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Human Rights Council calls on top UN rights official to take action on racist violence

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Protests have been occurring daily in New York City against racism and police violence, following the death of George Floyd. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

The UN’s top rights official, Michelle Bachelet, is to spearhead efforts to address systemic racism against people of African descent by law enforcement agencies, the Human Rights Council decided on Friday. The resolution – decided unanimously without a vote – follows a rare Urgent Debate in the Council earlier in the week, requested by the African group of nations, following the death of George Floyd in the US state of Minnesota.

The unarmed African-American’s death on 25 May was captured on video while a police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes in Minneapolis, sparking worldwide protest.

During the debate on racism, alleged police brutality and violence against protesters that preceded the resolution’s adoption, no less than120 speakers took the floor.

Many expressed sympathy for the family of Mr. Floyd, whose brother also addressed Council members in Geneva, in a passionate pre-recorded video message in which he urged the United Nations to act.

No international probe

Although some delegates had called for an international probe to investigate killings of black people in America, and violence against demonstrators, others maintained that the issue impacted on all nations, and required a broader approach.

In line with the final version of the resolution text, the High Commissioner should “prepare a report on systemic racism, violations of international human rights law against Africans and people of African descent by law enforcement agencies, especially those incidents that resulted in the death of George Floyd and other Africans and of people of African descent”.

The text also calls on Ms. Bachelet – assisted by UN appointed independent rights experts and committees “to examine government responses to anti-racism peaceful process peaceful protests, including the alleged use of excessive force against protesters, bystanders and journalists”.

Overseeing the resolution, Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger (Austria), President of the Human Rights Council (14th cycle) announced that the text was ready for their consideration and asked whether a vote could be dispensed with, in light of the general consensus.

‘An historic step’

“Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, I have been informed that a number of resolutions are ready for adoption during this meeting as shown on the screen…So, I would like to ask if there is a request from anybody for a vote…I see none, so may I take it that the draft proposal L50 as orally revised may be adopted without a vote? It is so decided.”

In his address to Member States as coordinator of the African Group, Dieudonné W. Désiré Sougouri, Permanent Representative of Burkina Faso to the United Nations Office, declared the Urgent Debate “an historic step” in the combat against racism of which the Human Rights Council could be “proud”.

“The international outrage caused by the tragic events that led to the death of George Floyd underlined the urgency and importance for the Human Rights Council to raise its voice against injustice and police brutality which African people and people of African descent are faced with every day in many regions of the world,” he said.

The Council also heard widespread declarations of support for an investigation into violence against protesters supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

Racism will remain ‘a priority’

“The fight against all forms of racism and racial discrimination remains a priority for us,” said Michael Ungern-Sternberg, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Germany to the United Nations Office at Geneva. “The past weeks, many people around the world raised their voices and took to the streets to send a clear signal that racism and excessive use of force by law enforcement officials against minority populations cannot (any) longer be accepted.”

Other speakers insisted that the resolution was necessary and important in promoting awareness about systemic racism, and in continuing the work of implementing key pledges taken to combat the scourge in 2002 at the Durban World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

“Black lives matter,” said Ambassador Coly Seck, Permanent Representative of Senegal to the United Nations Office at Geneva. Racism continues to happen in many countries too, he said, noting that it was in “flagrant contradiction” to the UN Charter in which we place our faith in the basic rights of man and in the value of the human person”.

UN independent experts voice ‘profound concern’ over US Government accusations of ‘domestic terrorism’

And in another human rights development concerning the fallout from protests over George Floyd’s death in the US, UN independent experts on Friday expressed “profound concern” over a recent statement by the US Attorney-General describing the so-called Antifa movement and other anti-fascist activists as “domestic terrorists”, saying it undermines the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly in the country.

“International human rights law protects the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly”, said Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

“It is regrettable that the United States has chosen to respond to the protests in a manner that undermines these fundamental rights.”

Following nationwide demonstrations that began after police in Minneapolis killed African American George Floyd, US Attorney General William Barr warned that alleged violence carried out by Antifa and other movements “is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly”, noted the press release issued by the UN rights office, OHCHR.

‘Loose use of terrorist rhetoric’

Although there has not been an legislative action taken following the 31 May statement, Ms. Ní Aoláin – an expert lawyer who worked extensively in the human rights and terrorism-related field in her native Northern Ireland – said that the “the loose use of terrorism rhetoric undermines legitimate protests and dampens freedom of expression in the United States, which has been a hallmark of US constitutional values, and a beacon far beyond its shores”.

Echoing the unease expressed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights regarding structural race discrimination in the US, particularly in the realm of policing, the Special Rapporteur said that regulating protests and violence through the lens of counter-terrorism may only sharpen divisions and accentuate tensions, fuelling further human rights violations.

The group of independent experts strongly recommend that the violent elements among peaceful protesters who have been identified by law enforcement, be dealt with fairly, and in accordance to due process under existing penal law.

Ms. Ní Aoláin is urging the US Government to take a human rights-based approach in their response to protests and violence and avoid the misuse and misappropriation of the language of terrorism.

“Unless it does, the Government risks cheapening grave crimes that fall under the rubric of terrorism and failing to fulfil fundamental obligations to ensure counter-terrorism measures are fully compliant with international human rights law.”

The Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council constitute the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, and they address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.

The experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work, as well as being independent from any government or organization.

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Human Rights

No safe harbour: lifting the lid on a misunderstood trafficking crime

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photo © UNICEF/Noorani

The crime of harbouring, in which victims of human trafficking are accommodated or forced to stay in a specific location, is not universally understood by courts around the world. A new UN study aims to address that issue, and improve protection for victims.

A journey of exploitation

Harbouring is one of five actions that constitute an ‘act’ in the internationally recognised definition of human trafficking, and is often used by prosecutors and judges for convictions of this crime.

The act can take place before and during exploitation, or between periods of abuse, encompassing a wide variety of settings, including brothels, private homes, factories, farms, or fishing vessels.

These locations can be dangerous, inhumane and unsanitary, and cn be controlled by criminals involved in the trafficking network.  

In another case, victims who had been brought from Thailand to Australia were harboured during transit and at the place of exploitation: while being transported the victims were accommodated in hotels and accompanied by minders.

Once they were received by the offenders, the victims were either accommodated in the brothel where they were forced to work, or alternatively stayed at the offenders’ house, and were transported to and from the brothel each day.

Trafficking victims can also be subjected to harbouring once they arrive at the place of exploitation. In a case from the Dominican Republic, the offenders, a married couple, recruited a Chinese national to work in their business.

They promised to pay her and provide her with food. Instead, she was not paid, forced into domestic servitude and subjected to abuse.

A misunderstood concept

However, a new publication from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has found that there is neither a uniform understanding of the act of harbouring, nor a consistent approach to this concept during court proceedings.

“Harbouring is one of the most frequent acts when committing human trafficking, but the concept is not interpreted in the same way throughout the world,” says Martin Hemmi, the UNODC expert who led the study. 

“Some countries require the victims to be concealed or moved between locations for harbouring to be considered as an act of human trafficking. Others stipulate a minimum amount of time for the harbouring process,” adds Mr. Hemmi. “It is important to fully understand the concept to get justice for victims of this crime.”

The language barrier

Further findings show there are different meanings of the word ‘harbouring’ in the various language versions of the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol,  which is the world’s primary legal instrument to combat this crime.

In French and Arabic, the word used for harbouring has a positive connotation in the sense of hosting, while in English, Chinese and Russian, it can be perceived as having a negative meaning in the sense of hiding or concealing.

“Due to these discrepancies, the same conduct is considered human trafficking in one country but not necessarily in another,” says Mr. Hemmi.  

“This has wide consequences. For the perpetrator, it can have an effect on the sentence. For the victim, it has an impact on rights and protection measures. For the courts, it can hamper requests for legal assistance and international cooperation.” 

Wherever and however it occurs, harbouring with the intent of exploitation is an act of human trafficking and a violation of the victim’s rights and dignity, says Martin Hemmi.  

“We hope that our new study will be used by investigators, prosecutors and judges to lead to a better understanding of this terrible crime and support measures to effectively protect victims and punish traffickers,” he concludes.

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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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