Human Rights Council: Syria’s tragic death toll and corruption in South Sudan

Demonstrators flash the three-finger salute during an anti-military protest in Myanmar, May 2021. (Keystone: EPA/STRINGER)

The Human Rights Council wrapped up the second week of its regular session on Friday, which included updates on the situation in Myanmar, Belarus, South Sudan and Syria. Here’s a rundown of what was discussed.

‘War crimes’ in Myanmar. Myanmar was back in the spotlight on Wednesday with a stark warning that the country is facing catastrophe as conditions continue to deteriorate following the military coup on 1 February.

UN special envoy Tom Andrews told the Council that the junta had killed at least 75 children, some as young as 20 weeks old, and were systematically abducting family members of people it seeks to arrest. “Current efforts by the international community to stop the downward spiral of events in Myanmar are simply not working,” he said.

His address was followed by the release of a UN report on Thursday which warned that the country was facing a “human rights catastrophe” and that abuses perpetrated by the military junta may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

According to the report, the military have killed more than 1,100 people since they seized power. It gives evidence of systematic killings by the junta, and the use of artillery including grenade launchers and semi-automatic rifles against pro-democracy protesters.

Over 8,000 people have been detained since February ranging from elected politicians, including ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to medical workers and journalists. More than 23,000 people have been displaced.

“We continue to receive reports from multiple locations of interrogation techniques that amount to ill-treatment and torture, and have credible information that more than 120 detainees have died in custody – some within 24 hours of their arrest,” said Michelle Bachelet, UN high commissioner for human rights, presenting the report to the Council on Thursday.

Read also:‘UN expert slams chemical industries for spreading fake news about risks’ 

“Conflict, poverty and the effects of the pandemic are sharply increasing, and the country faces a vortex of repression, violence and economic collapse,” said Bachelet. She warned of “the alarming possibility of an escalating civil war” as armed resistance in the country grows.

Addressing the Council on Wednesday, Andrews called on governments to provide urgent humanitarian aid.

“The international community must make a stronger commitment to ensuring lifesaving aid reaches those in need,” he said. “Myanmar civil society organisations, who are saving lives, need and deserve our support. The 2021 UN Myanmar Humanitarian Response Plan has received only 46 per cent of requested funds to date. We can and should do better.”

Belarus tightens grips on human rights. High Commissioner Bachelet also delivered a concerning update on the situation in Belarus on Friday. She warned that authorities have further cracked down on fundamental freedoms and are arresting activists and journalists on “politically motivated charges”.

Bachelet also called on Belarus’ neighbours to protect asylum seekers after a recent surge in illegal migration from the country. Poland, Lithuania and the EU have accused the country of encouraging people to cross their borders in order to pressure the EU over its sanctions against Minsk. The sanctions were introduced in response to reported human rights abuses and a crackdown over mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko in last year’s presidential election, which was widely viewed as fraudulent.

"I take this opportunity to remind all governments that under international law, no one should ever be prevented from seeking asylum or other forms of international protection," Bachelet told member states just days after the reported deaths of four people near the Polish border on Monday.

Earlier this month, the UN special envoy for Belarus, Anais Marin, accused the government of obstructing her access to the country, where she is meant to assess the ongoing crackdown on human rights organisations. Lukashenko’s brutal clampdown further escalated in July, when security police searched the homes of lawyers and human rights activists, detaining at least 10 people including the leader of Viasna-96 human rights group Ales Bialiatski.

Read our interview with Ales Bialiatski here.

Millions stolen from public coffers in South Sudan. Meanwhile, human rights in the world’s youngest country are under threat from political corruption and violence, the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan warned the council in a report on Thursday.

Since it gained independence a decade ago, the country has battled economic hardship, ethnic violence and food insecurity while struggling to emerge from its five-year civil war.

Delivering the report, deputy high commissioner for human rights, Nada Al-Nashif, pointed to “staggering levels of localized violence” attributed to community-based militias who were responsible for almost all killings, injuries, abductions and sexual violence between April and June this year.

The report also added systemic political corruption to South Sudan’s list of woes. More than $73 million had been diverted from public coffers since 2018, with almost $39 million stolen across less than a two-month period.

It said the figure was a fraction of the overall amount looted, noting that President Salva Kiir had admitted as far back as 2012 that South Sudan’s governing elites had diverted more than $4bn.

The report said that through these actions, “South Sudan’s leaders are undermining human rights and endangering security” and called on them to implement the terms of the peace deal to ensure proper economic management.

“This plundering also continues to fuel political competition amongst elites, and is a key driver of the ongoing conflict, violations and serious crimes, jeopardising the prospects for sustainable peace,” it said.

Syria's tragic death toll. In its first report on the death toll in Syria since 2014, the UN revealed on Friday that at least 350,209 people had been killed in the decade-long war. It added that the sobering figure is an “undercount” of those killed by the conflict between March 2011 and March 2021

The number includes civilians and parties to the conflict. Delivering the report to the Council, Bachelet said that one in every 13 victims was a woman or a child.

The figure is based on a strict methodology, which requires the full name of the deceased person and the date and location of their death.

Having passed its tenth year, the conflict in Syria continues to have a catastrophic impact on civilians. The country is facing spiralling poverty, food insecurity and a lack of basic services, such as water and sanitation. Fighting continues in areas outside President Bashar al-Assad’s control. Around seven million people are internally displaced in Syria, while its neighbours host 5.6 million refugees. Over 1 million Syrian refugees reside in European countries.

On Thursday, Karen Koning AbuZayd, a member of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria tasked with investigating potential war crimes, told the council that incidents of unlawful detention by Assad’s forces remain “unabated”.

“This is no time for anyone to think that Syria is a country fit for its refugees to return,” she said. “The war on Syrian civilians continues.”