June 24, 2019 – 41st session of the Human Rights Council Opening statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

Distinguished President of the Council,

Your Excellencies, President Rumen Radev of Bulgaria and President Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands,

Distinguished Ministers,


Director-General Møller,

Colleagues and Friends,

The eyes of the world are on the Council as this June session opens. Over 100 reports are due to be examined. Panel discussions will delve deeply into many human rights situations and themes. They include topics crucial to women’s enjoyment of human rights in the context of work, old age and climate change; targeted surveillance and the private surveillance industry; mental health; and other essential areas of political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights. There will also be interactive dialogues regarding the Democratic Republic of the Congo,  Myanmar, Sudan and Venezuela, among many other issues. I will review aspects of my mission last week to Venezuela during our dialogue on 5 July.

Let me begin this morning by discussing a question that is currently not being given adequate consideration by many actors.

Following the collapse of ISIL, over 55,000 suspected Daesh fighters and their families have been detained in Syria and Iraq. The majority of those individuals are Syrian or Iraqi. They also include foreign alleged fighters from nearly 50 countries, and over 11,000 suspected family members of foreign Daesh fighters being held at the Al Hol camp in north-eastern Syria, in deeply sub-standard conditions. UNICEF estimates there are 29,000 children of foreign fighters in Syria – 20,000 from Iraq – most of them under the age of 12.

It must be clear that all individuals who are suspected of crimes – whatever their country of origin, and whatever the nature of the crime – should face investigation and prosecution, with due process guarantees. Accountability, with fair trials, protects societies from future radicalisation and violence. Betrayals of justice, following flawed trials – which may include unlawful and inhumane detention, and capital punishment – can only serve the narrative of grievance and revenge.

And the continuing detention of individuals not suspected of crimes, in the absence of lawful basis and regular independent judicial review, is not acceptable.

Regarding the alleged fighters, well over 150 men and women have been sentenced to death in Iraq under the anti-terrorism law, following trials which have not afforded adequate due process guarantees.

States have important responsibilities for their own nationals. If citizens are suspected of committing serious crimes in another country, or detained on any grounds, the State of origin should make all efforts to ensure that they will be treated in accordance with international law.

Thousands of family members of alleged Daesh fighters are also being detained, although they are largely not being held for prosecution purposes. The majority are Iraqi and Syrian. Many are at risk of revenge attacks, and are unwanted by their former communities. There is a great need for programmes to assist their rehabilitation and reintegration.

Foreign family members should be repatriated, unless they are to be prosecuted for crimes in accordance with international standards. Children, in particular, have suffered grievous violations of their rights  – including those who may have been indoctrinated or recruited by ISIL to perpetrate violent acts. The primary consideration must be their rehabilitation, protection and best interests.

Despite the complexity of these challenges, rendering people stateless is never an acceptable option. But the measures taken by some States of origin to strip individuals of their nationality, in order to prevent their return, run the risk of exactly that result. Children who are stateless are often deprived of education, access to health care and other basic elements of dignity. To inflict statelessness on children who have already suffered so much is an act of irresponsible cruelty. Moreover, thousands of young children have been born to foreign families during the years of conflict, and States should provide the same access to nationality for children born to their nationals in conflict zones as is otherwise applicable.

A few countries have made efforts to repatriate some nationals, notably children. I also note that four cases have been brought to the attention of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, and the Committee against Torture, by the French grandparents of children currently being held in Syria or Iraq.

I strongly encourage Member States to act in line with the guidance note prepared by my Office, in consultation with other UN entities, regarding human rights-based responses to the situation of foreign fighters and their families. I urge all States to assume responsibility for their nationals, and to work together to provide resources to help the relevant authorities and actors in Syria and Iraq to address urgent humanitarian needs.

Mr President,

The recent and continuing military escalations in Syria – in Idlib and western Aleppo – are of extreme concern. The Office has received reports of hundreds of ongoing civilian casualties and destruction to civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and schools, mainly caused by air strikes by the Government of Syria and its allies, but also, to a lesser extent, ground-based attacks by armed groups. Over 200,000 people have been displaced; many of them had already been forced to leave their homes elsewhere in Syria, and are by now completely destitute. If conflict intensifies further, the impact on civilians could be devastating, particularly in Idlib City. It could also harm prospects for the political process.

All necessary measures must be taken to ensure the protection of civilians, and I urge all parties to the conflict to immediately cease the use of heavy weaponry in densely populated areas. I also urge all parties to release the many thousands of Syrians held in appalling conditions of detention, with a high risk of torture.

I regret Saudi Arabia‘s dismissal of last week’s report by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. I also reiterate my strong condemnation of the mass execution of 37 men in April. Some were children when the alleged crimes occurred.

Iran continues to sentence children to death. I was appalled that the authorities sentenced and executed two boys under the age of 18 in April. I remain particularly concerned about the high number of child offenders on death row – possibly more than 85 individuals – with some at risk of imminent execution.

I take this opportunity to note and commend global progress with respect to the death penalty in this year, which marks the 30th anniversary of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty. The advances include recent ratifications by Gambia and State of Palestine; removal of the death penalty from the penal codes of Benin and Burkina Faso; and declarations of moratoria in Malaysia and the State of California.

Mr President,

In Tunisia earlier this month, I commended the Government’s commitment to enacting reforms that strengthen democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights. Tunisia can be an example for many other countries striving to achieve constitutional and legislative reforms, as well as transitional justice.

Many of my discussions there, in Silicon Valley, Montreal and elsewhere have emphasised the need for us to address the human rights challenges raised by digital technology, as it transforms almost all sectors of every economy and society – from health care; to education; the workplace; human rights activism; political participation; and development.

The human rights framework will be essential to ensuring that responses by technology companies and governments effectively address challenges such as massive and arbitrary surveillance; the safety of human rights defenders, journalists and others who rely on encryption and anonymity; maintaining freedoms of expression, association, and assembly online while addressing incitement to hatred and violence; countering the promotion of terrorism online in accordance with human rights standards; addressing the damaging bias in access to healthcare, employment and insurance introduced by artificial intelligence and big data; increasing threats of cyberattacks and cybercrime; and interference in elections through disinformation campaigns powered by digital tools.

A few days ago, the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation underscored the “urgent need to examine how time-honoured human rights frameworks and conventions…can guide actions and policies relating to digital cooperation and digital technology”.

Technological developments need to drive progress and hope – not discrimination, repression and despair. As international human rights bodies and champions, it is our role to assist all actors in the digital landscape so that their work promotes the rights, freedom, well-being and dignity of everyone – instead of damaging them.

In the coming months my Office will be engaging with many voices across sectors and geographies to develop focused guidance on the application of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to digital technologies. I look to Member States and to the Council for their ideas and support.

Mr President,

In this context, I also want to highlight my concerns about violence, and the incitement of violence, on the basis of religion – both in what is now known as the real world, and online. In recent months we have seen Muslim mosques, Jewish synagogues and Christian churches attacked by gunmen; and worshippers of many faiths subjected to violent attacks.

In Sri Lanka, I am concerned that the terrorist attacks two months ago have fuelled increasing tensions. The lack of a unified approach between the President and Government regarding key human rights concerns risks adverse impact on the effectiveness of the security forces in ensuring safety and protection for all. I am disturbed by reports of anti-Muslim attacks; recent statements by some religious leaders inciting violence constitute worrying early warning indicators that should be addressed. While some counter-terrorism measures are warranted, the state of emergency should be of minimal duration, and a priority should be given to bringing political, religious and other community leaders together to address root causes of all forms of violence and discrimination. In this context, I express my support to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka for its commendable and courageous role.

We must be more vigilant in the face of the hatred and violent extremism which feed off each other. But we need to act both with great urgency and great care. As the new UN Strategy and Action Plan on Hate Speech emphasises, the misuse of excessively broad restrictions on freedom of speech may lead to silencing critics and the intensification of attacks on the press and human rights advocates.

Mr President,

I am convinced that strong partnership across multiple sectors is a key that can unlock effective policy change. Over recent months, we have worked with the International Labour Organisation and the International Monetary Fund to help address inequalities through social justice, including universal social protection measures that are rooted in human rights.

Social protection is a fundamental right, and it is also an essential safety net. Measures to provide security and protection are indispensable for conflict prevention and sustainable development. Particularly in times of turbulence and crisis, they enable people to secure at least minimal enjoyment of the rights to health, food, water and sanitation, education and housing.

I note and applaud the International Monetary Fund’s new strategic commitment to helping countries make their social spending “adequate, efficient and sustainably financed.” As the IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said last week, “Social spending is not just an expense, but rather can be among the wisest of investments…To reap the rewards of a stronger global economy, societies must begin by strengthening social programmes today.”

We will continue to work with partners within the UN, as well as with civil society, to provide Member States with advice for social protection systems that respond to the specific needs of their people.

Mr President,

My mission to Cameroon last month took place in a context of intensifying crisis, including in the North-West and South-West regions of the country, as well as increasing restrictions on the democratic space. The authorities expressed openness to finding human rights-based solutions to the challenges facing the country, including through possible technical cooperation in the military, security and justice sectors.

A number of positive signals followed that mission, including visitsand discussions by the Prime Minister in the North-West and South-West regions. However, there have also been reports of extensive burning of houses and shops by security forces in Bamenda, and at least one extrajudicial killing; as well as other reports of human rights abuses by separatist armed groups, including burning of houses, crops and granaries. Furthermore, the arrest of over 350 people following demonstrations organised by the opposition on 1 June is disturbing.

I call on the authorities to uphold the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and to ensure due process. I also encourage the authorities to view the opposition as partners in the broadly inclusive dialogues which will be indispensable to laying the foundation for sustainable peace in Cameroon; and to promptly investigate all allegations of human rights violations by the security forces.

Mr President,

The inspiring and peaceful popular uprising in Sudan, with its call for democratic governance and justice, has been met with a brutal crackdown by the security forces this month. I regret that the Government has not responded to our request for access to investigate allegations of serious human rights violations by the joint security forces during the crackdown. They include reports that more than 100 protestors were killed, and many more injured, during and following the assault by security forces on a peaceful sit-in on 3 June. In addition, hospitals and clinics were reportedly raided, and medical staff assaulted. We have received allegations of rape and sexual abuse of both women and men during the crackdown, as well as information alleging that hundreds of protestors may be missing.

I urge Sudan to grant access to my Office; to put an end to the repression of the people’s human rights; and to immediately end the Internet shutdown. The Sudanese people are entitled to express their opinions, and – like people everywhere – they have a right to live in freedom and at peace, enjoying the rule of law and the conditions necessary to dignity.

Mr President,

In Myanmar, evidence indicates continuing persecution of the remaining Rohingya people in northern Rakhine State, with little or no effort by the authorities to create conditions for the voluntary, safe and sustainable return of refugees. Although restrictions on humanitarian and media access in both Rakhine and in Chin State limit our access to information, the ongoing conflict there has included use of heavy weaponry, airstrikes and helicopter gunships by the military, with significant loss of life on all sides and severe impact on civilians. Based on allegations received, we fear that the conflict is being used as a pretext to carry out attacks against Rohingya civilians, and to cause further displacement. Some 35,000 ethnic Rakhine, Rohingya, Mro, Daignet and Khamee civilians have been internally displaced by fighting. The suspension of humanitarian aid by the government means at least 95,000 people have been cut off from life-saving assistance.

Mr President,

In Hong Kong, I commend the sound decision of the authorities to delay passage of the bill regarding extradition, in response to the massive display of civic activism by a large proportion of the population. I encourage the authorities to consult broadly before passing or amending this, or any other, legislation. I continue to raise issues related to Xinjiang and other matters bilaterally with the Government of China, and discussions concerning unfettered access to the province by my Office are ongoing.

Mr President,

Human rights violations are fuelled by impunity. And impunity is founded on mistruth: on failures to recognise direct facts – who pulled the trigger – as well as the fundamental humanity and rights of victims.

Both in Panama last month, and in Mexico, in April, I was pleased to witness important steps towards truth-telling and acknowledgment of the bitter realities of human rights violations.

In recent decades, victims, activists, members of Truth Commissions and political leaders across Latin America have struggled successfully to advance reconciliation and transitional justice. But today we are witnessing a worrisome trend of denial of the facts, even extending to the passage of laws intended to undo the progress made in seeking justice. Amnesty legislation was passed in Nicaragua earlier this month, and attempts have been made recently to pass de facto amnesty laws in Guatemala and El Salvador. Once again, I urge these and all other countries not to adopt regulations that prevent serious human rights violations from being prosecuted and duly punished.

In Mexico, I was encouraged by the President’s acknowledgement of the need to take action regarding reports of torture, extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations which have taken place in an atmosphere of wide-ranging impunity, including the very large number of outstanding cases of enforced disappearance.

As you are aware, my Office will now be working with the new Commission for Truth and Access to Justice in the Ayotzinapa cases, providing technical assistance to seek the truth and ensure justice for the disappearance of 43 students in 2014. We will also assist the government’s National Search Commission and the National Search System to identify the 26,000 unidentified bodies which have been uncovered to date.

To nurture victims’ trust in the authorities, I encourage measures to strengthen the independence and funding of the Attorney General’s Office.  We will work with the authorities to ensure the civil nature of the national guard, and to devise measures to address Mexico’s alarming number of attacks on journalists and human rights defenders.

Mr President,

My Office is following the situation of human rights in the Philippines very closely. The extraordinarily high number of deaths – and persistent reports of extrajudicial killings – in the context of campaigns against drug use continue. Even the officially confirmed number of 5425 deaths would be a matter of most serious concern for any country. I welcome the recent statement by Special Rapporteurs calling for action by the Council. There should also be comprehensive and transparent information from the authorities on the circumstances around the deaths, and investigations related to allegations of violations. These could dispel any false allegations and help regain trust for the authorities.

Human rights defenders, including activists for land rights and the rights of indigenous peoples; journalists; lawyers; members of the Catholic clergy; and others who have spoken out – notably the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples – have received threats, sometimes publicly, from senior Government officials. This creates a very real risk of violence against them, and undermines rule of law, as well as the right to freedom of expression.

Mr President,

In Portugal, where I attended an encouraging conference on drug policies and harm reduction, I also benefited from informative discussions on migration. Portugal’s open and forward-looking migrant policy aims to offer migrants easy access to social and legal assistance and encourages migrants to access the labour market. I visited a centre in Lisbon which offered free pre-school classes, alongside training courses and other support to migrant women aiming to set up their own companies.

Ensuring that migrants are included and integrated brings many benefits for host communities, including net financial contributions: Portugal’s High Commissioner for Migration informed me that in 2017, migrants contributed 510 million euros more to the social security system than they took out.

I invite all countries to consider learning from this example. Despite extensive disinformation campaigns regarding the supposedly damaging impact of migration on destination countries, close attention to the facts indicates that when their dignity and rights are respected, migrants can be strong drivers of successful economies and societies. We should recognize and cherish these contributions.

Instead, I observe a deeply unfortunate trend towards the criminalisation of basic human compassion for migrants, including those in situations of great vulnerability. The NGO Open Democracy reported last month that over 100 ordinary people in Europe have been arrested or prosecuted this year for acts such as feeding hungry migrants; helping them find shelter; or even assisting a pregnant woman to get to hospital to give birth. Similar prosecutions of ordinary people seeking to help individuals in distress have also taken place in the United States and elsewhere. Moreover, in several countries, new legal measures aim to penalise NGOs which rescue people drowning at sea.

Measures such as these clearly put the lives of children, women and men at risk. But they also put our societies at risk. They violate ancient and precious values that are common to us all, by penalizing compassion. Those who seek to help people in need should be honoured, not prosecuted. Caring should not be considered a crime, and this criminalisation of acts of basic human decency must be resisted. We have, all of us, a right – and even a duty – to help each other.

In Libya, the surge of conflict around Tripoli, which began in April, has serious impact on civilians, and migrants continue to be subjected to arbitrary detention in shocking and degrading conditions. I have received reports of many recent deaths in detention, as well as torture, sexual violence, and the trafficking and sale of children, women and men. Libya is not a port of safe return. The international community must come together to support pathways to sustainable peace in the country.

Mr President,

This Council is committed to upholding all human rights for all human beings. All of us are aware of the fundamental benefit that human rights measures can deliver to all countries – and perhaps especially, to fragile States in need of a political, economic and social foundation that is stable and inclusive.

At the UN headquarters in New York, I was particularly glad to have the opportunity to brief the Security Council on Haiti, where accountability for violations, and measures to ensure the broadest possible participation in decisions, are essential to building trust, preventing further human rights violations, and enabling a sustainable future.

Mr President,

In the coming months, the international community will come together for a series of crucial meetings on measures to stem climate change and boost sustainable development.

Only principled, multilateral action can adequately address these and other challenges. This Council and its Special Procedures; the Treaty Bodies – and, I believe, the Office – can be proud of the work we do to uphold human rights. Our monitoring, assistance and advocacy offers States immediate and long-term dividends in prevention of conflict and promotion of development and peace. I urge Member States to support this work by all UN human rights bodies.

I encourage all States to stand for countries that are strong, not because they attack the vulnerable, but because they protect the vulnerable. I urge them to stand for Governments that are powerful because they serve the people, not themselves. For justice systems that have the people’s support because they support the people’s rights. To stand for a world which is based on hope and dignity – a world that has a future, which is stronger, and safer, because it upholds the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of all.

I thank you Mr President.