48th session of the Human Rights Council
7 October 2021
This Council has been presented with reports of the Secretary General and of myself on Cambodia, Georgia and Yemen, and has requested an oral update on the progress and results of technical cooperation and capacity-building in the Philippines.
I begin with the report (A/HRC/48/49), which provides an overview of the work of our country office in Cambodia from 1 June 2020 to 31 May 2021, in accordance with Human Rights Council resolution 42/37.
The report welcomes the Government’s important economic recovery policies and social protection programs for vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 crisis. On the other hand, it also highlights heavy reliance on law enforcement to curb the pandemic, including through the newly enacted COVID-19 law, which grants law enforcement with sweeping powers, leading to the curtailment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
By the time this report was prepared, my Office had received credible reports that at least 110 individuals were held in pre-trial detention and 16 received prison sentences through summary trials for violating COVID-19 restrictions. Since June, we have been informed of several hundred more reported arrests, exacerbating Cambodia’s already serious prison overcrowding.
Civic and democratic space in Cambodia saw further deterioration since my global update to this Council in February 2021. In March, the nine most senior opposition leaders were sentenced to 20 to 25 years in prison after being tried in abstentia by Cambodian courts.
During the reporting period, at least 62 members of opposition parties were subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention on political grounds, 43 of whom remain in detention. At least 14 other members of the opposition were subjected to physical attacks by unknown perpetrators.
Human rights defenders were routinely harassed and intimidated, while trade union activists reported broad restrictions on peaceful assembly, at a time when workers and others were experiencing increased costs of food, rent, utilities and loan payments, and factory operations were suspended. Since the submission of this report, in a troubling development, prominent human rights defender, Rong Chhunn, and two others were convicted on vaguely worded charges. As we speak, at least 25 human rights defenders, including 12 women are behind bars. This includes six youth environmental defenders.
We remain extremely concerned with the impunity for attacks against political activists and human rights defenders. Of particular concern are continuing threats of arrest and violence by senior officials against opposition activists hiding in Thailand. These must cease. I also call on the Government to urgently investigate and prosecute the cases highlighted in the previous reports and resolutions, as well as the disappearance of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a Thai political activist in June 2020.
My Office continues to support efforts related to the administration of justice. While I welcome the increase in the legal aid budget, unfortunately, the adoption of the legal aid policy remains pending, as it has since 2018. Alternatives to detention remain under-utilized, including for individuals under 18 years-old, despite the adoption of the Juvenile Justice Law in 2017.
The authorities continued to reclassify state land and grant it to individuals, including senior Government officials and their families, with forced evictions taking place without proper measures for remedy and recourse. Around 700 stateless ethnic Vietnamese have been evicted from their homes in Phnom Penh. My Office is working on draft national guidelines on resettlement to be proposed to the Government in October. If accepted, they would strengthen the legal and policy frameworks, in line with international human rights standards.
OHCHR will continue to work with the Government of Cambodia and other stakeholders, with a view to ensuring that the human rights of all people in Cambodian are fully respected and protected.
(Cambodia 4.2 minutes)
I now move to the report on Cooperation with Georgia, A/HRC/48/45, as requested by resolution 46/30 – noting that pursuant to the same resolution, my Office also presented an oral update on the subject at the Council’s session in June.
The report provides an update on the technical assistance delivered by the Office through our Senior Human Rights Adviser and team in Georgia, as well as information on key human rights developments from 1 June 2020 to 31 May 2021. These include main concerns in and around Abkhazia, Georgia; and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, Georgia.
I am particularly concerned about the recent high rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Georgia. I call on the authorities, and all members of society, to do their utmost to protect rights to life and health.
I also urge effective investigation of violence by homophobic groups in Tbilisi on 5 July, which resulted in injuries to over 50 journalists and, reportedly into the death of a television cameraman. These deplorable incidents prevented members of the LGBTQI community from exercising their rights to peaceful assembly. Much more effective protection should also be set up for media workers.
I also echo the concerns recently voiced by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights regarding aspects of the nomination and appointment processes for Supreme Court judges in Georgia. I strongly encourage the authorities to address the deficiencies identified in that context.
With respect to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, I regret that I must again report that the Office continues to be refused access, despite this Council's repeated requests.
The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened our concerns about the negative impact of some discriminatory measures imposed in and around Abkhazia and South Ossetia. By increasing poverty and restricting access to fundamental economic and social rights, these measures and practices have further aggravated the vulnerability of tens of thousands of people who have been affected by conflict.
I am also concerned about continuing allegations of human rights violations resulting from discrimination based on ethnic grounds, particularly affecting ethnic Georgians who mainly reside in the Gali district of Abkhazia and the Akhalgori district of South Ossetia. They include restrictions on freedom of movement; obstruction of access to personal documentation; and violations of the right to education and the right to health among others.
I welcome the lifting of restrictions at crossing points between Abkhazia region and Tbilisi-controlled territory on 5 July 2021. Freedom of movement is essential for the many individuals who must cross the river to receive their pensions or purchase medicine and basic supplies, among others items. The deaths of four people who drowned in the Inguri river in April were a shocking reminder of the needless suffering of people. I strongly urge the lifting of unnecessary crossings’ restrictions at the South Ossetian Administrative boundary line without further delay.
I welcome the release in July of Zaza Gakheladze, a Georgian citizen who was detained in South Ossetia. All cases of allegedly arbitrary deprivations of liberty should be the object of swift, thorough and transparent review. I also urge prompt, impartial and thorough investigation into the four cases of alleged deprivation of life that occurred in Abkhazia and South Ossetia between 2014 and 2019, and which have been repeatedly highlighted in previous reports to this Council.
To conclude, I encourage all relevant actors to implement the recommendations in this and previous reports to the Council, and to place human rights at the centre of the response to and recovery from COVID-19. I repeat my strong call for access to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, so that the Office and both international and regional human rights mechanisms can constructively support measures to build trust and address the human rights needs of the affected population.
- Georgia 4.7 minutes
I move now to the report on the implementation of technical and capacity building assistance to the Yemeni National Commission of Inquiry, pursuant to Resolution 45/26. The resolution also requested my Office to continue providing support to the National Commission, to strengthen its capacity to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of international law committed by all parties to the conflict.
The conflict in Yemen is in its seventh year, with no peace in sight and no respite for the civilian population. Since the escalation of the conflict in March 2015, OHCHR has verified as of 6 October 2021, the killing of 8,218 civilians, including 2,270 children, and the injury of 13,283 civilians. Parties to the conflict have continued to act with little regard to their obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law. Numerous attacks targeting or disproportionately impacting civilians or civilian objects during the past year may amount to war crimes. Parties to the conflict also continue to commit extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture, child recruitment and forced displacement, among other violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law.
Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 20 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and protection – more than 12 million of them in acute need. Four million people have been displaced; 83 per cent of them are women and children. Urgent funding across all sectors is needed to avert large-scale famine and I call on all donors to step up.
The National Commission faces multiple challenges, including limited access to some areas in Yemen, transportation difficulties, the fear of many witnesses and sources, as well as threats and attempts at intimidation. Commendably, it continues to operate with determination to document violations and abuses, and to maintain space towards future redress and remedy to people in Yemen.
Over the last year, my Office has organized several activities to further develop the capacity of the Commission’s investigators and field monitors to discharge their mandate in line with international norms and standards, including by highlighting and facilitating best practices for evidence collection and storage, and the use of advanced information technology to that effect.
The Office also facilitated a meeting in Geneva between the National Commission of Inquiry and the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts, which this Council has mandated, in order to pursue strategic cooperation among them. The nine Commissioners also met with my Rule of Law Team to exchange experiences on transitional justice processes.
I regret that the COVID-19 pandemic has impeded the implementation of some of the in-person activities that were initially planned. Virtual alternatives have not been a satisfactory substitute, since the city of Aden – where the National Commission is based – experiences frequent power and internet failures. Discussions are ongoing with the National Commission to seek best alternative options for future support and cooperation in the current circumstances.
In mid-September the National Commission issued its ninth report, in which it attributed violations and abuses of international law to various parties to the conflict. The Commission's reporting on human rights violations and abuses, as well as violations of international humanitarian law, has steadily improved in scope and precision. But it continues to face considerable challenges, including security and political constraints, and these have significantly impeded its ability to safely and freely conduct comprehensive investigations.
I regret that the de facto authorities in Sana’a have not cooperated with the Commission, and have not officially granted it access to areas they control, although they tolerate the presence of field monitors. The National Commission is currently working to open a new field office in Marib, which saw significant fighting in 2021, as well as large-scale displacement. It also continues to undertake field trips and to conduct visits to places of detention and meetings with senior officials in Government of Yemen-controlled areas.
Lack of victims and witness protection mechanisms has also impeded the work of the National Commission. A tribal culture in which private revenge is frequent also makes it dangerous to submit casefiles containing the names of alleged perpetrators, as this may result in immediate private retribution.
I am pleased to note the growing cooperation between the National Commission and civil society organizations, including international non-governmental organizations such as Geneva Call and the International Centre for Transitional Justice.
I also very much welcome the National Commission's strong advocacy for the establishment of a dedicated court, with specialized judges and prosecutors, and nationwide jurisdiction regarding conflict-related gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law. This proposal is important for accountability in Yemen and deserves the international community’s attention and support.
The report before you includes recommendations to reinforce the work and impact of the Commission. One chief priority concerns the need for the Yemen Government to renew the mandate of the Commission, which expired in August. The Commission's mandate should also be strengthened so that it can effectively fulfil its role as an independent mechanism, and sufficient financial resources should be provided to expand its accessibility and outreach, and to enable the Commission to extend beyond its current focus on criminal accountability and expand work on transitional justice.
I urge all parties to the conflict to fully cooperate with the Commission, notably by granting access to all areas of Yemen – including all places of deprivation of liberty – and by providing full information upon its request. I encourage the Attorney-General to systematically and promptly act upon the cases received from the Commission, whoever the alleged perpetrators may be. And I would invite the Supreme Judicial Council to consider the National Commission's proposal to establish a dedicated court.
Our report addresses further recommendations to the Commission itself, notably in terms of public outreach and protection of victims and witnesses. I welcome the Commission’s willingness to continue enhancing its capacity, and stand ready to continue to support it.
- Yemen 7 minutes
I now turn to my update on the implementation of Resolution 45/33 on the Philippines.
My Office has been working closely with the UN Country Team, the Government, the National Human Rights Commission, and a wide range of civil society actors to develop a three-year UN joint programme on human rights in the Philippines. Constructive engagement by all stakeholders resulted in the important milestone of signing the programme document on 22 July.
The joint programme aims to achieve concrete and measurable progress, especially in the key areas identified in the resolution: domestic investigative and accountability measures; data gathering on alleged police violations; civic space, and engagement with civil society and the Commission on Human Rights; reporting and follow-up to human rights mechanisms; and human rights-based approaches to counter-terrorism and drug control.
Priority activities have been identified, and several have now commenced. They include a series of workshops with the Presidential Human Rights Committee and Government departments to strengthen the National Mechanism on Reporting and Follow-up; a national consultation convened jointly with the National Commission on Human Rights on the implementation of the Guidelines on a human rights-based approach to drugs; engagement with police and justice actors to improve data and accountability mechanisms, including training programs related to the investigation of serious violations; and workshops on legislation to protect human rights defenders.
Given serious concerns regarding the human rights implications of the Anti-Terrorism Act adopted last year, the UN joint programme on human rights also seeks to bolster the role of the National Human Rights Commission in monitoring counter-terrorism measures.
Regarding accountability for security force personnel alleged to have committed crimes or human rights violations, there have been some initial developments. In February, the Secretary of Justice announced at the Human Rights Council some preliminary findings of the Inter-agency Review Panel on anti-illegal drug operations where deaths occurred. The Panel has now referred its findings on 52 cases involving 154 police officers for investigation for criminal liability. I encourage publication of the panel’s findings so its work can be evaluated. The authorities should also involve the National Human Rights Commission and other relevant actors, including by sharing information on cases under investigation, to ensure an effective and victim-centered process. This week’s acquittal of 19 police officers accused of the killing of former mayor Rolando Espinosa in a jail cell in 2016 highlights the challenges in securing accountability.
While justice must be pursued for the many thousands of victims of alleged extrajudicial killings and other violations in the Philippines, there should also be institutional and policy changes to prevent further violations. In this context, I note recent rulings by the Supreme Court that limit the power of judges in Manila and Quezon to issue warrants outside their judicial regions, and requiring police officers to wear body cameras when serving warrants. The use of body-worn cameras and alternative recording devices in police operations is now mandatory. These are important preventive measures, the effectiveness of which has been well documented in other States.
Despite these steps, I remain disturbed by reports of continuing and severe human rights violations and abuses across the country, including killings by members of the security forces and law enforcement in counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency operations – often in circumstances that indicate basic human rights standards have been ignored.
Killings by alleged vigilantes also continue to be reported, with virtually no information about any form of accountability. We have also received reports of abuses by the ‘New People's Army’ of the Communist Party of the Philippines, including the killing of civilians, recruitment of children and extortion.
I note that last month the Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court unanimously authorized the Prosecutor to proceed with an investigation of international crimes committed in the Philippines between 1 November 2011 and 16 March 2019 in the context of the 'war on drugs' campaign. This process brings into sharp focus the issue of the ability and willingness of domestic accountability mechanisms to produce clear and measurable results.
Human rights defenders -- including environmental defenders, journalists, union activists, church workers, and humanitarian workers -- continue to be at high risk of harassment, threats and killings. Judges and lawyers are also at risk, as the Supreme Court noted in March. Investigations into the killing of nine Tumandok indigenous people in December 2020, and of nine activists in Calabarzon region in March 2021, must ensure accountability for any members of the security forces involved in violations, redress for victims, and institutional review to ensure non-repetition.
I am remain deeply concerned by continued reports of so-called "red-tagging" of human rights and environmental defenders, journalists, union activists, church workers, and humanitarian workers – publicly labelling them as Communists with a view to discrediting their human rights work and encouraging attacks against them.
As the Philippines heads into an election year, I urge all sides to set aside the ugly rhetoric and destructive narratives that label human rights defenders, attack independent media, or condone extra-judicial killings and other violations and abuses. The Government should take determined action to ensure free civic space and protection for those who engage in peaceful civic action and debate at this particularly important time.
I believe that the work of my Office – including through the UN joint programme on human rights – can help to promote a transformative approach to human rights-based reforms, strengthen an institutional culture of respect for human rights and redress for victims, and contribute towards prevention of violations recurring. We look forward to reporting further concrete progress to the Council next September.
Phillipines 5.8 minutes