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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

Migrants left stranded and without assistance by COVID-19 lockdowns

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At least 30,000 migrants are stranded at borders in West Africa according to the UN. IOM/Monica Chiriac

Travel restrictions during the COVID pandemic have been particularly hard on refugees and migrants who move out of necessity, stranding millions from home, the UN migration agency, IOM, said on Thursday. 

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the first year of the pandemic saw more than 111,000 travel restrictions and border closures around the world at their peak in December.  

These measures “have thwarted many people’s ability to pursue migration as a tool to escape conflict, economic collapse, environmental disaster and other crises”, IOM maintained. 

In mid-July, nearly three million people were stranded, sometimes without access to consular assistance, nor the means to meet their basic needs.  

In Panama, the UN agency said that thousands were cut off in the jungle while attempting to travel north to the United States; in Lebanon, migrant workers were affected significantly by the August 2020 explosion in Beirut and the subsequent surge of COVID-19 cases. 

Business as usual 

Border closures also prevented displaced people from seeking refuge, IOM maintained, but not business travellers, who “have continued to move fairly freely”, including through agreed ‘green lanes’, such as the one between Singapore and Malaysia.  

By contrast, those who moved out of necessity – such as migrant workers and refugees – have had to absorb expensive quarantine and self-isolation costs, IOM said, noting that in the first half of 2020, asylum applications fell by one-third, compared to the same period a year earlier.  

Unequal restrictions 

As the COVID crisis continues, this distinction between those who can move and those who cannot, will likely become even more pronounced, IOM said, “between those with the resources and opportunities to move freely, and those whose movement is severely restricted by COVID-19-related or pre-existing travel and visa restrictions and limited resources”. 

This inequality is even more likely if travel is allowed for anyone who has been vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19, or for those with access to digital health records – an impossibility for many migrants. 

Health risks 

Frontier lockdowns also reduced options for those living in overcrowded camps with high coronavirus infection rates in Bangladesh and Greece, IOM’s report indicated.  

In South America, meanwhile, many displaced Venezuelans in Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Brazil, lost their livelihoods and some have sought to return home – including by enlisting the services of smugglers. 

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Human Rights

Clashes in Myanmar displace thousands

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As of the start of 2021, about one million people are in need of humanitarian aid and protection in Myanmar. Pictured here, an IDP camp in Myanmar’s Kachin province. (file photo) UNICEF/Minzayar Oo

Clashes between the Myanmar security forces and regional armed groups, which have involved military airstrikes, have reportedly claimed the lives of at least 17 civilians in several parts of the country, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Wednesday. 

In a humanitarian update, issued on Tuesday, the Office also noted unconfirmed reports of several thousand people fleeing the hostilities in recent days in the Kayin and Bago regions, in central Myanmar, near Yangon. A medical clinic is also reported to have been damaged in gunfire in a township in Mon state, also in the central part of the country. 

An estimated 7,100 civilians are now internally displaced in the two regions due to indiscriminative attacks by the Myanmar Armed Forces (MAF), and the Karen National Union (KNU), as well as growing insecurity since December 2020, according to the update. 

UNHCR [the UN refugee agency] is engaging with partners on the ground to explore possibilities to deliver critical humanitarian assistance and support to the displaced. A further 3,848 people in Kayin State have crossed the border to Thailand since 27 March, due to fears of further hostilities in the area”, OCHA said. 

The majority are believed to have returned to Myanmar with Thai authorities saying that 1,167  remain in Thailand as of 1 April, the Office added. 

‘Deep concern’ over continued impact of the crisis 

Meanwhile, the wider political crisis across Myanmar continues to hit life hard across the southeast Asian nation. 

The UN human rights office (OHCHR) has received credible reports of at least 568 women, children and men, have been killed since the military coup on 1 February, though there are fears that total is likely much higher. 

Concerns have also been raised over the impact on Myanmar’s health and education systems, as well as the long-term effects of the violence on children

The longer the current situation of widespread violence continuous, the more it will contribute to a continuous state of distress and toxic stress for children, which can have a lifelong impact on their mental and physical health, senior UN officials warned last week. 

Since 1 February, there have been at least 28 attacks against hospitals and health personnel and seven attacks against schools and school personnel, UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told reporters at a press briefing at the UN Headquarters, in New York, on Tuesday. 

“Attacks against health volunteers and against ambulances are preventing life-saving help from reaching civilians wounded by security forces,” he added. 

UN agencies have also reported reported sharp increases in food and fuel prices in many parts of Myanmar, on the back of supply chain and market disruptions. Humanitarians worry that if the price trends continue, they will “severely undermine” the ability of the poorest and most vulnerable to put enough food on the family table.

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Guterres: Use COVID-19 recovery to make inclusion ‘a reality’

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Building a more inclusive and accessible world that recognizes the contributions of all people, including persons with disabilities must be a “key goal” as countries work to recover from COVID-19 pandemic, United Nations Secretary-General said on Friday, commemorating World Autism Awareness Day. 

“The crisis has created new obstacles and challenges. But efforts to reignite the global economy offer an opportunity to reimagine the workplace to make diversity, inclusion and equity a reality”, Secretary-General António Guterres said

“Recovery is also a chance to rethink our systems of education and training to ensure that persons with autism are afforded opportunities for realizing their potential”, he added. 

Breaking ‘old habits’ crucial 

Mr. Guterres also emphasized that breaking old habits will be crucial. For persons with autism, he added, access to decent work on an equal basis requires creating an enabling environment, along with reasonable accommodations. 

“To truly leave no one behind in pursuit of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, we must realize the rights of all persons with disabilities, including persons with autism, ensuring their full participation in social, cultural and economic life”, he said. 

“Let us work together with all persons with disabilities and their representative organizations to find innovative solutions to recover better and build a better world for all.” 

Inequalities worsened by COVID-19

According to the UN World Health Organization (WHO), one in 160 children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD begins in childhood and tends to persist into adolescence and adulthood. 

Intervention during early childhood is important to promote the optimal development and well-being of persons with an ASD, WHO added, emphasizing the importance of monitoring of child development as part of routine maternal and child health care. 

While some individuals with ASD are able to live independently, others have severe disabilities and require life-long care and support. Persons with an ASD are also often subject to stigma and discrimination, including unjust deprivation of health care, education, protection under law, and opportunities to engage and participate in their communities.

The World Day

The World Autism Awareness Day, to be commemorated annually on 2 April, was established in December 2007 by the UN General Assembly, which affirmed that “ensuring and promoting the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities is critical to achieving internationally agreed development goals”. 

The General Assembly also highlighted the importance of early diagnosis and appropriate research and interventions for the growth and development of the individual, and called for efforts to raise awareness throughout society, including at the family level, regarding children with autism. 

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