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Human Rights Council: water crisis, sanctions, justice and reparations

A displaced Yemeni woman collects water from a donated tank at a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) on the outskirts of Sana'a, Yemen, 24 August 2021. (Keystone/EPA/YAHYA ARHAB)

The weaponization of water and the pursuit of truth, justice, and reparations stirred up debate at the Human Rights Council this week. So did the practice of sanctions, which some insist are useful tools for preserving human rights. Others highlight how they can harm innocents, prevent reconstruction and hamper humanitarian efforts.

Potable potentialities. The Human Rights Council heard on Wednesday from UN expert on the right to water and sanitation, Pedro Arrojo-Agudo. Worldwide, 2.2 billion people don’t have clean water to drink and 4.2 billion don’t have access to sanitation. The special rapporteur decried structural inequality and pollution as root causes of the global water crisis. He also singled out water commodification, climate change and Covid-19 as threats to water security.

Arrojo-Agudo told the council that during his three-year term he plans to focus on governance, greening aquatic ecosystems use – a crucial precursor to greening energy – and showing how water can be a tool for peace.

In reaction to his remarks, Syria called for greater attention to the weaponization of water. Turkey has cut the flow of the Euphrates River into Syria in half since February, the country claims. Turkey has blamed the reduced flow on an ongoing drought.

Read also: ‘War or peace? In Syria, water flows both ways’

Arrojo-Agudo said he will prioritise cooperation-building within and beyond the UN.

States requested that Arrojo-Agudo also work on water’s role in relations between refugees and host communities, and on improving water catchment and storage systems.

Sanctions’ side effects. Special rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures, Alena Douhan, told state members on Thursday to make more cautious use of sanctions. Sanctions, like those imposed by the US on anyone engaging financially with the Syrian government or its central bank, make it more difficult for a society to heal and rebuild, she said.

Humanitarian work gets hamstrung as well, she warned. Banks become hesitant to process transfers, which severely restricts funding. Exceptions for humanitarian actors exist, but too often are cumbersome. As a result, as much as half the funds meant for humanitarian work can be lost to middle men, Douhan said.

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet highlighted the harm sanctions inflict on innocent people within a sanctioned country, particularly during a pandemic. In March 2020, she called for either loosening or placing a moratorium on sanctions in order to allow essential medicines and health care to arrive.

Read also: ‘Are sanctions an effective foreign policy tool?’

Taking the floor, the EU delegation questioned whether the Human Rights Council is the place for discussing autonomous sanctions, defending states’ use of sanctions as a way to protect human rights and strengthen democracy.

Justice debated. A report on truth, justice, and reparation presented on Thursday also proved controversial. Some states, including from Europe and Latin America, praised the attention on the right to truth for victims and their families, access to justice and reparation, and guarantees of non-repetition.

There was backlash, however, against what some states consider an attempt to impose a “one-size-fits-all” justice model on specific and complex country situations. Countries’ contexts need to be carefully assessed, said the representative for Malaysia.

Several countries expressed concern about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, which was one of the report's focuses, and featured in the UN rights chief’s opening speech to the council. The Sri Lankan government continues to allow perpetrators of war crimes to walk free, Amnesty International has said. Sri Lanka's civil war ended in 2009, but its aftershocks continue to ripple.

Sri Lanka accused the rapporteur of mischaracterizing the situation in the country and failing to acknowledge the progress the delegation said it was making.

Read also. ‘UN rights chief calls for moratorium on AI systems that threaten human rights’

From displacement to slavery. Tomoya Obokata, special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, drew the council's attention to the high correlation between displacement and forced labour.

There are 82.4 million forcibly displaced persons as of 2020, and it is now not uncommon for displacement to last over 10 years, he said. Such long periods of displacement heighten the risk of forced labour.

He noted that women and girls are at particular risk of domestic forced labour, early marriage, and sexual slavery.

On the related topic of the rights of women and girls during and after conflict, UN rights chief Bachelet noted the need for cross-sectional approaches to account for the diverse risks to which they are exposed.

Women and girls face great danger during and after conflict, but are also actors for change, she said: “In conflict and post-conflict situations, women play critical roles as human rights defenders, journalists, peace-builders and community leaders. They often organise themselves to provide basic needs for their communities, ensuring services such as education and healthcare.”

No end in sight for Yemen. On the situation in Yemen, UN expert Kamel Jendoubi warned the council that there is no political will to end human rights violations in the country. Yemenis have suffered from civil war between the coalition government and Houthi rebels since 2014. There is a severe shelter crisis in the country, in addition to mounting human rights abuses.

“If the parties wished to stop these violations they could. If they desired to hold persons to account and take steps to prevent a repetition of the violations, they could.  If the parties were truly committed to respecting and protecting the human rights and dignity of persons in Yemen, they would,” Jendoubi said on Monday.

In response, the Yemen delegation accused the expert group of “bias and unprofessionalism”.

Myanmar without Myanmar. Talks on Myanmar went ahead without a country representative in the room. Since the military takeover in February, there have been two competing applications to fill the country's seat. China and Russia questioned whether discussion on Myanmar should go ahead with the issue unresolved. Council president, Ambassador Nazhat Shameen Khan, said it would. Myanmar’s seat can only be filled by the General Assembly, which opened on Tuesday in New York.

Nicholas Koumjian, head of the independent investigative mechanism for Myanmar, told the council that human rights continue to be imperiled in the country. The government continues to target specific populations, he said, including the Muslim Rohinya population, which has suffered heightened persecution and human rights violations since 2017.

Investigating Tigray. The human rights situation in northern Ethiopia continues to deteriorate as Tigrayan forces spread the conflict into neighboring Amhara and Afar provinces. The council discussed the Tigray conflict on Monday following an update from Bachelet.

The Ethiopian government, together with the UN, set up a joint investigation into human rights abuses earlier this year. Gedion Timothewos Hessebon, attorney general of Ethiopia, called for an extension of that partnership, which had the government-issued unilateral ceasefire in June as its end date. Continuing the joint investigation is crucial if the full nature and extent of abuse is to be understood, the attorney general warned.

In response, Daniel Bekele, Chief Commissioner of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, gave assurances of its continuation.

Several states emphasized that Ethiopia’s open wound cannot be healed by further fighting and must be resolved through political processes.