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UN rights chief warns of possible war crimes in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

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The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has warned of possible war crimes in the ongoing fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. 

Michelle Bachelet on Monday expressed alarm at continuing indiscriminate attacks in populated areas in and around the border region, in contravention of international humanitarian law, despite a recent agreement by the two sides. 

“Since the conflict reignited in September with the terrible consequences we are now seeing, there have been repeated calls, including by myself, for the parties to take all feasible steps to avoid, or at the very least minimize, the loss of civilian life and damage to civilian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals – as well as to distinguish civilians from combatants, and civilian objects from military objectives,” she said. 

“International humanitarian law cannot be clearer. Attacks carried out in violation of the principle of distinction or the principle of proportionality may amount to war crimes, and the parties to the conflict are obliged to effectively, promptly, thoroughly and impartially investigate such violations and to prosecute those alleged to have committed them.”  

Artillery strikes reported 

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has persisted for more than three decades. The region has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces since the parties fought a war as the Soviet Union was dissolving. 

The UN rights chief said despite an agreement reached on Friday by Armenia and Azerbaijan, which called for refraining from deliberately targeting civilian populations, artillery strikes against populated areas were reported over the weekend. 

The Azerbaijani Government reported that since fighting resumed in September, at least 91 civilians have been killed in areas under its control, while the Armenian Government said 45 people have been killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, and two within its borders. The UN Human Rights Office,  OHCHR, which Ms. Bachelet heads, has not been able to independently verify these figures. 

Against cluster munitions 

The UN rights chief also noted that the biggest loss of life occurred on 28 October, when some 21 people were reportedly killed, and 70 others injured, in a rocket attack on the Azerbaijani town of Barda, roughly 30 km from the area of active hostilities. 

The rockets, allegedly fired by Armenian forces from Nagorno-Karabakh, reportedly carried cluster munitions. 

“Amid deeply troubling reports that cluster munitions have been used by both parties, I call once again on Armenia and Azerbaijan to stop using them, and to join the more than 100 States that have ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions which comprehensively bans their use,” the High Commissioner said. 

The conflict has also caused widespread displacement, and Ms. Bachelet urged the parties to “depoliticize the issue of providing human rights and humanitarian access” to affected areas, including by UN teams. 

Concern over videos 

The High Commissioner also expressed serious concern over videos which appear to show war crimes being committed. 

Although she said fake images have been circulated on social media, in-depth investigations by media organizations have uncovered “compelling and deeply disturbing information” surrounding videos what appeared to show Azerbaijani troops summarily executing two captured Armenians in military uniforms. 

The wilfiul killing of protected persons represents a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, the international treaty which established the standards for humanitarian treatment during war time. 

Ms. Bachelet explained that while such an incident would constitute a war crime, only a competent court can determine and rule on this. 

COVID-19 fears 

With the fighting taking place amid rising cases of COVID-19, the UN rights chief underscored the direct threat to public health, adding that “the fighting is also strikingly in opposition to the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire amid the pandemic.”  

Ms. Bachelet reiterated her call for all parties to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, abiding by the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution, and avoiding the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. 

“As the loss of life continues and the suffering of civilians deepens, I appeal again for an immediate halt in the fighting and urge all parties to abide by a humanitarian ceasefire and engage in negotiations to find a peaceful and durable solution to this conflict that has wrought so much destruction in the region,” she said. 

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Human Rights

Myanmar coup: ‘No sign’ of end to brutal crackdown on all fronts

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Unsplash/Gayatri Malhotra

One hundred days since the Myanmar military seized power, the “brutal” repression of protesters has continued, despite all international efforts to end the violence, the UN rights office (OHCHR) said on Tuesday.

“The military authorities are showing no sign of letting up in their brutal crackdown on opponents in a bid to consolidate their hold on power”, spokesperson Rupert Colville told journalists at a media briefing.

According to credible reports, as of 10 May, at least 782 people have been killed as security forces used unnecessary, disproportionate and lethal force, to suppress demonstrations and other forms of public participation, since the military coup on 1 February.

“While much of the world’s attention has been on the number of peaceful protesters and bystanders killed by the security forces, the authorities continue to commit other gross human rights violations against the people of Myanmar”, added Mr. Colville.

The OHCHR spokesperson called for greater international involvement to prevent the human rights situation there from deteriorating further.

In particular, he urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to “react quickly and to intensify its actions” to ensure Myanmar’s military leadership adheres to the commitments it made in the five-point plan agreed at the regional bloc’s meeting of leaders on 24 April, in Jakarta.

The five-point consensus agreed to an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar and that dialogue should be held among all parties to seek a peaceful solution in the interests of the people.

‘Daily raids’ on homes and offices

Mr. Colville went on to note that there are daily raids on private homes and offices, with more than 3,740 people currently in detention, including many in situations that may amount to enforced disappearances.

“Of those in custody, the vast majority have not been brought before a judge, while most of the 86 people prosecuted thus far have been tried in secret, with limited or no access to any form of legal counsel”, he said.

“Military tribunals and courts martial have been established in several townships in which martial law was declared. At least 25 individuals have received the death sentence to date – some 20 of whom were tried in absentia.”

Military ‘taking relatives’

Over the past month, the military leadership has issued more than 1,561 arrest warrants against civil society activists, trade unionists, journalists, academics, public personalities and online voices, driving the vast majority of them underground.

“To intensify pressure, the military authorities have resorted to taking relatives of wanted people into custody to force them to turn themselves in to the police”, Mr. Colville said, adding that there is also increasing pressure on civil servants to go back to work.

In recent weeks, more than 3,000 civil servants – nearly 70 per cent women – have been dismissed, removed, or suspended by the coup leadership. Those suspended also include 990 university professors, researchers and assistants.

In addition, there are reports that up to 11,000 more workers in the education sector were suspended on Monday.

‘Deeply concerned’ for those fleeing persecution

The OHCHR spokesperson also voiced “deep concerns” for the people fleeing persecution, especially human rights defenders and journalists.

According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), several hundred people from Myanmar have crossed into Thailand and India in recent weeks.

The people seeking safety outside Myanmar must receive such protection and support from Myanmar’s neighbours, Mr. Colville urged, adding that while it can take time to decide whether an individual fleeing the country is a refugee or not, “at the very least they should be treated as an asylum seeker and not forced to go back”.

“This is particularly important for people with jobs as sensitive as journalists and those active in the civil disobedience movement, opposing the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military).”

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UN chief express deep concern over East Jerusalem violence

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Palestinians react as Israeli police fire a stun grenade during clashes at Damascus Gate on Laylat al-Qadr during the holy month of Ramadan, in Jerusalem's Old City, May 9, 2021. /Reuters

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, and senior UN officials have expressed their deep concern over confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in East Jerusalem, particularly those which began on Friday evening, and continued into Sunday night. Several Palestinian children are among the wounded.

The violence on Friday has been described as some of the worst seen in Jerusalem for many years. Some 200 Palestinians and 17 Israeli Police were reportedly injured in fighting around Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount. On Saturday, protesters reportedly threw stones at police, who responded with stun grenades, rubber bullets and water cannons and, on Sunday, fighting continued in East Jerusalem, ahead of a planned march by an Israeli group through the Old City.

The official spokesperson for Mr. Guterres, Stéphane Dujarric, said in a statement published on Sunday evening, that Israeli authorities must exercise maximum restraint and respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. 

“All leaders have a responsibility to act against extremists and to speak out against all acts of violence and incitement”, the statement continued. “The Secretary-General reiterates his commitment, including through the Middle East Quartet, to supporting Palestinians and Israelis to resolve the conflict on the basis of relevant United Nations resolutions, international law and bilateral agreements”.

The Envoys of the Middle East Quartet (from the European Union, Russia, the United States, and the United Nations), released a press statement on Saturday,  in which they expressed their alarm at “the provocative statements made by some political groups, as well as the launching of rockets and the resumption of incendiary balloons from Gaza towards Israel, and attacks on Palestinian farmland in the West Bank”.

Imminent risk of eviction

The Quartet representatives went on to declare their concern regarding the possible evictions of Palestinian families from homes, in which they have lived in for generations, in two neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem – Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan – and their opposition to “unilateral actions, which will only escalate the already tense environment”.

This is a reference to a court case involving several Palestinians who face eviction due to a legal challenge by the Nahalat Shimon settler organization. The risk is considered to be imminent for four of the families.

The UN has called for on the Israeli Government to halt all forced evictions and on Thursday, Rupert Colville, the spokesperson for the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), warned that, if they take place, the evictions in the Sheikh Jarrah case would violate Israel’s obligations under international law.

Saturday’s fighting took place on Laylat-al-Qadr, the most holy day in the Muslim month of Ramadan, after large numbers of worshippers had prayed at the Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound. In their statement, the Quartet

Envoys called on the Israeli authorities to exercise restraint and to avoid measures that would further escalate the situation during this period of Muslim Holy Days.

“We call on all sides to uphold and respect the status quo at the holy sites”, the statement continues. “All leaders have a responsibility to act against extremists and to speak out against all acts of violence and incitement”. 

The statement concluded with a reiteration by the Quartet Envoys of their commitment to a negotiated two state solution.

37 Palestinian children injured and arrested

On Sunday, the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, urged the Israeli authorities to refrain from using violence against children and release all those children detained.

In a joint statement, Ted Chaiban, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, and Lucia Elmi, UNICEF Special Representative in the State of Palestine, noted that 29 Palestinian children have been injured over the past two days, and a further eight arrested. “A one-year-old toddler was among those injured. Some children were taken for treatment at hospitals, with injuries in the head and the spine. This comes amid reports that nearly 300 people were injured in the area”.

The senior UNICEF officials said that the agency had received reports of ambulances being restricted from arriving on location to assist and evacuate the injured, and that an on-site clinic was reportedly hit and searched.

The statement called for all children to be protected from violence and kept out of harm’s way at all times, for families’ rights to access all places of worship to be preserved, and for those injured to be assisted without restrictions.

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UN: Stop evictions in East Jerusalem neighbourhood immediately

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A little boy stands on the remains of his family's demolished home in the West Bank. (file photo) UNRWA/Lara Jonasdottir

The UN’s human rights office (OHCHR), on Friday, called on Israel to immediately halt all forced evictions, including those in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, as well as to exercise maximum restraint in the use of force while ensuring safety and security there.

Eight Palestinian refugee families residing in Sheikh Jarrah are facing forced eviction due to a legal challenge by the Nahalat Shimon settler organization, with the risk “imminent” for four of the families, according to the office.

OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville said that the evictions, if ordered and implemented, would violate Israel’s obligations under international law.

“Given the disturbing scenes in Sheikh Jarrah over the past few days, we wish to emphasize that East Jerusalem remains part of the occupied Palestinian territory, in which International Humanitarian Law applies. The occupying Power must respect and cannot confiscate private property in occupied territory, and must respect, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country.”

He went on to note that Israel cannot impose its own set of laws in occupied territory, including East Jerusalem, to evict Palestinians from their homes.

On Thursday, Tor Wennesland, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, also urged Israel to stop demolitions and evictions in the neighbourhood, in line with its obligations under international humanitarian law.

Prohibited under international law

“In addition, the Absentee Property Law and the Legal and Administrative Matters Law are applied in an inherently discriminatory manner, based solely on the nationality or origin of the owner”, OHCHR spokesperson Colville said.

“In practice, the implementation of these laws facilitates the transfer by Israel of its population into occupied East Jerusalem. The transfer of parts of an occupying Power’s civilian population into the territory that it occupies is prohibited under international humanitarian law and may amount to a war crime”, he added.

Violation of right to adequate housing

The OHCHR spokesperson also said that forced evictions could violate the rights to adequate housing and to privacy and other human rights of those who are evicted.

“Forced evictions are a key factor in creating a coercive environment that may lead to forcible transfer, which is prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention and is a grave breach of the Convention.”

Mr. Colville also called on Israel to respect freedom of expression and assembly, including of those who are protesting against the evictions, and to exercise maximum restraint in the use of force while ensuring safety and security in East Jerusalem.

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