OHCHR Chief: Human Rights in Perilous State as Fundamental Values Disregarded

Volker Türk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, says that human rights around the world are in a perilous state as countries are failing to honor the fundamental rights and freedoms of all peoples as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The U.N. rights chief, who spoke Monday at the opening of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s four-week session, told a packed chamber that human rights, the cornerstone of the United Nations, are now “at a critical juncture” due to what he said are the self-serving interests of repressive governments, which in his view are taking precedence over international cooperation to advance human rights.

In a sweeping global review of the human rights situation in dozens of countries, Türk highlighted the many atrocities and crimes being committed in all regions of the world.

In a report that spared few governments, he lambasted the human rights record of Honduras, expressing concern about land-related conflicts and “attacks against human rights and environmental defenders.” He castigated Nicaraguan authorities for undermining the human rights of its people “with extremely harsh repression of civil society and a drastically reduced civic space.”

Turning to the war in Ukraine, Türk called on Russia to grant his colleagues access to both Ukrainian territory occupied by the Russian Federation, and to the Russian Federation itself — “not least, to visit civilian detainees, prisoners of war and Ukrainian children and people with disabilities who have been taken to these areas.”

The High Commissioner singled out what he considers egregious cases of abuse and discrimination in sub-Saharan Africa, such as in Uganda, which recently adopted legislation criminalizing homosexuality.

He criticized Mali’s request for the withdrawal of MINUSMA, the U.N.’s peacekeeping mission, saying “human rights must always be above the fray of politics.”

He deplored worsening conditions in South Sudan where violent incidents affecting civilians rose by 12 percent in the first three months of this year. “There has been little action by the authorities to hold perpetrators to account,” he said, “while senior government officials allegedly implicated in serious crimes remain in office.”

Türk slammed Eritrea for its ongoing refusal to engage with the full spectrum of human rights bodies, noting that Burundi also has not granted access to or cooperated with the Council’s Commission of Inquiry or other investigative bodies since 2016.

On the other hand, he said Ethiopia has cooperated with his office, enabling him to send international human rights monitors to the north, where a war in the Tigray region ended last November. The Commission report on Ethiopia is due to be presented to the Council in September.

Türk said he was deeply worried about the deteriorating human rights situation in Afghanistan where “the Taliban de facto authorities have dismantled the most fundamental principles of human rights, particularly for women and girls.”

At a comprehensive examination of the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan that took place later in the day, human rights experts accused the Taliban of practicing a form of “gender apartheid.”

Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, chair of the working group on discrimination against women and girls, said that they were being “erased” in Afghanistan. She said, “women and girls are systematically discriminated against in every aspect of their lives…Women are wholly excluded from participation in political and public life.”

Since the Taliban took power in August 2021, she said the de facto authorities have relentlessly issued edict after edict, “of which the vast majority restrict the rights of women and girls, including their rights to education, work, health, access to justice and freedom of movement, attire, and behavior.”

In his presentation to the Council, Türk expressed concern about widespread human rights violations in Iran including “the massive recent increase in executions, as well as continuing discrimination against women.”

He said he was extremely worried by the deteriorating situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory where he said, “excessive use of force and unlawful killings of Palestinians by the Israeli Security Forces have increased, including apparent extrajudicial executions.”

There were no immediate responses from any of the countries Türk mentioned.

Ending on a more positive note after an otherwise withering look at the worsening human rights situation around the world, Türk said his office’s support of Mauritania’s efforts to end discrimination, notably the persistent issue of slavery, was bearing fruit.

He said, “at least 38 cases of slavery have been brought to court, with 10 judgements made in the first two months of this year.” He commended the authorities’ cooperation “with the special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery during his visit last year.”

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