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World
Media Briefing

2003 UN Commission on Human Rights: A Time for Deep Reflection Background Briefing

AI Index: IOR 41/004/2003
Publish date: 13 March 2003

This document summarizes Amnesty International's main concerns at the 59th Session of the United Nations (UN) Commission on Human Rights (the Commission). Amnesty International is focusing on five thematic issues and five country concerns for which it is calling on the Commission to take action to promote and protect human rights.

Thematic issues:

Reform of the Commission on Human Rights

More on this Web site:

UN Commission on Human Rights: Time for Concrete Action
Amnesty International Press release
The 58th Session of the Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution which set out to enhance the Commission's effectiveness. This called for a thorough review of the Commission's working methods and requested the solicitation of ideas and proposals from governments, the Bureau of the 58th Session, regional groups and organizations, including NGOs.

In Amnesty International's submissions to the Commission's review, recommendations focused on two main areas: strengthening the special procedures of the Commission and seeking concrete expressions of commitment to human rights by Commission members.

Strengthening the special procedures(1) of the Commission

Amnesty International considers the special procedures to be one of the UN's most effective tools for the promotion and protection of human rights. The value of the special procedures lies in their independence and impartiality; their ability to receive allegations of violations perpetrated against individuals; speak out publicly against human rights violations through urgent appeals or "allegation letters" or within their communications/criticisms to governments; as well as undertaking on-site visits. In practical terms, Amnesty International is calling on the Commission to strengthen the special procedures strengthened in the following ways:
    Provide more time for the presentation and discussion at the Commission of the special procedure reports,
    Enhance the quality of dialogue with the special procedures at the Commission through a set agenda which focuses on (a) the observations and recommendations of each mechanism/procedure; (b) the extent to which current and past recommendations have been addressed by the concerned parties; (c) the degree of co-operation with the Commission,
    Reflect the recommendations of the special procedures in the Commission's resolutions and decisions,
    Ensure that the reports of the special procedures are available well in advance of the Commission.

Commission Members' commitment to human rights

Membership of the Commission carries particular responsibilities for those 53 states which sit on the body and in particular those which comprise its Bureau. As a concrete commitment to human rights, those standing for election to the Commission should be expected to have already taken, or to announce their intention to take, some or all of the following steps:
    Extend a standing invitation to the special procedures of the Commission and to co-operate with their requests to undertake visits,
    Ensure full and prompt implementation of the recommendations of the special procedures,
    Ratify key international human rights treaties and their optional protocols, and provide for communications procedures and on-site investigation,
    Ensure full and prompt implementation of the recommendations of the treaty monitoring bodies,
    Ensure timely submission of periodic reports to treaty monitoring bodies.

Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism

Evidence collected by Amnesty International over 40 years of monitoring of laws and practices confirm that measures in response to real or perceived terrorist threats often have a negative long term impacts on the peaceful and non-violent exercise of human rights. Security legislation frequently jeopardizes the rights of those suspected of security offences. The definitions of "terrorism" (2) in national security legislation are often both broad and vague, which lead to the criminalization of peaceful activities. Amnesty International is particularly concerned that security regulation and measures may undermine specific human rights notably:
    the right to life, liberty and security of person,
    the right not to be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,
    the right not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention,
    the right to seek asylum, and not to be forcibly returned to a country where the individual is at risk of serious human rights violations.

The adoption by the 57th session of the UN General Assembly of a resolution on human rights and counter-terrorism has created a strong momentum for the Commission to further strengthen international protection of human rights in the context of counter-terrorism measures by states. Amnesty International calls on the Commission on Human Rights to adopt a resolution to:
    Establish a new mechanism with a mandate to monitor and analyze the impact of security legislation and measures on human rights, and to make recommendations to states on safeguarding human rights in this context;
    Request relevant special procedures of the Commission to monitor and report on the impact of these measures on the set of rights within their mandate, and to make recommendations for their effective observance;
    Request the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to ensure high-level capacity at the OHCHR to support and coordinate efforts by various UN bodies to monitor and analyze the impact on human rights of counter-terrorist measures by states.

The Death Penalty

Amnesty International's information indicates that there is continuing progress towards worldwide abolition of the death penalty. By the end of 2002, 76 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes; 15 had abolished it for ordinary crimes only and 20 countries were abolitionists in practice, giving a total of 111 countries abolitionists in law or practice. Eighty-four countries still retain the death penalty.

Another important development was the adoption in February 2002 by the Council of Europe of Protocol No. 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights, the first international treaty to provide for the abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances. By the end of 2002, the Protocol had been ratified by five of the 44 Council of Europe member states and signed by a further 34 states. The other three abolitionist treaties – the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Protocol No.6 to the European Convention on Human Rights and the Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights to Abolish the Death Penalty -- have been ratified by 49, 41, and 8 states respectively.

Despite these positive developments, executions have continued, and in some countries the safeguards referred to in Commission resolution 2002/77 have not been respected. The death penalty has been applied against the mentally ill and the mentally retarded, against people convicted of non-violent crimes and in many cases in which the defendants have not received a fair trial. Amnesty International also remains deeply concerned about the use of the death penalty against child offenders -- people convicted of crimes committed when they were under 18 years old. Amnesty International believes it is also a violation of customary international law.

As a member of the World Coalition against the Death Penalty, Amnesty International calls on the Commission to:
    Adopt a resolution on the question of the death penalty which reiterates the provisions of the Commission's previous resolutions on the subject;
    Affirm that the imposition of the death penalty on those aged under 18 at the time of the commission of the offence is contrary to customary international law, as stated by the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights;
    Calls upon retentionist states not to extend its application to crimes which do not presently apply.

An Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

An optional protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) would reconfirm the universality, indivisibility, interrelatedness and interdependence of all human rights. The benefits of an optional protocol include:
    First and foremost, it would provide individuals and groups with international recourse with respect to violations of economic, social and cultural rights;
    It would mark an important step towards strengthening the principle of progressive realization of social, economic and cultural rights to which states parties to the ICESCR have committed themselves;
    The consideration of specific cases of violations of economic, social and cultural rights would contribute to the development of jurisprudence; and
    It would strengthen the relationship between the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and states parties by creating an impetus at the national level for states parties to ensure effective national implementation of the rights guaranteed in the ICESCR.

Amnesty International calls on the Commission to adopt a resolution to:
    Establish an open-ended inter-sessional working group of the Commission to elaborate a draft optional protocol to the ICESCR, as established by Resolution 2002/24;
    Request the working group to meet between sessions for a minimum of two weeks before the 60th session of the Commission;
    Request the Secretary-General to provide the working group with the necessary assistance.

Human Rights of Refugees and Asylum-Seekers

An emphasis on refugee protection as a human rights issue that places asylum seekers and refugees within a larger group of non-nationals is especially relevant at this time where states are attempting to roll back many of the protection-related aspects of the international refugee regime. As a first, Amnesty International is calling on the Commission to adopt a resolution on the human rights of refugees and asylum-seekers to ensure their protection from abuses of power, and from the particular vulnerabilities of their situations.

Amnesty International is concerned that the human rights abuses in countries of origin, together with displacement during armed conflict, most often are the root causes of forced displacement, and are often perpetrated by governments and left unchecked by the international community. Refugees and asylum seekers are often at risk of arbitrary detention. The denial of economic, social and cultural rights in the country of asylum can also result in people being effectively forced to return to countries where they may face serious human rights violations. The search for solutions to the problem of refugee flight is often distorted by the fact that the "solutions" proposed by governments and the international community do not uphold fundamental standards of human rights. For return to be sustainable, the safety, dignity and full respect for the human rights of the persons concerned must be taken into consideration.

A need exists to make sure that states are fulfilling their obligations so that an enforcement of refugee rights can be ensured. No comparable monitoring body to the range of mechanisms established under international human rights law exists within international refugee law. Thus, while Amnesty International continues to approach the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees as a human rights instrument, and continues to press states to uphold their obligations under this Convention, the organization also advocates increased use of international human rights bodies and mechanisms to ensure the protection of refugees and asylum seekers.

Amnesty International calls on the Commission to:
    Adopt a resolution on human rights and refugees which recognizes that everyone is entitled to human rights and fundamental freedoms without distinction of any kind, and because of their particular need for international protection should enjoy certain additional and specific rights, including the right to seek asylum from persecution as stated in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;
    Call on relevant Special Procedures of the Commission to give specific attention to the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers and other categories of displaced persons;
    Request the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare an analytical report on the protection of the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers and other categories of displaced persons.

Country Concerns:

Colombia

Amnesty International has observed little or no progress with regard to implementing the recommendations of the Chairperson's statement on the human rights situation in Colombia adopted at the 58th session of the Commission. The organization continues to receive information which reveals widespread and systematic violations of human rights by the security forces and their paramilitary allies and abuses of international law by armed opposition groups. Since the collapse of the peace talks in February 2002, the new government under President Dr Alvaro Uribe has implemented the doctrine of "Democratic Security", aimed at ending the armed conflict. However, this doctrine does not include a program to combat abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law. The creation of a million-strong network of civilian informants and "peasant soldiers" required to collaborate with the security forces puts them in danger of attacks by the other side in the conflict; the intention to re-introduce the proposals granting of judicial police powers to the armed forces risks enabling impunity to continue further; and the restricted access to conflict areas serve only to compound the already serious human rights situation in Colombia.

Amnesty International calls on the Commission to:
    Adopt a resolution expressing grave concern at the deepening human rights crisis in Colombia;
    Express profound disappointment that the recommendations adopted by the 58th session of the Commission remain unimplemented, and urge the government to draw up a national plan of action to implement the recommendations to end impunity, including investigation of allegations of human rights violations and bringing to justice those responsible in civilian courts in accordance with international standards for fair trial;
    Urge the government to take effective and decisive action to combat and dismantle paramilitary groups and to sever the links between the security forces and the paramilitaries;
    Urge the government to take all necessary measures to guarantee the protection of human rights defenders, internally displaced persons, and the civilian population;
    Urge the government to give access to international human rights and humanitarian organizations to conflict zones and remove restrictions on movement;
    Encourage the government to cooperate fully with the UN including issuing standing invitations to all the thematic mechanisms of the Commission to visit Colombia;
    Secure adequate funding for a continued mandate of the Colombia Office of the OHCHR, including through increased field presence;
    Request the High Commissioner for Human Rights to submit an interim report on Colombia to the 58th session of the UN General Assembly and a final report to the 60th session of the Commission.

Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

Amnesty International is deeply concerned by systematic and widespread human rights abuses, including the unlawful killing of hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians, and the displacement of as many as one million people from their homes while hundreds of thousands others have fled the country. Various armed forces, particularly those under the command of the governments of the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda, as well as Congolese and other foreign armed political groups, are responsible for systematic and countrywide human rights violations.

Members of the DRC government security forces carry out unlawful killings of unarmed civilians and use excessive force, and in virtually all cases the government has failed to take action against suspected perpetrators. Torture and ill treatment continue to be widespread, especially in unofficial detention centres run by the security forces. Detainees are almost invariably held incommunicado and beatings are common. There are numerous reports rape of women in custody by members of the security forces.

In areas of eastern DRC, controlled by armed political groups supported by foreign government forces, particularly from Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, human rights abuses are widespread and include unlawful killings of unarmed civilians, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention and torture, including rape, and recruitment of child soldiers.

In the region controlled by the Rally for Congolese Democracy-Goma, human rights abuses are widespread and include unlawful killings of unarmed civilians, arbitrary arrest, unlawful detention and torture, including rape. These abuses are often committed in response to attacks by armed groups opposed to the RCD-Goma, including Rwandese and Burundian Hutu-dominated armed political groups and the Mayi-Mayi militia.

Amnesty International calls on the Commission to:
    Support the establishment of an international commission of inquiry into allegations of grave abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law in the context of the conflict in the DRC, and to report back to the 60th session of the Commission in 2004;
    Call on all parties to the conflict in the DRC to instruct their combatants to end all human rights abuses and to adhere to international human rights and humanitarian law;
    Call on all governments involved in the conflict to ensure prompt and impartial investigations into all allegations of human rights violations and that those found responsible are brought to justice in accordance with international standards for fair trial;
    Call on the government to issue a standing invitation to the thematic mechanisms of the Commission to visit the DRC, to cooperate fully with the treaty monitoring bodies, and to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the DRC.

Israel and the Occupied Territories

The human rights crisis in the context of the Palestinian uprising (the al-Aqsa intifada) against Israeli occupation, has continued to worsen.

From 29 September 2000 to mid-December 2002, some 1,800 Palestinians have been killed by members of the Israeli army, most of them unlawfully, including more than 300 children. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has continued to routinely use F16 fighter jets, helicopter gunships and tanks to bomb and shell densely populated Palestinian areas. Contrary to claims by the IDF and the Israeli government that the IDF only open fire in situations of imminent danger to their lives and only against identified sources of Palestinian fire, members of the IDF have fired high caliber live ammunitions, shells and missiles into densely populated civilian areas and at unarmed Palestinians, who posed no threat to IDF members or to others. Such practices have been witnessed and documented by Amnesty International delegates, UN workers, representatives of local and international NGOs, and journalists.

Palestinian armed groups, for their part, have also increased their attacks on Israeli civilians. In the past year, most of the Israeli civilian victims have been killed in deliberate and indiscriminate attacks, including suicide bombings on buses, in restaurants, shopping malls or streets. Groups who have claimed responsibility for such attacks include Izz-al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of Fatah, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

Since the beginning of the intifada, the IDF has destroyed more than 3,000 Palestinian homes in the Occupied Territories, as well as large areas of agricultural land, public and private properties, and water and electricity infrastructure in urban and rural areas. In 2002, large areas of agricultural land have been destroyed and confiscated by the IDF in the West Bank to make way for a "security fence" which is being built, not on the Green Line, but inside the West Bank, which leaves those within this buffer zone without access to their lands, which for the majority is their main means of subsistence.

Since September 2000, extensive and prolonged closures and curfews have continued to be imposed on an unprecedented scale inside the Occupied Territories. Palestinian towns and villages have been cut off from each other and from surrounding villages, while prolonged curfews have been imposed on the major population centres. These sweeping measures of collective punishment affect millions of Palestinians, whose access to work, school and medical care have been denied, or severely restricted, for lengthy periods at a time. As a result of closures and curfews, tens of thousands have lost their jobs and the Palestinian economy has collapsed. The rate of unemployment has spiraled and about half of the Palestinian population is currently living under the poverty line.

At the 58th session of the Commission, several resolutions were passed, including that one which mandated the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to lead a visiting mission to the area and report back to the Commission was refused by the Israeli government. Israel also continues to oppose the deployment of international monitors and has increasingly targeted human rights and humanitarian workers and activists, including imposing restrictions on their movements and activities and expelling or refusing them access to the country.

Amnesty International calls on the Commission to:
    Adopt a resolution condemning the grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Israel and the Occupied Territories;
    Support the urgent deployment of international observers to monitor, investigate and report on the human rights situation;
    Urge the Israeli government to end unlawful killings, including by taking effective measures to ensure that its armed forces do not bomb, shell and shoot indiscriminately into residential areas and at unarmed Palestinians; and ensure effective supervision of measures taken by the Israeli authorities to do so;
    Urge the Palestinian Authority to take measures to prevent Palestinian armed groups based in the areas under its jurisdiction from carrying out attacks against Israeli civilians, and ensure effective supervision of such measures;
    Urge the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to take measures to ensure that prompt and impartial investigations are carried out into all killings and that those responsible are brought to justice in trials which meet international standards of fairness, and ensure effective supervision of such measures;
    Urge the Israeli government to put an immediate end to the unlawful destruction of Palestinian houses, land and other properties in the Occupied Territories and to compensate those whose properties have been destroyed;
    Urge the Israeli government to put an end to the extensive, prolonged and punitive closures and curfews imposed on Palestinians within the Occupied Territories;
    Urge the Israeli government to issue a standing invitation to all the thematic mechanisms of the Commission to visit Israel and the Occupied Territories;
    Encourage the Special Rapporteurs on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; on torture; on violence against women; on religious intolerance; on contemporary forms of racism; and on adequate housing; the Representative of the Secretary-General on internally displaced people; and the Working Group on arbitrary detention to undertake visits to Israel and the Occupied Territories.

Nepal

The breakdown of peace talks and the deployment of the army in November 2001 marked a new phase in the armed conflict between the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) (Maoist) and the security forces. The government declared the CPN (Maoist) a "terrorist" organization and gave the security forces wide powers under new "anti-terrorism" legislation.

By the end of October 2002, according to figures made public by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Royal Nepal Army, the number of people killed in the conflict had reached 4,366. Amnesty International believes that at least half of these killings may have been unlawful. The vast majority of the victims were civilians targeted for their real or perceived support to the CPN (Maoist); others were Maoists deliberately killed after they were taken prisoner or killed instead of being arrested.

Human rights abuses by the Maoists have included deliberate killings of an estimated 800 civilians considered "enemies of the revolution", hostage-taking for ransom, torture of people taken captive and deliberate killings of captured members of the security forces.

A disturbing pattern has emerged of "disappearances" and long-term unacknowledged detention. Between 1998 and mid-2001 Amnesty International recorded more than 130 "disappearances", and during the state of emergency from November 2001 to August 2002, Amnesty International recorded a further 66 cases of "disappearances".

Torture by the army and the police is reported almost daily. The army is reported to hold people blindfolded and handcuffed for days, weeks or even months. Torture methods used include rape, falanga (beatings on the soles of the feet), electric shocks, belana (rolling a weighted stick along the prisoner's thighs causing muscle damage), beating with iron rods covered in plastic and mock executions.

In Amnesty International's view, impunity for human rights violations is the single most destructive factor affecting the human rights situation. Members of the security forces feel entirely shielded from outside scrutiny for their actions. The heaviest sanction they face is an internal inquiry.

Amnesty International calls on the Commission to:
    Adopt a resolution expressing grave concern at the deepening human rights crisis in Nepal;
    Support the establishment of an office in Nepal of the OHCHR, to monitor respect for international human rights and humanitarian law and to build the capacity of the judiciary, National Human Rights Commission and other relevant institutions to combat impunity;
    Appoint a Special Rapporteur for Nepal as a complementary measure to support the proposed office of the OHCHR;
    Urge the government to undertake prompt and impartial investigations into all allegations of human rights violations, ensure that those found responsible stand trial in accordance with international standards for fair trial, and provide compensation to the victims;
    Encourage the government to issue a standing invitation to the thematic mechanisms of the Commission to visit Nepal, and to cooperate fully with the treaty monitoring bodies.

Russian Federation

Amnesty International deplored the failure of the 58th session of the Commission to hold Russia's human rights record in Chechnya to account, and continues to be seriously concerned at the human rights situation in the Chechen Republic and elsewhere in the Russian Federation.

Impunity continues to be a main underlying factor in the persistence of human rights violations across the Russian Federation. The authorities have failed to take effective measures to thoroughly investigate allegations of human rights violations and to bring to justice those responsible.

Torture and ill-treatment are frequent in the administration of criminal justice, but such violations rarely result in convictions of those responsible. Even when criminal investigations are initiated, they are frequently closed due to lack of evidence.

The human rights situation in Chechnya has failed to improve over the past year. Members of the Russian security forces continue to commit serious violations of human rights in Chechnya, but are almost never prosecuted. In other parts of the Russian Federation, Chechens have been subjected to discrimination, harassment and arbitrary detention, including in the wake of the Moscow theatre hostage crisis.

Many of the violations have been reported in the context of raids (zachistki), purportedly conducted to check personal registration documents, during which Russian security forces are alleged to have subjected the civilian population to beatings, arbitrary detention, "disappearance" and extrajudicial executions.

Chechen forces are also reported to have committed abuses of international humanitarian law, including targeting civilian members of the pro-Moscow administration in attacks that have resulted in dozens of fatalities and serious injuries. Chechen forces also claim to have executed captured members of the Russian armed forces.

Approximately 110,000 Chechens are displaced in Ingushetia, mainly citing security concerns as the reason for not returning to Chechnya. Amnesty International is extremely concerned at reports of involuntary repatriation of thousands of internally displaced persons.

Amnesty International calls on the Commission to:
    Establish an international commission of inquiry into allegations of grave abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law in the context of the armed conflict in Chechnya, and report back to the 60th session of the Commission in 2004;
    Urge the government of the Russian Federation to take urgent steps to end extrajudicial executions, "disappearances", torture and ill-treatment, including rape, in Chechnya, by ensuring prompt and impartial investigation into all allegations and by bringing those responsible to;
    Urge Chechen armed groups to respect the requirements of international humanitarian law, in particular those protecting civilians and captured combatants;
    Urge the government to stop attempts to forcibly return internally displaced people from Chechnya;
    Call on the government to issue a standing invitation to the special procedures of the Commission to visit the Russian Federation, and to facilitate without further delay visits by the Special Rapporteurs on torture, on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and on violence against women, and the Representative of the Secretary-General on internally displaced persons, as called for previously by the Commission.

Notes
(1) There are 35 extra-conventional mandates established by the Commission, known as the "special procedure" or the "country and thematic mechanisms". These are special rapporteurs, representatives, experts and working groups who fall into two main categories: those established to monitor a country situation (currently 11) with a mandate to cover all rights; and those established to monitor a particular set of rights, with global coverage (currently 24 mandates).
(2) AI uses the term "terrorism" in quotation marks because to date there is still no agreed legal definition of the phenomenon. The term is used and understood by governments and others in very diverse ways generally to describe and condemn acts considered to be the illegitimate use of violence for political purposes usually by non-state actors.




Source: Amnesty International, International Secretariat, 1 Easton Street, WC1X 8DJ, London, United Kingdom

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