By Lisa Schlein
March 7, 2023
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk, center, is seen on a TV monitor speaking during a session of the 52nd U.N. Human Rights Council, in Geneva, on March 6, 2023.
GENEVA — The United Nations' top human rights official says the proliferation of crises brought on by conflict, climate change, poverty and discrimination are eroding people's fundamental rights and freedoms and threatening the stability of nations worldwide.
In a brisk overview of recent human rights developments around the globe, Volker Türk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told delegates attending the U.N. Human Rights Council on Tuesday that "one quarter of humanity is living today in places affected by violent conflict, and it is the civilians who suffer the most."
He then launched into a critique of Russia's war in Ukraine, which he said has led to "civilian casualties and destruction of a shocking magnitude."
"The rights of Ukrainians will be harmed for generations to come, and the war's impact on fuel and food prices, as well as geopolitical tensions, are impacting negatively on people in every region of the world," he said.
The invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago led to Russia being suspended from the U.N. Human Rights Council.
While the war in Ukraine is in its second year, Türk noted that people in Syria have endured 12 years of excruciating bloodshed, calling it "a microcosm of the wounds inflicted by utmost contempt for human rights."
He deplored alarming security situations in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, while welcoming the implementation of an agreement ending hostilities between the Ethiopian government and rebels of the Tigray People's Liberation Front, or TPLF.
Despite this progress, he warned that the presence in Tigray of Amhara regional forces and the Fano militia, as well as Eritrean Defense Forces, could result in "very serious violations." He added that "the human rights situation in other regions of Ethiopia is of great concern, particularly Oromia."
FILE - Residents and militias stand next to houses destroyed by an airstrike during the fight between the Ethiopian National Defence Forces and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) forces in Kasagita town, Afar region, Ethiopia, Feb. 25, 2022.
The Fano militia is an ally of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and fought alongside Ethiopian forces to stop the TPLF. Eritrean troops also fought on the side of the Ethiopian government.
Communal violence has been continuing in parts of the southern Oromia region between ethnic Oromo and Amhara. They are Ethiopia's two largest ethnic groups.
The U.N. rights chief presented a snapshot of human rights conditions in dozens of countries in all regions of the world. He spoke of widespread violence in Libya, of armed gangs who have taken control of Haiti, and of the worrying human rights situation in the Kashmir region, which India and Pakistan claim.
He highlighted the virulent threats to human dignity posed by discrimination and racism, noting the unparalleled "repression of women in Afghanistan."
A fact-finding report submitted to the council on Monday accused the de facto Taliban rulers of pursuing a policy "tantamount to gender apartheid." A U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan reported that "the Taliban's intentional and calculated policy is to repudiate the human rights of women and girls and to erase them from public life."
Türk criticized Iran for its discriminatory behavior toward women and girls and denounced the executions of four people protesting the government's authoritarian rule and the death sentences handed down to 17 other protesters.
The high commissioner also took aim at the policies of powerful countries such as the United States, where, he said, "People of African descent are reportedly almost three times more likely to be killed by police than are 'white' people."
He added, "In the U.S. and all countries, swift and determined action to hold perpetrators accountable in each case should be the rule, not the exception."
Regarding China, Türk said his office had opened channels of communication to follow up on a variety of human rights issues, including the protection of minorities, such as for Tibetans, Uyghurs, and other groups.
"In the Xinjiang region," he said, "My office has documented grave concerns, notably large-scale arbitrary detentions and ongoing family separations — and has made important recommendations that require concrete follow-up."
A landmark report issued by the previous high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, concluded that Beijing's incarceration of nearly a million Uyghurs and other Muslims in so-called vocational centers in Xinjiang could constitute "crimes against humanity." China denies these charges.
FILE - Residents line up inside the Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center, which was revealed by leaked documents to be a forced indoctrination camp at the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux in western China's Xinjiang region, Dec. 3, 2018.
Hilary Power, Geneva director, Human Rights Watch, said the test of the high commissioner's commitment to "follow up" on government abuses in Xinjiang "will be his willingness to continue monitoring and reporting on the situation, and to brief the U.N. rights council on his report and its key findings."
While the high commissioner's assessment of the state of global human rights was generally pessimistic, he sounded a positive note on progress being made in three African countries.
He praised Tanzania for opening civic and democratic space over the past two years. "Bans on media outlets and political rallies have been lifted and reform of restrictive legislation is promised," he said.
He said Zambia has "taken positive steps towards greater respect for human rights and the rule of law" and that Kenya has made some advances "towards accountability for serious human rights violations."