Opium poppy field in Gostan valley, Nimruz Province, Afghanistan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. - Photo: 2021

UN Concerned About the Impact of COVID-19 and Human Rights Violations

By Jamshed Baruah

GENEVA (IDN) — Providing a global update to the Human Rights Council, Michelle Bachelet has said that as the COVID-19 pandemic gathers pace, people worldwide are “being left behind — or pushed even further behind”; they are being excluded from not only development but also opportunities. At the same time, civil society activists are being denied the right to voice opposition to the government.

“This makes us all weaker”, she warned the Council’s virtual meeting on February 26. “It heightens grievances that are destabilizing. It means we miss perspectives and expertise that could inform and strengthen our initiatives. It shields corruption and abuses, by silencing feedback.”

The High Commissioner’s speech addressed human rights issues in some 50 countries.

While acknowledging the major health and financial challenges facing governments in the pandemic, the rights chief underlined that “a country’s people are its leader’s finest and most important resource” and must be involved in policymaking.

“Participation is a right — and it is also a means that ensures better, more effective policy,” she said. “To help heal harms, bridge deep fractures, and lead change that meets expectations, every society, and every leader, needs to engage the public’s participation, fully and meaningfully.”

She welcomed the cessation of hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, announced in November by the leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia and the Russian Federation, and called for investigations into all alleged violations that occurred during fighting there.

Ms Bachelet encouraged governments in Asia-Pacific to improve social protection systems as the pandemic has shown their value. On average, countries devote less than two per cent of GDP to social protection, compared with the global average of 11 per cent, she said.

The UN rights chief addressed the “serious concentration” in civic space across Southeast Asia, including what she described as “the alarming situation” in Myanmar, where the military seized power at the beginning of the month.

Turning to India, she said ongoing protests by thousands of farmers in India highlight the importance of having laws and policies based on consultations with concerned parties.

“Charges of sedition against journalists and activists for reporting or commenting on the protests and attempts to curb freedom of expression on social media, are disturbing departures from essential human rights principles”, she added.

In Pakistan, the Human Rights Commissioner said, the unequal status of women continues to result in widespread denial of their rights, from education to the right to make decisions about their own lives; excessive maternal mortality; poverty, and high levels of violence and sexual violence against women and girls.

She recalled that in 2020, CEDAW found “persistent discriminatory stereotypes” and expressed concern at the prevalence of child marriage and forced marriage, as well as so-called “honour” based crimes. Women from religious minority communities are particularly vulnerable to forced marriage accompanied by forced conversion, she said.

Referring to China, Ms Bachelet said, strong progress has been made over the last year in reducing the prevalence of COVID-19 and its severe impact on the enjoyment of a broad range of human rights. At the same time, fundamental rights and civic freedoms continue to be curtailed in the name of national security and the COVID-19 response. Activists, lawyers and human rights defenders — as well as some foreign nationals — face arbitrary criminal charges, detention or unfair trials.

In the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, more than 600 people are being investigated for participating in various forms of protests – some under the new National Security Law. In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, information that is in the public domain indicates the need for an independent and comprehensive assessment of the human rights situation.

She regretted the entry into force late last year in Russia of new legal provisions which further limit fundamental freedoms, including the constitutionally guaranteed rights to free expression, peaceful assembly and association. “Existing restrictive laws have continued to be harshly enforced, including during recent demonstrations across the country. On several occasions, police were filmed using unnecessary and disproportionate force against largely peaceful protesters and made thousands of arrests. I also note with concern the growing expansion of the definition of ‘foreign agent’.”

Referring to the Americas, Ms. Bachelet welcomed “broad new measures” to tackle structural inequalities and racism in the United States, which include action to redress racially discriminatory federal housing policies.

“We also welcome new steps to end several migration policies that violated the human rights of migrants and refugees, including executive orders to end the family separation policy. I encourage further measures to tackle remaining issues, such as the massive detention of migrants, through the implementation of alternatives to detention”, she added.

A decade since the “Arab Spring”, many countries in the Middle East and North Africa continue to suffer very serious inequalities, as repressive policies have been strengthened in some cases.

“Despite these setbacks, I remain optimistic that justice and human rights can be realized across the Middle East and North Africa — and that progress in this direction will ensure deep and lasting progress for development and peace,” Ms. Bachelet said.

The month of March will mark 10 years since the start of the Syrian crisis, which the High Commissioner called a “grim anniversary”. She expressed hope that the Constitutional Committee will realize “tangible progress” and that the international community will work to bridge divides while also putting the needs of Syrians first.

Ms Bachelet underscored that humanitarians and human rights workers must have immediate access to the Tigray region of Ethiopia, where government and regional forces have been clashing since November. She said credible investigations into allegations of violations such as mass killings, extrajudicial executions and other attacks on civilians are critical. 

The human rights chief warned that the conflict in Tigray, coupled with rising insecurity in other parts of Ethiopia, could have serious impact on regional stability and human rights, underlining the need for a peaceful solution. [IDN-InDepthNews – 26 February 2021]

Photo: UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. (file) Credit: UN News/Daniel Johnson

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