UN warns of worst 'cascade of human rights setbacks in our lifetimes'

The UN rights chief on Monday called for concerted action to recover from the worst global deterioration of rights she had seen, highlighting the situation in China, Russia and Ethiopia among others.

“To recover from the most wide-reaching and severe cascade of human rights setbacks in our lifetimes, we need a life-changing vision, and concerted action,” Michelle Bachelet told the opening of the UN Human Rights Council’s 47th session.

The session, which lasts until July 13 and is being held virtually due to continued Covid-19 restrictions, is set to feature an eagerly anticipated report by Bachelet about systemic racism, and draft resolutions focused on several concerning rights situations, including in Myanmar, Belarus and Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

– ‘Executions, sexual violence’ –

In her opening address, Bachelet said she was deeply disturbed by reports of “serious violations” in Tigray, racked by war and with about 350,000 people threatened by famine.

She pointed to “extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, sexual violence against children as well as adults,” and said she had “credible reports” that Eritrean soldiers were still operating in the region.

Other parts of Ethiopia, which was holding elections on Monday, were also seeing “alarming incidents of deadly ethnic and inter-communal violence and displacement,” Bachelet said.

“The ongoing deployment of military forces is not a durable solution,” she said, calling for national dialogue.

Bachelet also decried the situation in northern Mozambique, ravaged by recent deadly jihadist violence, where she said food insecurity was rising and “almost 800,000 people, including 364,000 children” had now been forced to flee their homes. 

– ‘Chilling impact’ –

The UN rights chief also pointed to the “chilling impact” of a sweeping national security law introduced in Hong Kong.

The law, which took effect on the eve of July 1, 2020, is seen as the spear tip of a sweeping crackdown on Beijing’s critics in the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong following 2019’s huge democracy protests.

It has criminalised much dissent, given China jurisdiction over some cases and awarded authorities a suite of powerful new investigative powers.

Bachelet warned that “107 people have been arrested under the National Security Law and 57 have been formally charged”.

She also pointed to “reports of serious human rights violations” in China’s Xinjiang region, and said she hoped Beijing would grant her a long-discussed visit there, including “meaningful access” this year.

The UN rights chief has been facing swelling diplomatic pressure to speak out more forcefully about China’s policies in the northwestern region, where the United States has accused Beijing of committing genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs.

At least one million Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been held in camps in the region, according to rights groups who also accuse authorities of imposing forced labour — allegations Beijing vehemently denies.

Dozens of countries, led by Canada, are expected to deliver a joint statement to the council on Tuesday, which will reportedly voice concern about the rights situation in Xinjiang and demand China grant Bachelet and other independent observers unfettered access.

Liu Yuyin, a spokesman at the Chinese mission in Geneva, responded that the UN rights commissioner should stop making “erroneous remarks against China” and refrain from “interfering in China’s sovereignty and judicial independence”.

Liu invited Bachelet to visit Xinjiang on a “friendly visit” to promote cooperation, rather than to carry out “the so-called investigation under the presumption of guilt”.

– Kremlin undermining critical voices –

In her address Monday, the UN rights chief also criticised recent measures by the Kremlin shrinking the space for opposing political views and access to participation in September elections.

She highlighted the recent moves to dismantle the movement of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Barring his organisations from working in the country, a Moscow court earlier this month branded them as “extremist”, in a ruling Bachelet said was “based on vaguely defined allegations of attempting to change the foundations of constitutional order.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has meanwhile signed legislation outlawing staff, members and sponsors of “extremist” groups from running in parliamentary elections.

“I call on Russia to uphold civil and political rights,” Bachelet said, also urging the authorities “to end the arbitrary practice of labelling ordinary individuals, journalists, and non-governmental organisations as ‘extremists’, ‘foreign agents’ or ‘undesirable organisations’.” 

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