UN: Paraguay violated indigenous rights

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An indigenous community in Paraguay wait to receive their COVID-19 vaccination. WHO/PAHO

Paraguay’s failure to prevent the toxic contamination of indigenous people’s traditional lands by commercial farming violates their rights and their sense of “home”, the UN Human Rights Committee said in a landmark ruling on Wednesday. 

The Committee, which is made up of 18 independent experts from across the world, monitors countries’ adherence to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  

Lands represent ‘home’ 

The decision on Paraguay (in Spanish) marked the first time it has affirmed that for indigenous people, “home” should be understood in the context of their special relationship with their territories, including their livestock, crops and way of life.  

“For indigenous peoples, their lands represent their home, culture and community. Serious environmental damages have severe impacts on indigenous people’s family life, tradition, identity and even lead to the disappearance of their community. It dramatically harms the existence of the culture of the group as a whole,” said Committee member Hélène Tigroudja. 

The decision stems from a complaint filed more than a decade ago on behalf of some 201 Ava Guarani people of the Campo Agua’e indigenous community, located in Curuguaty district in eastern Paraguay. 

The area where they live is surrounded by large commercial farms which produce genetically modified soybeans through fumigation, a process which involves the use of banned pesticides. 

Traditional life affected 

Fumigation occurred continuously for more than 10 years and affected the indigenous community’s whole way of life, including killing livestock, contaminating waterways and harming people’s health. 

The damage also had severe intangible repercussions, according to the UN committee.  The disappearance of natural resources needed for hunting, fishing and foraging resulted in the loss of traditional knowledge.  For example, ceremonial baptisms no longer take place as necessary materials no longer exist. 

“By halting such ceremonies, children are denied a rite crucial to strengthening their cultural identity,” the Committee said.  “Most alarmingly, the indigenous community structure is being eroded and disintegrated as families are forced to leave their land.” 

Toxic exposure 

The indigenous community brought the case to the Human Rights Committee after a lengthy and unsatisfactory administrative and judicial process in Paraguay’s courts. 

“More than 12 years after the victims filed their criminal complaint regarding the fumigation with toxic agrochemicals, to which they have continued to be exposed throughout this period, the investigations have not progressed in any meaningful way and the State party has not justified the delay,” the Committee said in its decision. 

Recommendations, reparations 

Members found Paraguay did not adequately monitor the fumigation and failed to prevent contamination, adding “this failure in its duty to provide protection made it possible for the large-scale, illegal fumigation to continue for many years, destroying all components of the indigenous people’s family life and home.”  

The Committee recommended that Paraguay complete the criminal and administrative proceedings against all parties responsible and make full reparation to the victims. 

The authorities are also urged to take all necessary measures, in close consultation with the indigenous community, to repair the environmental damage, and to work to prevent similar violations from occurring in the future. 

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