Photo Source: © G.Niu/Getty Images
Photo Source: © G.Niu/Getty Images

Atrocity Alert No. 163: Mass Atrocities and the 41st Session of the Human Rights Council

17 July 2019

Atrocity Alert is a weekly publication by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect highlighting situations where populations are at risk of, or are enduring, mass atrocity crimes.

War of words at the UN Human Rights Council over the Uighurs

Under the auspices of combatting religious extremism and terrorism, the government of China and authorities in Xinjiang region have increased repression of members of the ethnic Uighur community and other Turkic Muslims. China’s policy has resulted in large-scale detention in “re-education camps,” severe restrictions on religious practice, and pervasive surveillance of the entire Muslim population in Xinjiang. Approximately one million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims are currently being detained in “re-education” or “de-extremification” facilities.

On 8 July 22 states sent a letter to the President of the UN Human Rights Council and the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The letter notes “credible reports of arbitrary detention in large-scale places of detention, as well as widespread surveillance restrictions, particularly targeting Uighurs and other minorities.” The letter calls upon the government to respect fundamental human rights and urged China to allow the High Commissioner and the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief access to Xinjiang.

In an apparent response, on 12 July Ambassadors from 37 governments, including several predominantly Muslim countries, as well as notorious perpetrators of atrocities such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Myanmar, sent a letter to the HRC President defending China’s policies. The letter noted that “faced with the grave challenge of terrorism and extremism, China has undertaken a series of counter-terrorism and de-radicalization measures in Xinjiang, including setting up vocational education and training centers.”

China should immediately halt widespread violations and abuses of human rights in Xinjiang and release all Uighur and other Turkic Muslim individuals being involuntarily detained in “re-education camps” and other detention facilities. The government should grant access to the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Recognizing the influence they may have in urging China to reconsider its policies, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Muslim-majority countries and neighboring states should urge China to respect the universal human rights of all Turkic Muslims.

Early warning, mass atrocities and the UN Human Rights Council

The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) held its 41st session from 24 June – 12 July. The session saw the Council adopt a number of resolutions to respond to mass atrocities around the world, including in the Philippines, Eritrea, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria. Interactive Dialogues with the International Commissions of Inquiry on Burundi and Syria and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, also provided opportunities to raise awareness regarding ongoing violations and abuses of human rights in those countries.

During the session the HRC renewed the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea. According to the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea, the government has committed “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” that may amount to crimes against humanity. These include arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, as well as indefinite conscription into “national service.” Many states have pointed to positive diplomatic developments in the region – including last year’s peace deal with Ethiopia – as a reason to ease scrutiny of the government. However, Eritrea’s human rights practices remain unchanged and the government should now work with the Special Rapporteur to implement critical reforms that would enable Eritreans to fully exercise their human rights.

The HRC also passed its first resolution on the situation in the Philippines. Since President Rodrigo Duterte took office during June 2016, thousands of people have been extrajudicially executed as part of the so-called “war on drugs.” Over the past three years HRC-appointed human rights experts have formally raised their concerns with the government on 33 occasions. Ahead of the HRC’s 41st session, 11 Special Rapporteurs called on the Council to establish an independent investigation, asserting that “we are concerned over the high number of killings carried out across the country in an apparent climate of official, institutional impunity.” Although the final HRC resolution did not authorize a monitoring mechanism, it called on the High Commissioner for Human Rights to deliver a report on the situation during the Council’s 44th session.

However, HRC member states failed to adequately address the rising risk of mass atrocity crimes in a several countries, including Sudan. Following the 3 June massacre of at least 112 unarmed protestors in Khartoum by the security forces and allied paramilitaries, the HRC session provided an opportunity to establish an independent international investigative body. Unfortunately, Council members were unable to reach consensus on a resolution.

The HRC’s action on Eritrea and the Philippines, as well as resolutions on the DRC and Syria, highlight the positive role that Geneva-based mechanisms can play in responding to mass atrocity crimes and upholding the international community’s responsibility to protect. For more on the outcomes of the 41st session and to read the two statements delivered by the Group of Friends of R2P, see our Summary.

World Day for International Justice

Today, 17 July, is the World Day for International Justice. In recognition of the World Day, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and the Global Justice Center jointly released a briefing on “The International Court of Justice and the Genocide of the Rohingya.” Between August and December 2017 the armed forces of Myanmar (Burma) committed a genocide against the Rohingya minority in Rakhine State, killing thousands, committing mass rape and causing more than 700,000 Rohingya civilians to flee across the border to Bangladesh.

Over the past year the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and the Global Justice Center have been advocating for states to take meaningful steps towards ensuring accountability for the Rohingya, including through a potential case against Myanmar at the ICJ for breaches of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Following a resolution passed by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, during May The Gambia announced its intention to take such a case to the ICJ. The two organizations will continue to work together and with UN member states to ensure that those responsible for the genocide are held accountable under international law.

Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect


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