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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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How to ensure the poor and vulnerable don’t shoulder the cost of the COVID-19 crisis

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Child farmers help to level fields in Balkh Province, Afghanistan., by World Bank/Ghullam Abbas Farzami

In the wake of the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, tax systems should be reformed, and tax avoidance and evasion reduced, to ensure an economic recovery in which everyone pays their share, says the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Taxes pay for many of the things that are fundamental to functioning societies across the world, such as schools, health care, and social services. Money raised through taxation is crucial to ensuring that these services are maintained during the COVID-19 crisis. But, when businesses shut down, and millions lose their jobs, as has happened during the current crisis, tax revenue plummets.

In the short-term, governments have put together stimulus packages, and a wide array of measures to help businesses and citizens get back on their feet. The IMF is tracking these efforts, which range from a $540 billion European Union package, which includes funding to help the hardest-hit states; to a ‘cash for work’ program in Cambodia; and, in Samoa, a six-month reduction in private utility bills.

Damage control

At the same time, the IMF has made emergency COVID-19 funding available, particularly to those countries with developing economies. The IMF has made some $250 billion available, in the form of financial assistance and debt service relief, to some 77 member countries.

For example, In April, the IMF approved Afghanistan’s request for an emergency assistance package of approximately $220 million, to help the country cope with the disruption to trade, which has led to heavy damage to the economy.

Bangladesh, which has been badly hit by plummeting demand for one of its main exports, clothing, received emergency assistance worth some $732 million in May. Also in May, to avoid what the IMF characterized as “immediate and severe economic disruption” resulting from the pandemic, Egypt received a package of more than $2.7 billion, to help alleviate some of the most pressing financing needs, including for spending on health, social protection, and supporting the most impacted sectors and vulnerable groups.

But, in the longer-term, these stop-gap measures will not be enough to fix many of the underlying problems of the global economy, which include growing inequality within countries, and the ability of multinational enterprises to legally minimise corporate taxes.

The progressive approach

Victoria Perry, Deputy Director of the IMF’s Fiscal Affairs Department, and an expert on taxation, told UN News that, in planning the post-pandemic recovery, countries should look at dealing with inequality by implementing more progressive tax systems: “this means that the average tax rate rises, along with income. The extent of the tax burden for richer people is for each country to decide, but it is certainly problematic when effective tax rates for better off people are lower than for poorer ones. It is also often the case that better off people, with access to tax advice and more complex financial affairs, can make better use of exceptions or loopholes in the tax system than those who rely only on wages. Closing such options can make for a more equitable system and — depending on the country — can be more important than structural reforms of tax rates.” 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the growing gap between rich and poor was already a cause for concern. Whilst inequality has fallen between countries, with some countries, such as China, making huge strides in raising overall income levels in recent decades, inequality within countries appears to be rising. For Ms. Perry and the IMF, personal income taxes play a leading role, when it comes to determining the progressivity of the tax system. 

Ms. Perry adds that another option for some developing countries, which have trouble raising and enforcing a personal income tax, is to look at taxing property: “whilst income is relatively easy to hide, luxury homes are very visible, and a tax-free threshold means that owners of cheaper homes can be exempt or relieved from paying it”.

Income inequality differs widely across countries, but studies show that creating a fairer society, is not only about redistributing wealth, but, as Ms. Perry explains, putting in place policies that help people to gain sustainable, decent work: “Globalization has affected all open economies, but countries with effective redistributive tax and benefit systems have been able to avoid sharply rising inequality. However, redistribution on its own is not enough. It has to go hand-in-hand with a host of other measures, such as retraining, and job support”. In thinking about equity, then, it is important to look at both sides of the equation—not only taxes, but how the money is spent to improve lives. 

Getting to the source of the issue

Some studies have calculated that, in richer countries, some 10 per cent of corporate tax revenue is lost to tax avoidance by multinationals. Developing countries are estimated to lose even more, in proportion to the national incomes.

“Another problem is that the international tax system may shift the tax base away from the ‘source’ country, says Ms. Perry. “So, if a mining company has its headquarters (residence) in a richer country, but operates mines in a less-developed economy (the source), the source country may not get the lion’s share of the tax revenue. When we talk about ‘fair and equitable distribution’, many observers are talking about ensuring that source countries get a better deal. The current international debate over taxing major digital tech companies, many of which are headquartered in the US, is similar, but the “digital” economy is even harder to address. Even though they’re doing business and making money all over the world, where the presence is virtual rather than physical, countries are not allowed to collect tax revenue on the income, under the current system”. 

“We are going through this huge economic crisis, and countries are having to make major adjustments to their economies. But inequality is also a kind of huge global problem in itself. This is also then an opportunity to change tax systems for the better, to make them fairer and more equitable, and to promote economic activity that is less polluting, less dominated by industry with a large carbon footprint, and more sustainable.”

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World Population Day: ‘No time to waste’ in empowering women

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“It is deepening existing inequalities and vulnerabilities, particularly for women and girls”, said Secretary-General António Guterres

“With many countries on lockdown and health systems struggling to cope, sexual and reproductive health services are being sidelined and gender-based violence is on the rise”.  

Devastating consequences 

Meanwhile, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) projects that if lockdown measures continue for six months with major disruptions to health services, 47 million women in low- and middle-income countries may not be able to access modern contraceptives. This would result in seven million unintended pregnancies.  

Moreover, some 31 million additional cases of gender-based violence can also be expected. 

“Every year, millions of girls are subjected to practices that harm them physically and emotionally, robbing them of their right to reach their full potential”, said the Secretary-General. 

  According to UNFPA’s State of World Population 2020, more than four million girls will be subjected to female genital mutilation and 12 million forced to marry this year.  

“Lockdowns stemming from the pandemic are expected to make matters even worse”, acknowledged Mr. Guterres.

Safeguard hard-won gains

Decades of experience and research show that bottom-up, grassroots approaches can change gender-biased norms and attitudes, the top UN official said.  

Through international declarations and agreements, the word has committed to ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health care; eliminating the unmet need for contraception; and ending all forms of violence against women and girls by 2030. 

The UN chief stressed that “we cannot allow the pandemic to reverse progress we have made towards these goals”.

“On this World Population Day, let us act to safeguard sexual and reproductive health care, protect the health and rights of women and girls, and end gender-based violence”, concluded the Secretary-General.  “The pandemic has made our jobs much harder, but we must prevail”.

Long road ahead

UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem underscored that women have a right to make their own decisions about “whether, when and how often to become pregnant”. 

That right was reaffirmed in 1994 in Cairo at the landmark International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), where 179 governments agreed that sexual and reproductive health is the foundation for sustainable development.

Yet, despite considerable gains over the past 25 years, there is a long road ahead to live up to the promise of Cairo, with too many women still unable to enjoy their rights.

“More than 200 million women and girls want to delay or prevent pregnancy but don’t have the means”, explained Dr. Kanem, noting that the most vulnerable and marginalized women and girls “who face the greatest gaps in services”.

Against the backdrop of more unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, pregnant girls shamed out of school and that more women and girls are dying, she spell out: “The cost of inaction is simply too high”. 

“There is no time to waste”, underscored the UNFPA chief, “our future depends on it”.

Tear down inequality

As evidenced by the alarming number of gender-biased sex selections, “women face discrimination even before they are born”, observed UNFPA India Representative and Bhutan Country Director Argentina Matavel.

And systemic violations of women’s rights continue throughout their life cycles.

She painted a picture of a women being denied their “God-given full potential” while robbing society of contributions from half the population.

“If one could stop for just a minute to compute the aggregate loss in productivity alone, we would have economists and politicians at the forefront of the struggle to tear down the roots of inequality from society”, Ms. Matavel stated.

Reset priorities 

To empower women, “each one of us has the responsibility to challenge our own stereotypes, the UN envoy argued.

She also urged Governments to recalibrate policy and programmatic changes to benefit women, along with putting in place mechanisms to address development gaps, especially for women and girls “who are invariably at the bottom of the ‘pyramid of the vulnerable.’”

“Humanity will be as strong as the weakest of our members – same for nations, and families”,  upheld the UNFPA representative.

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UNESCO expresses deep regret over Turkey decision to change status of historic Hagia Sophia

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As the Turkish President signed a decree on Friday converting the ancient Hagia Sophia in Istanbul into a mosque, the UN cultural agency (UNESCO) said that it “deeply regrets the decision” made “without prior discussion”, having earlier in the day called on the State to abide by its “legal commitments and obligations” in accordance with it’s status as a museum, on the World Heritage List.

The majestic building was founded around 1,500 years ago as a cathedral and is widely regarded as the foremost example of Byzantine Christian architecture in the world. Following the rise of the Ottoman Empire, it became a mosque, but in 1934, was designated a secular museum, shared by Christians, Muslims and those of all faiths or none, alike.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed the decree following years of campaigning by a cultural association, and the decision earlier in the day by a Turkish court, handing control of the building over to the nation’s religious directorate, according to news reports, allowing it to reopen for worship as a mosque.

Reacting to the decision, Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, described the building as “an architectural masterpiece, and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries. Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue.”

Call for dialogue

UNESCO said in a statement issued before the decree, that it had written to the Government and called for “dialogue” with the authorities, “before taking any decision that might impact the universal value of the site.”

Hagia Sophia, is part of the “Historic Areas of Istanbul”, and officially inscribed on the World Heritage List as a museum.

“This inscription entails a number of legal commitments and obligations. Thus, a State must ensure that no modification is made to the outstanding universal value of the property inscribed on its territory”, said the UN’s Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

No modification ‘without prior notification’

“Any modification requires prior notification by the State concerned to UNESCO and then, if necessary, examination by the World Heritage Committee.”

“Outstanding universal value” is the basis for the decision to inscribe any property on the World Heritage List, the statement continued.

“The texts adopted by the Committee specify that the ‘Historic Areas of Istanbul’ is inscribed notably for ‘its unique integration of architectural masterpieces reflecting the meeting of Europe and Asia over several centuries’ and because ‘Hagia Sophia became a model for an entire family of churches and later mosques, and the mosaics of the palaces and churches of Constantinople, influenced both Eastern and Western art’”.

‘Universal value’

The agency noted that in line with its designation, the Hagia Sophia “has a strong symbolic, historical and universal value.”

UNESCO called upon the Turkish authorities “to initiate dialogue without delay, in order to prevent any detrimental effect on the universal value of this exceptional heritage, the state of conservation of which will be examined by the World Heritage Committee at its next session.”

“It is important to avoid any implementing measure, without prior discussion with UNESCO, that would affect physical access to the site, the structure of the buildings, the site’s moveable property, or the site’s management,” stressed Ernesto Ottone, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture. Such measures could constitute breaches of the rules derived from the 1972 World Heritage Convention, the agency warned. 

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