Presenting Country Reports to Third Committee, Experts Propose Changes to Unjust, Inhumane Practices, as Delegates Question Findings

Non-compliance on the part of States had hindered the ability of human rights rapporteurs to investigate violations in countries under their purview, the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) heard today during its first day of interactive dialogue on area-specific situations.

Of the five Special Rapporteurs presenting reports to the Committee, only one, assigned to Myanmar, had been granted access to the territory under her mandate.  In the absence of access, the other four — covering human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Belarus and Eritrea — had gathered information remotely.  The cooperation of all States was a fundamental obligation of United Nations membership, two of the experts recalled.

Sheila B. Keetharuth, Member of the Former Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea and Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in that country, said there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that its officials had committed crimes against humanity since 1991. The Government had failed to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur and the Commission from the beginning.  She encouraged the General Assembly to adopt a resolution submitting the Commission’s report to the Security Council for possible referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court.

In Belarus, there had been no substantial improvements in the human rights situation over the past decade, despite numerous United Nations recommendations, reported Miklós Haraszti, Special Rapporteur on that situation.  The “smooth-looking” conduct of recent parliamentary elections should not eclipse the underlying systemic violations, he said.  In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, a deepening occupation was stifling the economy and fostering an atmosphere of despair and hopelessness, reported Michael Lynk, Special Rapporteur for the territory.

In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, there were mixed signs of progress, the Committee heard.  Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana said political tensions and the prospect of instability continued to impede progress on the human rights agenda.  However, there were positive signs, such as a five‑year economic plan to improve living standards and a new strategy to increase life expectancy at birth.

Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, commended the Government for its progress in recent years, while stressing that many human rights challenges remained.  In Kachin and Shan states, humanitarian access to conflict areas was the worst it had been in recent years, while in Rakhine state, discriminatory policies and practices continued to deny Muslim communities of their most fundamental rights.  “This is not what peace should look like,” she said.

During the discussions, several delegates expressed opposition to the raison d’être of the Special Rapporteurs, arguing that country-specific mandates and resolutions violated the principles of universality, impartiality and non-selectivity.  Such interventions used human rights as a pretext to interfere in States’ internal political affairs and were better left to existing mechanisms, such as the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council, several said.

Making that point, Venezuela’s representative, speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, said the selective adoption of country-specific resolutions exploited human rights for political purposes and that such matters were better left to existing mechanisms, such as the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council.  Many called instead for engagement in a spirit of cooperation and dialogue.  In that spirit, Singapore’s delegate said no draft resolution against Myanmar would be tabled in the Third Committee.

The observer of the State of Palestine spoke in a point of order.

The Third Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Friday, 28 October, to continue its discussion of the promotion of human rights.  It is expected to start with an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Occupied since 1967.

Background

The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) met today to continue its discussions on the promotion and protection of human rights.  For further information, see Press Release GA/SHC/4172.

Dialogue on Human Rights in Myanmar

YANGHEE LEE, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, commended the Government for progress it had made in recent years and thanked it for its cooperation throughout her mandate.  Hundreds of political prisoners had been released, repressive laws had been rescinded and a major peace conference had been held.  Yet, many human rights challenges remained, including the curtailment of the rights to assembly, association and expression.  Despite a growing democratic space, she expressed concern about the continuing dominance of the military in politics.  It still held 25 per cent of parliamentary seats and controlled several powerful ministries.  Without constitutional reform — which would be challenging given that it required military approval — the transition from a military to a fully civilian Government would not be possible. 

She also voiced concern that landmines continued to be laid, noting that Myanmar was the third most heavily mined country in the world.  In Kachin and Shan states, humanitarian access to conflict areas was the worst it had been at any point in recent years.  “This is not what peace should look like,” she said.  In Rakhine state, discriminatory local orders, policies and practices continued to deny Muslim communities of their most fundamental rights.  Restrictions on freedom of movement had impacted every area of life:  access to education, livelihoods and health services.  Birth registration had not taken place in conflict-affected areas in several years, placing children at risk of underage recruitment, trafficking and child labour.  Ending the institutionalized discrimination of Muslim communities and accountability for alleged systematic human rights violations were urgent priorities.

The representative of Myanmar reiterated his opposition to country specific mandates, as they ran contrary to the principles of non-selectivity and non-politicization.  Yet, Myanmar had fully cooperated with the Special Rapporteur and was the only country under the Human Rights Council’s agenda item 4 that had received the Special Rapporteur’s visits.  Acknowledging that all the recommendations had been made in good faith, he expressed hope that Myanmar would receive the necessary international support to continue its efforts to promote the fundamental rights of all people and to uphold the rule of law.  Describing the country’s progress, he also elaborated on persistent challenges in fostering peace and national reconciliation after decades of internal armed conflict.  On the situation in Rakhine state, which had attracted international attention, he said Government actions had been taken in response to a violent armed attack on its security forces.  He rejected distorted information reported in the media about the use of excessive force, explaining that security forces had been ordered to use maximum restraint unless confronted by armed resistance.

When the floor opened, several representatives, including those of Japan and Republic of Korea, asked the Special Rapporteur which of her extensive recommendations should be considered priorities.  Others, such as the representatives of Eritrea, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and Cuba, among others, expressed their opposition to country-specific mandates.  The United Kingdom’s representative, who noted that “Burma’s” relationship with the United Nations was changing, asked what the Special Rapporteur saw as the optimum level of support to the country’s authorities.  Several delegations, including Norway’s representative, asked for reflections on how the international community could help improve the situation in the State of Rakhine. 

Ms. LEE, responding, said the new Government had inherited many negative legacies from the military dictatorship, and underlined that the international community must be cognizant of that.  Regarding attacks in some states, she said she had advocated for access to many areas but humanitarian access had been blocked.  Where non-State media had been allowed some access, they had been prevented from reporting on the situation under the pretext of national security.  Turning to the citizenship laws, she said they had to be reviewed, but the Government had not indicated any interest in that.  She had raised objections with authorities about outdated and discriminatory laws, which required reform.

Protection of civilians was her major concern, she said, adding that humanitarian access had worsened in several states and that the human rights implications of increased military conflict were of great concern.  Clashes had occurred in jade-mining areas, another sign that natural resources and conflict were linked.  Opening an office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Myanmar with a full mandate was crucial and had been promised by the previous Government, yet not delivered.  The last General Assembly resolution had included some benchmarks for the Government to address the rule of law and other issues.  By discontinuing the resolution, she expressed concern that the Third Committee had signalled that Myanmar had met those benchmarks.  She said she did not feel they had been met.  

Also participating in the interactive dialogue were representatives of the United States, China, Thailand, Australia, Switzerland, Egypt (on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), Russian Federation, Czech Republic, Jordan, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Viet Nam, and Iran, as well as the European Union.

Dialogue on Human Rights in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

TOMÁS OJEA QUINTANA, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, in his new capacity, said political tensions and the prospect of instability continued to impede progress on the human rights agenda amid reports of two nuclear tests and several missile launches by the Government, as well as increased military readiness among other countries and implementation of Security Council sanctions.  As Council measures to deter nuclear proliferation should also protect civilians from the impacts of sanctions, he urged support for national relief efforts in the wake of Typhoon Lionrock, which had affected 140,000 in the country’s northeast.  Describing a pattern of civil and political rights violations, he cited severe restrictions on freedom of movement, the conditions and treatment of prisoners and structural deficiencies in the public food distribution system.

He went on to note signs of a positive change in recent social and economic policies, including a five-year economic plan to improve living standards and a new strategy to increase life expectancy at birth.  He also welcomed programmes in the health sector developed with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), noting that all such initiatives should be carefully monitored.  He encouraged the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the international community to explore all venues for cooperation, conscious that a balance must be achieved between “situating” responsibilities for rights violations and engaging with duty bearers.  Next month, he would visit Japan and the Republic of Korea, and anticipated future trips to China and the Russian Federation, with the aim of building regional and international platforms for cooperation.  He regretted that the representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was not in the room for the interactive dialogue.

When the floor was opened for questions, several countries expressed reservations about the practice of country-specific resolutions, which violated the principles of universality, impartiality and non-selectivity.  They said such interventions used human rights as a pretext to interfere in States’ internal political affairs, arguing that such issues were better addressed through the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council.  Many who supported the Special Rapporteur’s mandate wanted to know what more he could do to engage the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and gain access to the country.  Several asked what could be done to ensure accountability for human rights violations.

Mr. QUINTANA expressed concern that the divergence of opinion had hindered genuine dialogue on human rights and said the General Assembly should bear the opinions of the Non-Aligned Movement in mind as part of a fruitful dialogue with delegations that supported such resolutions.

To questions about his ability to engage with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he acknowledged that engagement would take time, patience and dedication.  There were, as several delegates had pointed out, alternative human rights mechanisms.  The Universal Periodic Review had made a series of recommendations, which he urged the Government to review.  Thematic rapporteurs, such as the Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, could also be used to engage the Government on human rights issues.

To the concern raised by many delegates about accountability, he pointed to a forthcoming report by two independent experts on guidelines for accountability related to human rights.  He stressed that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was not in a period of political transition and thus accountability there should not be dealt with in the same way as it was in transitional justice programmes.

Participating in the interactive dialogue were representatives of Venezuela (also speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement), Syria, Japan, Australia, Lichtenstein, Netherlands, United States, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, Belarus, Switzerland, Czech Republic, China, Republic of Korea, Germany, Cuba, Norway, Maldives, Iran, Ireland, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Argentina, as well as the European Union.

Human Rights in Belarus

MIKLÓS HARASZTI, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, discussing his findings, said that while had been only very few positive developments, one of them was the signing of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  Much of his report focused on human rights in electoral processes in Belarus, especially parliamentary elections on 11 September 2016, which he said had been held without the violence by law enforcement that had marred previous elections.  However, there had been no steps to either change the oppressive legal framework or modify restrictive practices, and the “smooth-looking” conduct of those polls should not eclipse the underlying systemic violations, he said.

The “guided” nature of electing a “token” opposition party member and an independent cultural activist to Parliament had made those choices a selection by the Government, he said.  There had been no equal access to the media for the contestants.  Neither the voter turnout nor the votes were verifiable, and the Chair of the Central Election Commission had been in place for 20 years.  Describing a legal and administrative system of human rights restriction, he said the freedoms of expression and media continued to be violated.  Belarus was the only country in Europe that lacked a privately-owned national media.  Suppression of the freedoms of association and assembly persisted.  Despite recommendations by various United Nations bodies, there had been no substantial changes in the human rights situation in the last decade, he said, urging Belarus to stop its use of the death penalty and engage with the Special Rapporteur.

The representative of Belarus said country-specific discussions could only “rip up controversy” and overburden the international community’s agenda.  There was no need or context for such attention and Belarus had constantly conducted a dialogue with the human rights machinery.  A national plan on human rights had been put in place based on recommendations from the Universal Periodic Review and treaty bodies, but that information had been distorted in the report.  The views of observers had also not been taken into account.  “We do not need to be taught how to live,” she said, stressing that after the Second World War and the Chernobyl nuclear accident, Belarus had created a strong State.  It would remain a contributor to peace and agreement.

When the floor opened for interaction, a number of representatives, including those of Ecuador and Bangladesh, protested the existence of any country-specific mandates, while delegates of Eritrea, Venezuela and Lao People’s Democratic Republic suggested that the Universal Periodic Review was the correct venue for such discussions.  Representatives of Norway, United Kingdom and Germany meanwhile, urged Belarus to place a moratorium on the death penalty as the first step toward abolition.  Several others asked about space for civil society in Belarus, with Poland’s representative requesting an update in the context of elections.

Mr. HARASZTI, responding, described steps that could have “miraculous” effects on the human rights situation, such as the repeal of article 193.1 of the penal code, which was the chapter that criminalized all activity not permitted by the State.  Under it, the most important human rights organizations had been made de jure criminal in everything they did because they were not registered.  To questions on improving elections, he noted that although Belarus had invited observers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), parliamentary elections had not been complied with and only unimportant procedural recommendations had been heeded.  Cooperation with OSCE should go beyond inviting observers into complying with their recommendations.

He expressed agreement with the representatives of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that dialogue should be the basis for improving human rights, and urged those delegations to believe him and the Human Rights Council that his mandate was about cooperation, not about the other accusations lobbied at him.  It would be a very important step forward if Belarus would send him their action plan, he said, adding that he would take it as a good gesture toward cooperation.

Participating in the interactive dialogue were representatives of the United States, Czech Republic, Cuba, Russian Federation, Lithuania, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Switzerland, Iran, Ireland, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, China, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Syria, and Bolivia (also speaking on behalf of Nicaragua), as well as the European Union. 

Dialogue on Human Rights in Eritrea

SHEILA B. KEETHARUTH, Member of the Former Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea and Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea, presented that body’s final report (A/HRC/32/47), which had found reasonable grounds to believe that Eritrean officials had committed crimes against humanity since 1991, including enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, other inhumane acts, persecution, rape and murder.  Eritrea’s military/national service programmes included arbitrary and indefinite detention, often for years.  The Commission documented extensive use of arbitrary arrest and detention, and numerous cases of enforced disappearances and rampant torture.  There had been no material changes in the situation.  The country still had no Constitution or Parliament, and indefinite national service persisted.  While Eritrea had refused to allow the Commission to visit and have unhindered access to sites and locations, the Commission had been able to corroborate information provided by witnesses.

Turning to her mandate as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, she stated that the Government had failed to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur and the Commission from the beginning.  The Commission had requested that the African Union establish an accountability mechanism to investigate, prosecute, and try individuals believed to have committed crimes against humanity.  Additionally, it had recommended that Member States provide Eritrean nationals seeking protection with refugee status.  “It is not safe to forcibly return those who have left Eritrea,” she said.  She would continue to implement her mandate over the coming months, and expressed hope the General Assembly would adopt a resolution submitting the Commission’s report to the Security Council for a possible referral of the human rights situation in Eritrea to the International Criminal Court.

The representative of Eritrea said he saw little value of entering into dialogue with a biased Special Rapporteur.  He preferred an approach marked by dialogue and understanding and which took note of Government achievements.  The country mandate was unwarranted for Eritrea and an insult to Africa.  The most appropriate venue for such discussions was the Human Rights Council and he rejected a politicized approach.  The Government’s priority was to protect its people, live in harmony and build its political system.  Political participation, including of women, was high.  Eritrea was committed to development.  It was an independent and modest regional actor and favoured engagement.  Further, national ownership was an undeniable pillar for nation-building.  Women’s and children’s rights were protected and remote areas were being developed.  He acknowledged that achievements were modest and that Eritrea had a long way to go, but the Government shouldered its international obligations and cooperated with international human rights mechanisms.  Yet, it was being treated unfairly, singled out for human rights violations, while those in other countries went unnoticed.

During the ensuing dialogue, delegates raised questions and concerns about ongoing human rights violations, impunity and engagement with the international human rights mechanisms.  Several asked about follow-up to issues and recommendations, while others reiterated their opposition to the selective and politicized nature of country mandates, stressing that the Human Rights Council, particularly the Universal Periodic Review, were the most appropriate venues for the promotion and protection of human rights.

The representative of Ethiopia said the mayhem in his country was the result of the deployment of Eritrean terrorists.  Eritrea had destabilized the Horn of Africa and committed crimes against humanity.  Eritrea was on the Committee’s agenda, he said, not Ethiopia.

Ms. KEETHARUTH reiterated her commitment to “look at all comments” in the implementation of her mandate.  She welcomed Eritrea’s engagement with the international community, which should lead to tangible improvements for its citizens, such as improved treatment of detainees.  Building trust was required, internally and externally.  Regarding forced labour, she said citizens must have a choice as to whether and how they wished to work.  Development, while important, did not give license to violate human rights.  Any engagement with the United Nations must work towards ending impunity, with human rights violators punished.  Engagement with United Nations bodies should not be selective.  Access to Eritrea had only been given to the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights to a model prison and only for 15 minutes. More time was needed for a proper assessment.

Participating in the discussion were representatives of Venezuela (also on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement), Myanmar, Djibouti, United States, Zimbabwe, Germany, United Arab Emirates, Ecuador, Ethiopia, China, Norway, Cuba, Belarus, Bolivia, the United Kingdom, Bangladesh, Switzerland, the Russian Federation, Pakistan, Burundi, Iran and Egypt, as well as the European Union.

Dialogue on Human Rights in Palestinian Territories

MICHAEL LYNK, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, presented his first report to the Committee, which was based on interviews with human rights non-Governmental organizations, Palestinian officials and United Nations officers in Jordan, as he had been unable to travel to the Occupied Palestinian Territories due to Israel’s noncompliance with his mandate and refusal to grant him access to the territories.  He also had been unable to meet with activists in the Gaza Strip due to Israel’s restrictions on their movement.

He highlighted three areas of particular concern:  violence and lack of accountability, collective punishment and forcible transfers and the right to development.  On the first issue, he observed that, too often, Israel used lethal force as a first choice, rather than the last resort.  In only the rarest instances did cases brought before Israeli military law enforcement result in indictment.  Israel was increasingly using administrative detention and imprisoning Palestinian children.  It continued to collectively punish Palestinians, through home demolitions, geographic closures, infringements on freedom of movement and the decade-long blockage of Gaza.  Forcible transfers, in the form of repeated demolitions of Arab Bedouin communities, the refusal of housing permits to Palestinians and destruction of humanitarian aid facilities, also violated international law.  Finally, the Israeli occupation was a violation of Palestinians’ right to development.  “No other society in the world faces such an array of cumulative challenges,” he said, adding, “the result has been a stifled and disfigured Palestinian economy that Israel, the Occupying Power, decisively controls and exploits for its own benefit.”

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