UN spotlights rights violations in Russia, Myanmar and Afghanistan

The UN special rapporteur on Afghanistan warned of the dramatic roll back in the rights of women and girls, who have effectively been removed from public life. (Keystone/AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

On the opening day of the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, the UN condemned Russia’s crackdown on opposition to the war in Ukraine while rights experts warned of mounting violations in Myanmar and Afghanistan.

The United Nations has condemned Russia’s “intimidation” of opponents of the war in Ukraine and accused Moscow of undermining “fundamental freedoms”.

Speaking at the opening of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, the acting high commissioner for human rights Nada Al-Nashif condemned the Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent, including pressure against independent journalists and censorship.

“In the Russian Federation, the intimidation, restrictive measures and sanctions against people voicing opposition to the war in Ukraine undermine the exercise of constitutionally guaranteed fundamental freedoms, including the rights to free assembly, expression and association,” said Al-Nashif.

Read also: Future of Human Rights Council in balance as states grapple with Xinjiang report.

She also said Moscow was violating “the right to access information” by pressuring journalists, blocking internet resources and pursuing other forms of censorship.

The acting high commissioner urged the Kremlin to reconsider “measures taken to expand the ‘foreign agent’ label to include individuals considered to be ‘under foreign influence’.” She also called on Moscow to refrain from criminalising “undeclared contacts with representatives of states, foreign or international organisations deemed to be directed against the ‘security’ of the Russian Federation.”

The Kremlin expanded the foreign agent legislation in the aftermath of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to crackdown on media outlets deemed to discredit the armed forces or spread “disinformation” about the war.

Russia’s diplomatic mission in Geneva did not immediately respond to the comments.

It comes after a Moscow court stripped Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s last remaining independent news outlets, of its print media licence last week. The news was condemned by the UN as a “yet another blow to the independence of Russian media whose activities have been further compromised by legal restrictions and increased state controls imposed following the Russian Federation’s attack on Ukraine.”

Non-governmental organisations have been calling for the appointment of a special rapporteur to investigate human rights violations in Russia, which was suspended as a member of the Human Rights Council in April over its invasion of Ukraine on February 24. No countries so far have agreed to take the lead on such a resolution.

Read also: Moscow ban of Novaya Gazeta ‘another blow’ to independent Russian media, says UN.

Earlier this year, the council ordered a high-level probe into violations by Russian troops in Ukraine. The investigators are due to report back on September 23.

‘Crimes against children’ in Myanmar. Member states also heard an update on the human rights situation in Myanmar on the first day of the month-long meeting.

Nicolas Koumjian, who leads the UN’s investigations into rights violations in the country, warned the council that international crimes committed in Myanmar had “intensified” in the wake of the military coup in February 2021.

“Since the military coup in February last year, there is increasing evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, torture, deportation and forcible transfer, persecution, imprisonment, and targeting of the civilian population,” he said.

Koumjian said UN investigators had gathered increasing evidence of sexual and gender-based violence and crimes against children, including reports of children having been “tortured and arbitrarily detained, sometimes to target their parents”.

He also condemned the execution of four democracy activists by Myanmar’s military in July. The executions were condemned by the UN and wider international community, which has repeatedly called on the junta not to carry out death sentences.

“While capital punishment is not itself an international crime, imposing a death sentence on the basis of proceedings that do not satisfy the basic requirements of a fair trial can amount to a crime against humanity,” he said.

“There are strong indications that the executions of four individuals in July were without due process, as proceedings lacked transparency and virtually no information is available as to the charges and evidence.”

Koumjian told the council the UN investigators were facing many challenges to collecting evidence given that they have been denied access to crime scenes and witnesses in Myanmar.

He said the UN had made a dozen requests for permission to enter the country and for information relevant to allegations of international crimes but had received no response.

‘Deteriorating’ situation in Afghanistan. Countries also received an update from the UN special rapporteur on Afghanistan about the deteriorating human rights situation in the country since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, which followed the withdrawal of international troops and the collapse of the government.

“Afghans are trapped in a human rights crisis that the world has seemed powerless to address,” said Richard Bennett. “The severe rollback of the rights of women and girls, reprisals targeting opponents and critics, and a clampdown on freedom of expression by the Taliban amount to a descent into authoritarianism. This crisis demands ongoing attention from this council.”

He said he was “gravely concerned about the staggering regression in women and girls’ enjoyment of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights” since the Taliban seized control.

“There’s no country in the world where women and girls have so rapidly been deprived of their fundamental human rights purely because of gender,” he said. “Half of the population cannot continue to be ignored and deprived of their rights. The de facto authorities must change their policies and uphold women’s human rights.”

Women and girls have effectively been removed from public life since the Taliban took control over a year ago. Girls have been banned from going to high school while women are, for the most part, restricted from working outside the home and required to cover their faces in public and have a male chaperone when they travel.

Mr Bennett also warned of the looming threat of food insecurity which threatens to worsen the already dire humanitarian situation facing millions of Afghans. The WHO and FAO have warned that by November, 18.9 million people are estimated to face acute levels of food insecurity, accounting for nearly half of Afghanistan’s population.