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Türk's global update to the Human Rights Council


March 4, 2024


Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


55th session of the Human Rights Council

Credits @FFHR.CZ

Mr President,


Distinguished delegates,

Rarely has humanity faced so many rapidly spiralling crises. In this update, I will focus first, on the scourge of war and the imperative of peace; and second, on the open space that is needed for societies to flourish – particularly in this mega election year.

A wave of conflict is battering people's lives, destroying economies, profoundly damaging human rights, dividing the world, and upending hopes for multilateral solutions.

Around the world, 55 conflicts are flaring. Widespread violations of international humanitarian and human rights law are generating devastating impact on millions of civilians. Displacement and humanitarian crises have already reached an unprecedented scale. And all of these conflicts have regional and global impact.

Overlapping emergencies make the spectre of spillover conflict very real. The war in Gaza has explosive impact across the Middle East. Conflicts in other regions – including in the Horn of Africa, Sudan and the Sahel – could also escalate sharply. Increasing militarisation on the Korean Peninsula raises threat levels. The deteriorating security crisis in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which the Council will address on 3 April, is alarming. In the Red Sea, as well as the Black Sea, attacks are creating shock-waves for the global transport of goods, adding to the economic pain inflicted on less developed countries.

Conflict, wars, violence.

The right to peace is the mother of all human rights. Without peace, all other rights are quashed. It is urgent that we devise ways to counter warmongering, fear and the illogic of escalating hatred and hostility – which bring short-term profit to a few while ruining the lives and rights of millions. We need to regain a mindset of peace. This means the art of de-escalation; keeping communication channels open; rebuilding trust; and the long-term work of healing and reconciliation – re-establishing a sense of the interconnectedness and shared destiny of all humanity.

We have seen results from patient, persistent and principled engagement, as well as the meaningful empowerment of women and young people in decision-making.

Mr President,

Last week I spoke about the situations in Myanmar and Sudan , where internal armed conflicts, characterised by atrocity crimes, are leading to tens of thousands of deaths, the displacement of over 11 million people, and uncontrolled humanitarian crisis.

I have also briefed the Council on the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The war in Gaza has already generated dangerous spillover in neighbouring countries, and I am deeply concerned that in this powder keg, any spark could lead to a much broader conflagration.

This would have implications for every country in the Middle East, and many beyond it.

The military escalation in southern Lebanon between Israel, Hezbollah and other armed groups is extremely worrying. Almost 200 people have been killed in Lebanon, and some 90,000 internally displaced, with extensive damage to health facilities, schools, and vital infrastructure. Incidents in which civilians, including children, paramedics, and journalists, have been killed in attacks must be fully investigated. Some 80,000 Israelis have also been displaced from border areas of Israel. It is imperative to do everything possible to avoid a wider conflagration.

In Yemen, the Ansar Allah (Houthi) group has been targeting commercial shipping across the Red Sea, disrupting global maritime trade and driving up the price of goods, with especially significant impact on developing countries. There is a serious risk of the conflict extending to Yemen itself, with potentially severe harm to Yemen's people, already suffering from the humanitarian crisis generated by a decade of war. I again call for the immediate release of UN staff currently arbitrarily detained in Sana’a.

In Syria, where there is still no clear path to a just and sustainable peace, conflict is once again escalating, 13 years after the onset of the catastrophic civil war, which was marked by horrific human rights violations and abuses. Hostilities have recently taken place along several ‘front lines’ between parties in the northern part of the country, including airstrikes and shelling. We are assisting the Secretary-General to set up an independent institution dedicated to missing persons in Syria, which will pave the way for victims, survivors and their families' right to the truth.

Mr President,

In Ukraine, two years after the Russian Federation's full-scale invasion, my Office has verified over 10,000 civilians killed in Ukraine, with many more injured – and the actual numbers are much higher. In the Russian Federation, open-source websites have reported 147 civilians killed in the same period. But instead of progress towards a sustainable peace, hostilities have again recently escalated, with Russian missile and drone attacks leading to a steep increase in civilian casualties across Ukraine. In the occupied territory of Ukraine, replicating processes observed in the occupied Crimean peninsula in 2014-2015, the Russian Federation has imposed its own legal and administrative systems – in violation of international humanitarian law – and repressive measures are leading to widespread fear. I will discuss this situation in greater detail on 28 March.

In Ethiopia, steps have been taken to implement the cessation of hostilities agreement of November 2022 in Tigray, including the Government's ending of military operations against the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), establishment of an interim regional administration, and steps towards national transitional justice. The TPLF has ceased attacks on Government forces and handed over heavy weaponry. Yet, the humanitarian situation is very serious, and the lack of concrete accountability measures, and persistent human rights violations in areas still under the control of Eritrean and Amhara forces, remain obstacles to durable peace. Fighting continues between the Government and armed groups in both the Amhara and Oromia regions, with severe impact on civilians. My Office will shortly release a report on this.

In Mali, the human rights situation remains very worrying, with violations and abuses almost doubling in 2023, compared to 2022. This increase coincided with the resumption of hostilities between the security forces and armed groups, following the withdrawal of MINUSMA. Two armed groups are in control of significant territory in the border area with Burkina Faso and Niger, as well as in the region of Timbuktu, parts of which have been under siege since August – exacerbating threats to the rights of women and girls. While armed groups are responsible for the majority of serious violations, we have also received credible allegations of serious violations by Malian forces, sometimes accompanied by foreign military personnel. I call on Mali to ensure accountability.

In Burkina Faso, military operations have intensified, tens of thousands of auxiliaries of the security forces have been deployed, and a state of emergency has been declared in 22 provinces, while security and human rights have deteriorated. Armed groups are responsible for the majority of grave human rights violations, as was reported once again last week. My Office has also documented an increase in serious violations involving the security forces and Volontaires pour la Défense de la Patrie auxiliaries. Enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions of perceived critics of the transitional authorities appear to be increasing. I am also concerned by reports of forcible conscription. In this transitional period, opening space for debate is key to building a resilient and inclusive society.

I hope very much that ongoing peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan will lead to a positive outcome that is grounded in human rights. To build trust, and achieve lasting reconciliation and peace, the voices of victims and their families – including those who fled their homes in September 2023 – must be genuinely heard, and their needs supported. Many grievances that have persisted over decades, on both sides, need to be addressed, and my Office is available to support such initiatives.

In the Western Balkans region, I am concerned by continued tensions between Serbia and Kosovo,[1] including violent incidents in northern Kosovo in September 2023. Ongoing developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina are worrying, with recurrent threats of secession, and attacks on the constitutional order of the country, by the leadership of the Republika Srpska entity. Increased threats to civic space in that entity are especially concerning in this year of local elections, as they have inhibited the work of civil society actors. To counter intensifying polarization, and to advance reconciliation across the Western Balkans, it is vital for political leaders to speak clearly about the truth of past atrocities, including genocide, and to promote justice.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the prevalence and violence of gangs and organized crime have severe impact on the lives and rights of millions of people, including in Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras and Mexico. Punitive and militarized responses have in some cases led to grave human rights violations, potentially further fuelling violence. Only policies grounded in human rights can provide effective and sustainable solutions. Corruption, impunity, poor governance and the structural root causes of violence – such as discrimination and failure to uphold economic, social and cultural rights – must be tackled, with the full participation of civil society and affected communities. International cooperation needs to be enhanced, to address the illegal arms trade and ensure accountability for transnational crimes.

Gun violence is also at alarming levels in a number of Caribbean countries, including in Jamaica, where it has led to repeated declarations of a state of emergency. I commend the Caribbean Community for its work to maintain peace and stability in the region; its combat against the trade in illegal weapons; and its encouraging effort to establish an OHCHR office in the CARICOM region. I will address the extremely worrying situation in Haiti in detail on 2 April.

Mr President,

Fear is fragmenting societies across the world, unleashing fury and hatred. They are also fuelled by a winner-take-all attitude that frames elections as the spoils of conquest.

With elections in over 60 countries – where nearly half of the world's people live – 2024 could be a landmark for democratic principles. Demos, the people; kratos, rule: a meaningful, safe and fully participatory electoral process is key to ensuring that governance serves the people's human rights. But democracy is also broader than the singular electoral moment every three, four or five years. It lives – or dies – with the people's right to participate in the conduct of public affairs, constantly.

This empowerment of people from all walks of life is the 'superpower' of genuinely participatory societies, because it ensures trust in the institutions of governance, with decision-making that is more relevant and more effective, because it is better informed and balances the needs of different groups.

Three-quarters of the world's members of Parliament are men. Globally, women – that is to say, half the adult population – continue to be blocked from equal political participation and representation – and at the current rate of progress, gender parity in national parliaments will not be achieved before 2063. I urge all States to do more to combat gender discrimination and violence against women, and to dismantle the webs of laws and practices that keep women out of power.

Good governance requires constant oversight and accountability, via independent checks and balances to the exercise of power, meaning that it is strongly underpinned by the rule of law, including independent justice systems. Fundamental freedoms – the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly and association – are also essential.

Corruption is also a major challenge to democracy and rights. Its primary impact is to divert decision-making and public resources from the common good to private benefit – generating social and economic inequalities that may be so extensive that they empty the institutions of the State of any meaning, and deprive people who are poor and dispossessed of their rights to determine their future.

In many parts of the world, many politicians are deliberately enflaming antagonism and xenophobia to garner support, particularly in electoral periods. In this headlong rush to abandon the common good for short-term personal benefit, they are tearing up the fundamental human rights principles that can unite us all.

I am profoundly concerned by the prospect of intense disinformation campaigns in the context of elections, fuelled by generative artificial intelligence. There is an acute need for robust regulatory frameworks to ensure responsible use of generative AI, and my Office is doing its utmost to advance them.

Mr President,

Autocracy and military coups are the negation of democracy. Every election – even an imperfect one – constitutes an effort to at least formally acknowledge the universal aspiration to democracy However, in a so-called 'illiberal democracy' – or, as the Prime Minister of Hungary referred to his country, an 'illiberal State' – the formal structure of election is maintained, civic freedoms are restricted, the media's scrutiny of governance is eroded by installing government control over key media outlets, and independent oversight and justice institutions are deeply undermined, concentrating power in the executive branch.

It is important to recognise that in many cases, this year's electoral processes will ensure a smooth transfer of power, free of hatred; and that the governance structures that result will broadly achieve their main function of representing the many voices of the people, and advancing their rights.

But in other cases, I have serious concerns about the human rights context in which several elections are taking place.

In the Russian Federation, the authorities have further intensified their repression of dissenting voices prior to this month's Presidential election. Several candidates have been prevented from running, due to alleged administrative irregularities. The death in prison of opposition leader Alexei Navalny adds to my serious concerns about his persecution. Since the onset of Russia's war on Ukraine, thousands of politicians, journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers and people who have simply spoken their minds on social media have faced administrative and criminal charges, and this trend appears to have worsened in recent months, with many cultural figures targeted. Last month, a new bill passed into law that further punishes people convicted of distributing information deemed to be false about Russia's armed forces, as well as people who seek to implement decisions by international organizations that the Russian Federation "does not take part in". I urge a swift and comprehensive review of all cases of deprivation of liberty that result from the exercise of fundamental freedoms; as well as an immediate end to the repression of independent voices and the legal professionals who represent them. The future of the country depends on an open space.

Iran's legislative election three days ago was Iranians' first opportunity to vote since the "Women, Life, Freedom" protests of 2022 and 2023. It took place in a country that has been deeply divided by the Government's repression of the rights of women and girls. People who participated in the protests have been persecuted, imprisoned on long sentences and in some cases, put to death. The draft Bill on "Supporting the Family by Promoting the Culture of Chastity and Hijab", if adopted, would impose severe punishments for acts that should not be deemed criminal in any country. In my ongoing engagement with the Iranian authorities, I have urged immediate reforms to uphold the rights of all Iranians, including the right of women to make their own choices, and an immediate moratorium on the death penalty.

In Chad, I am following with concern recent developments, including the killing of the opposition leader. I call for a transparent, timely and independent investigation, and for Chad's transition ahead of upcoming elections to respect fully international human rights law.

Senegal's planned Presidential election was abruptly cancelled last month. Following the Constitutional Court's ruling that the vote must take place "as soon as possible", the President has announced he will do so. The country's civic space has been eroded over the past three years, with close to 1,000 opposition members and activists reportedly arrested since 2021. Many of them have been released conditionally, and I call for the review and release of all those who have not been freed, including prominent opposition figures. I encourage the Government to ensure that t he proposed national dialogue includes genuine participation by people of all political views.

In Ghana, the President has announced that he will step down following Presidential and Parliamentary elections scheduled for December, having completed his constitutionally limited second term in office. This will mark Ghana’s fifth presidential succession since 1992, further concretising its leadership in terms of respect for rules-based institutional transitions. Ghana’s civil society has been instrumental in enhancing civil and political participation in public affairs, including in the fight against corruption. At the same time, restrictions have been mounting in recent years, including risks for the safety of journalists. Insecurity has also been growing in Ghana, with regional security threats extending through northern areas, in particular.

Rwanda is expected to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in July, against a backdrop of improved economic and social wellbeing over several decades, and an impressive record on women's political representation. I urge rapid steps to ensure fundamental freedoms, together with genuine investigations into allegations of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, and intimidation, as well as arbitrary detentions. These are indispensable to creating a conducive environment ahead of elections.

In Somalia, a process is underway to revise the Provisional Federal Constitution, and I urge lawmakers to ensure that it fully complies with Somalia’s international and regional human rights commitments. Devastating conflict persists, and our staff have confirmed the killing of at least 500 civilians in 2023. The Al-Shabaab armed group is responsible for many of these killings, and I also deplore its recruitment and use of children as fighters. I urge reforms to lift restrictions on freedom of expression to ensure a vibrant civic space. Given Somalia's realisation of conditions for the IMF-World Bank Heavily Indebted Poor Countries framework, I encourage the allocation of more resources to education, health and social protection.

The people of Libya have a right to genuinely democratic, participative and accountable governance. However, while elections are planned in Libya this year, there has been little real progress in terms of concrete efforts to ensure reconciliation; to set up accountability, including transitional justice; or to enable a broad, free and safe civic space. Progress must be achieved on all these points to ensure genuine elections, and to build unified and legitimate institutions.

In India, with an electorate of 960 million people, the coming election will be unique in scale. I appreciate the country's secular and democratic traditions and its great diversity. I am, however, concerned by increasing restrictions on the civic space – with human rights defenders, journalists and perceived critics targeted – as well as by hate speech and discrimination against minorities, especially Muslims. It is particularly important in a pre-electoral context to ensure an open space that respects the meaningful participation of everyone. I welcome the Supreme Court’s decision last month on campaign finance schemes, upholding the right to information and transparency.

In Bangladesh, I am concerned that thousands of opposition party leaders and activists remain in detention, and that a number of deaths in custody have been reported since October. While I condemn any form of political violence, I urge a swift review of all these cases, with a view to their release, to encourage political dialogue and reconciliation. I continue to be concerned by allegations that the justice system is being used to harass human rights advocates, journalists and civil society leaders. I encourage investigation into alleged enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, in line with international standards.

In Pakistan, high participation in last month’s election demonstrated how much Pakistanis value democracy and want an end to interference in civilian rule. Respect for the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly and association is fundamental to strengthening democracy and resolving long-term economic and development challenges. I urge the new Government to end the use of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances against political opponents, journalists, members of minority communities and others, whose whereabouts remain unknown for weeks, months and in some cases, years.

In Mexico, several electoral processes will coincide in June, resulting in the planned election of more than 20,000 public officers, including the President, all members of the federal parliament, and a wide range of state and local representatives and authorities. This immense exercise of political and civil rights must be safeguarded against violence.

Venezuela, where a Presidential election is scheduled this year, will be discussed in depth on 18 March.

In Poland, the incoming coalition Government has announced its intention to restore civic freedoms and the independence of institutions that had been weakened previously, as well as reproductive rights – ending the country's near-total ban on abortion. I welcome such moves, and emphasise the need to do so in an inclusive and participative process, reflecting the country's human rights commitments.

In the United States of America, in this electoral year, it is particularly important for authorities at all levels to implement recent recommendations by the UN Human Rights Committee to ensure that suffrage is non-discriminatory, equal and universal. A 2021 Presidential executive order acknowledges that disproportionate and discriminatory policies and other obstacles have restricted the right to vote for people of African descent, and emphasises the need to overturn them. Yet according to the Brennan Center for Justice , at least 14 states have passed laws in 2023 that have the effect of making voting more difficult. In a context of intense political polarisation, it is important to emphasise equal rights, and the equal value of every citizen's vote.

Mr President,

In Afghanistan, I deplore continuing and systematic violations of human rights, particularly the comprehensive violations of the rights of women and girls, which exclude them from every aspect of public life, including secondary and tertiary education; employment; and movement. Advancing the rights of women and girls must be the highest priority for all who work on and in Afghanistan. The civic freedoms and media freedoms of all Afghans are profoundly curtailed, with many women human rights defenders and journalists suffering arbitrary detentions. The resumption of public executions is horrific. I remain concerned about forced expulsion of Afghans from neighbouring countries, particularly for those who face a risk of persecution, torture or other irreparable harm in Afghanistan.

In the United Arab Emirates, another mass trial is underway based on counter-terrorism legislation that contravenes human rights law. In December, new charges were brought against 84 people, including human rights defenders, journalists and others who were already in prison. Several were nearing the end of their sentence or have been arbitrarily held in detention after completion of their sentence. Their joint prosecution constitutes the second-largest mass trial in the UAE's history, after the so-called "UAE94" case in 2021, and includes many of the same defendants. I remain concerned about broader patterns of suppression of dissent and the civic space in the country, and I urge the Government to review domestic laws in line with international human rights recommendations.

Dialogue between China and my Office continues in areas such as counterterrorism policies, gender equality, minority protection, civic space, and economic, social and cultural rights.

As we move forward, it is important that this dialogue yield concrete results, notably in respect of the policy areas raised during the Universal Periodic Review. I recognise China's advances in alleviating poverty and advancing development, and I have urged that these advances be accompanied by reforms to align relevant laws and policies with international human rights standards. During the UPR, China announced plans to adopt 30 new measures for human rights protection, including amendments to the Criminal Law, and revisions of the Criminal Procedure Law. My Office looks forward to engaging with China on this; I particularly encourage revision of the vague offence of “picking quarrels and making trouble” in Article 293 of the Criminal Law, and I urge the release of human rights defenders, lawyers and others detained under such legislation. I also call on the Government to implement the recommendations made by my Office and other human rights bodies in relation to laws, policies and practises that violate fundamental rights, including in the Xinjiang and Tibet regions. I am engaging with the Hong Kong authorities on continuing concerns about national security laws.

In El Salvador, I encourage the Government, in its second term of office, to uphold the rule of law, ensure the separation of powers and promote adequate checks and balances. I also call on the authorities to provide conditions of detention that ensure the dignity of all people deprived of their liberty, including for those who are facing long periods without trial and obstacles to accessing defence lawyers. Protecting all Salvadorans from criminality and violence is an important human rights goal, and only measures based on human rights can achieve it. I encourage the authorities to empower people of all opinions, and from all communities, to participate in decision-making.

In the context of civic space, let me also point out that data, where it is available, shows that many States need to adopt comprehensive measures to combat police violence and discrimination. For example, last year's Being Black in the EU survey by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights indicates that 58% of people stopped by police in the preceding year perceived the action as racially motivated, with highest rates in Germany, Spain and Sweden. Since 2016, this perception has increased in Denmark, Finland, France, Germany and Ireland. It is important to analyse the factors that lie behind these perceptions, and to address them. Non-governmental data from the United States and Brazil continues to point to disproportionately high levels of deaths of people of African descent in the context of police interventions.

In many countries, including in Europe and North America, I am concerned by the apparently growing influence of so-called “great replacement" conspiracy theories, based on the false notion that Jews, Muslims, non-white people and migrants seek to "replace" or suppress countries' cultures and peoples. These delusional and deeply racist ideas have directly influenced many perpetrators of violence. Together with the so called "war on woke," which is really a war on inclusion, these ideas aim to exclude racial minorities – particularly women from racial minorities – and LGBTQ+ people from full equality.

Multiculturalism is not a threat: it is the history of humanity, and deeply beneficial to us all.

I deplore escalating attacks against LGBTQ+ people and their rights. Discriminatory legislation and policies have recently been expanded, adopted, or are under consideration, in Belarus, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Lebanon, Niger, Nigeria, the Russian Federation, Uganda and several states within the United States of America, among others. I also regret the recent court ruling in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines that maintains colonial-era criminalization of consensual same sex relations, based on long-discredited arguments and harmful stereotypes.

Recognising the rights of LGBTQ+ people goes to the meaning of equality, and the right of everyone to live free from violence and discrimination. In that light, I commend important steps towards full recognition of the rights of LGBTQ+ people in Greece, and the decriminalization of consensual same-sex relations in Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Mauritius, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Singapore in the past two years.

Mr. President,

Peace, like development, is built and nourished through rights. It is by upholding and advancing the full spectrum of human rights, including the right to development and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, that States can craft solutions that are durable – because they respond to the universal truth of our equality and the inextinguishable desire for freedom and justice.

History is a record of humanity's capacity to surmount the worst challenges. Among the greatest achievements of humanity over the past 75 years has been the recognition that addressing human rights in every country– all human rights; it is not an à la carte menu – is a matter of international concern.

Thank you, Mr President.



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