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UN rights body highlights crackdowns in China, Russia and Belarus

High commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet gives her opening statement via video in an empty assembly hall at the UN in Geneva. (Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi)

As an eventful week at the UN Human Rights Council draws to a close, here’s a rundown of the key takeaways.

The UN Human Rights Council kicked-off in Geneva this week, meeting almost entirely virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The 46th session opened on Monday with a warning from UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, who said some countries were using the pandemic to justify a crackdown on human rights.

Guterres' remarks were echoed throughout the week, which began with a three-day high-level meeting in which over 130 country representatives and dignitaries outlined their human rights priorities for the year ahead. Many took the opportunity to boast human rights gains made within their own borders and rebuke others for violations elsewhere, with the situation in countries such as Russia, China, Belarus and Myanmar repeatedly coming under scrutiny.

The council also received updates on the human rights situation in countries such as Sri Lanka, Yemen and Nicaragua, with delegates and civil society members calling on the UN body to hold states accountable for their abuses. Here's our rundown of the key takeaways from this week.

United States seeks membership. The US, which joined the council as an observer earlier this month, announced on Wednesday it will seek election to the body as a full member for the 2022-24 term. “We humbly ask for the support of all UN member states in our bid to return to a seat in this body,” said secretary of state Antony Blinken, addressing the council by video statement.

Elections for membership are due at the UN General Assembly in October. If successful, the US will join countries such as the UK, France, China and Russia in the 47-member council.

Blinken also used his address to re-emphasise Washington’s intention to join while seeking reforms to the council’s membership, which includes some countries whose human rights records are currently under scrutiny by UN experts, although supporters of this format argue having such countries as part of the council encourages them to make human rights commitments.

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Secretary of state Antony Blinken addressed the council on Wednesday. (Keystone / AP Photo / Evan Vucci)

“Those with the worst human rights records should not be members of this Council,” said Blinken. “We will continue to call out abuses in places like Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Iran,” he added, while noting that the US also had work to do to “fight for human rights at home”.

President Biden’s administration will also seek to reform what Blinken called the council’s “disproportionate focus on Israel”, referencing the body’s routine adoption of resolutions condemning Israel’s violations in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

The council has had an item on the Palestinian territories - Item 7 - on its agenda every session since it was created in 2006. Former president Donald Trump’s administration also strongly opposed Item 7, demanding its removal before quitting the council in 2018. Blinken announced the US will seek to remove Item 7 and urged the council to “treat the human rights situation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories the same way as this body handles any other country.”

Blinken also said the US was concerned at a “backsliding of human rights” in Myanmar following the military coup on 1 February, and that Washington would continue to call out “atrocities” in China’s western region of Xinjiang, where UN experts say one million Muslim Uighurs are held in camps.

‘Systematic human rights violations’ in China. Foreign secretary of the United Kingdom Dominic Raab led criticism of China’s “systematic human rights violations” against Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang on Monday, denouncing torture, forced labour and sterilisations that he said were taking place on an “industrial scale”.

“The situation in Xinjiang is beyond the pale,” he told the forum in a recorded video address, and called for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet or another independent expert to be given “urgent and unfettered access” to the region.

Many other countries including Canada, France and Germany also raised concerns about China’s treatment of ethnic minorities in both Xinjiang and Tibet, and the Chinese government’s crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong.

Council member China hit back at the criticism when it addressed the body on Wednesday.

“At this high-level segment, the UK, EU, Germany, USA, Canada, and some other countries abused this forum of the Council to make groundless charges against China, to interfere in internal affairs of our country. We firmly oppose and categorically reject these attempts,” Mr. Wang Yi, China’s minister for foreign affairs, told the forum. “Ignoring reality, the above-mentioned countries fabricate and spread lies about Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.”

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Muslim Uighurs at a protest in Istanbul against China’s alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, 26 February. (Keystone / EPA / Tolga Bozoglu)

Wang Yi said Western powers should work to “resolve their own human rights problems such as deep-rooted racial discrimination, gaps between rich and poor, social inequity, injustice, police brutality” rather than rebuking countries such as China.

He also said China welcomed UN scrutiny. “The door to Xinjiang is always open. People from many countries who have visited Xinjiang have learned the facts and the truth on the ground. China also welcomes the high commissioner for human rights to visit Xinjiang,” he said.

Bachelet’s office has been negotiating terms of access to the country. Addressing the council on Friday, the human rights chief said reports of violations in Xinjiang needed independent assessment. She also accused China of restricting basic freedoms in the name of national security and Covid-19, with more than 600 people in Hong Kong currently being investigated for taking part in protests against the restrictive national security law introduced last June.

Calls for Alexei Navalny’s release in Russia. States also used their statements to the council to call out abuses in Russia, which is a member of both the Human Rights Council and the Security Council, and Belarus.

“We will not remain silent when peaceful demonstrators and opposition leaders are attacked and imprisoned, as is happening in Belarus or Russia,” said Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas in his address to the council on Monday.

The UK, US and France called on Russia to release opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who was arrested in Moscow in January after returning from Germany following treatment for poisoning, along with hundreds of others detained during the protests following his arrest.

Referring to Russia, UK foreign secretary Raab said: “We face a truly dire and shocking situation from a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The authorities there must respect citizens’ human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, and freedom from torture.”

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Opposition figure Alexei Navalny was arrested when he returned to Russia from Germany in January. (Keystone/ EPA / Yuri Kochetkov)

Earlier this month, the UN human rights office OHCHR said it was “deeply dismayed” by Navalny’s sentencing to three years imprisonment and urged authorities to release his supporters. UN investigators are due to issue their findings on Navalny’s case at a press conference in Geneva on Monday, according to a UN statement.

Speaking to the Geneva body on Wednesday, Russia’s minister for foreign affairs Sergey Lavrov did not mention Navalny or the recent protests.

Crackdown in Belarus. Many countries singled out Belarus in their statements, rebuking the crackdown on protests against President Alexander Lukashenko since they erupted in July 2020.

”Last year’s rigged presidential elections and Mr. Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown against those calling for change has resulted in a human rights crisis,” said the UK’s Raab. “There is no other way to describe it.”

These criticisms were rejected by Belarus’s foreign minister Vladimir Makei, who said on Tuesday that “dialogue and mutual understanding are required and not far-fetched accusations or threats”.

Presenting a report on the situation in Belarus later on Thursday, UN human rights chief Bachelet warned of a “human rights crisis of unprecedented dimension in the country”, saying 246 people had been sentenced to jail on allegedly politically-motivated charges as of 9 February. Bachelet called for the release of all those who had been “detained for peacefully exercising their rights”.

“The last six months have been tough to witness,” UK representative Wendy Morton told the meeting. “The Belarusian people have had their democratic rights stolen. Over 30,000 people have been detained, over 400 journalists persecuted, over 250 political prisoners are in jail.”

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Journalists Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Daria Chultsova were sentenced to two years in prison for live reporting protests in Belarus. (Keystone/AP Photo)

The meeting was held on the same day a Belarusian court sentenced anti-government protester Aliaksandr Kardziukou to 10 years in prison. Last week brought a further escalation of the government crackdown in the country, with authorities conducting large-scale searches of human rights defenders and journalists’ homes and offices. “Since completion of our report, the human rights situation has further deteriorated,” she said, calling for “an immediate end to the policy of harassment and intimidation of civil society and media workers.”

Responding to Bachelet during Thursday’s meeting, Belarus’ ambassador to the UN in Geneva Yury Ambrazevich criticised the report as “highly subjective and simplistic of its views of events in our country”.

Spotlight on Sri Lanka. Also on Thursday, Bachelet updated the council on the situation in Sri Lanka, giving a grim critique of domestic efforts to ensure justice for victims of the country’s armed conflict. Bachelet said the effect of the decades-long civil war between the Sri Lankan security forces and the separatist Tamil Tigers which ended in 2009 had a devastating effect on thousands of Sri Lankans.

Around 100,000 people were killed during the conflict, including up to 40,000 Tamil civilians killed by the Sri Lankan forces - though the government denies this.

“Despite commitments made in 2015, the current government, like its predecessor, has failed to pursue genuine truth-seeking or accountability processes,” she said. “The impact on thousands of survivors, from all communities, is devastating. Moreover, the systems, structures, policies and personnel that gave rise to such grave violations in the past remain – and have recently been reinforced.”

Bachelet said there were “clear warning signs that past patterns of violations could be repeated”. A UNHCR report released last month said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government had reversed many human rights gains made in Sri Lanka, citing surveillance of rights activists, journalists and dissidents as a major concern.

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Bachelet warned of a ‘worrying trend’ of repression under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. (Keystone / EPA / Chamila Karunarathne)

The council will consider a draft resolution next month voicing “serious concern” over the “deteriorating” rights situation in the country.

Addressing the forum on Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister Dinesh Gunawardena told the council the resolution was a “political move” and part of an “unprecedented propaganda campaign” against the country, and urged member states to reject it.

Crisis in Yemen. The council also received an update on the situation in Yemen on Thursday, with UN experts warning that the conflict - now entering its seventh year - was fuelling a “dire humanitarian situation” in the country and calling for a coordinated response from the international community.

“Tragically, as the conflict continues, violations of international human rights and humanitarian law continue to be perpetrated at an alarming rate and scale,” Kamel Jendoubi, chairperson of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, told the council on Thursday. “The failure to reach a permanent and comprehensive peace agreement has mired Yemenis in a bloody quagmire, the negative impacts of which are exacerbated by the deteriorating economic and political situation.”

Addressing the Security Council in New York last week, UN experts said the conflict in Yemen had taken a “sharp escalatory turn” and that the country was facing the worst famine the world has seen in decades. “We are running out of time,” said Mark Lowcock, the UN’s coordinator for humanitarian affairs.