During the last few moments of her tenure as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, on 31 August Michelle Bachelet published her long-awaited report on human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The report confirmed evidence of atrocities against members of the Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups, concluding that the Chinese government may be perpetrating crimes against humanity. The report expressed concern about forced labor, arbitrary detention, sexual abuse and torture, noting that the human rights abuses have included “far-reaching, arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions on human rights and fundamental freedoms, in violation of international norms and standards.”
The report also criticized the Chinese government’s “deeply problematic” so-called counterterrorism system, which has led to the widespread arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and individuals from other majority-Muslim ethnic groups. In recent years the Chinese government and authorities in XUAR have increased their persecution against these groups under the guise of combatting religious extremism and terrorism. Over 1 million people, mainly Uyghurs, have been arbitrarily detained in “re-education” or “de-extremification” facilities since around 2017.
Although the report expressed concern about Beijing’s coercive campaign to reduce birth rates among Uyghurs and other populations in the region — namely through forced abortions and forced sterilizations — it stopped short of concluding that the Chinese government has perpetrated acts prohibited under Article II of the Genocide Convention.
Many states welcomed the report, which is the most definitive and detailed UN document on XUAR to date. Following the release of the report, 45 UN experts released a joint statement, calling for the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to hold a special session and address human rights issues in China. The report recommended the Chinese government release those arbitrarily detained, clarify the whereabouts of detained family members and provide “adequate remedy and reparations to victims” of human rights abuses. The report also urged the international community to respect the principle of non-refoulement and the business community to strengthen human rights risk assessments, particularly in the surveillance and security sectors.
Savita Pawnday, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said, “the report confirms what others have been telling the world for years. Now, more than ever, the incoming UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should prioritize international efforts to combat atrocities in XUAR and hold the Chinese government accountable. States must uphold their responsibility to protect populations in XUAR from mass atrocities, including by banning the import of goods that may be tied to Uyghur forced labor.” During the upcoming 51st session, the HRC should mandate an investigative and accountability mechanism and request a formal debate of the report at its 52nd session in March 2023.
Friday, 9 September, marks the third International Day to Protect Education from Attack, calling attention to the plight of millions of children living in countries experiencing armed conflict.
From Ethiopia to Yemen, Mozambique to Myanmar (Burma), students and teachers have been killed, raped or abducted while education facilities are bombed, burned down or used for military purposes. Despite schools and universities being closed for prolonged periods during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of attacks on education significantly increased between 2020-2021, according to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack. Over the past two years there were more than 5,000 reported attacks on education and incidents of military use of schools and universities, impacting at least 9,000 students and educators. On average, six attacks on education or incidents of military use occurred each day. The actual figures are likely higher as attacks on education often go unreported.
The West and Central Africa regions have faced a dramatic increase in the number of schools closed due to insecurity. According to the Education in Emergencies Working Group, over 12,400 schools were closed by the end of the 2021-2022 school year in Cameroon, Central African Republic, the Central Sahel, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Nigeria. The start of the school year in Rutshuru and Nyiragongo territories, eastern DRC, was disrupted on 5 September due to the occupation of 29 schools by more than 36,000 internally displaced people who had fled recurrent clashes between government armed forces and the March 23 Movement (M23) armed group. M23 fighters have allegedly occupied several schools in villages in Rutshuru territory for over three months. Several school officials reportedly threatened to evict displaced people from classrooms, posing a serious protection risk for the displaced.
In Ukraine, government authorities have reported that since Russia’s invasion on 24 February, 2,400 schools across the country have been damaged, including 269 that were completely destroyed, amidst indiscriminate shelling and bombing. Ahead of the beginning of the school year on 1 September, students were required to undergo security training. The UN Children’s Fund Executive Director, Catherine Russell, said, “that’s not the way children should go through life, thinking that they are going to get attacked at any moment.”
The proliferation and intensification of conflicts around the world is having a devastating impact on access to learning, affecting the future of generations of children. All UN member states should endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration, as well as call for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2601, which condemns attacks against schools, children and teachers and urges parties to conflicts to immediately safeguard the right to education. All state forces and non-state armed groups who target and attack education must be held accountable for their actions.
From 12 September to 7 October the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) will hold its 51st session in Geneva, providing member states with an important opportunity to discuss and decide on necessary multilateral action for populations at risk of, or experiencing, mass atrocity crimes.
During the 51st session, the HRC will have the opportunity to renew the mandates of special procedures, including the Independent Experts on the Central African Republic and Somalia and the Special Rapporteurs on Burundi and Afghanistan, as well as several key investigative mechanisms, including the International Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela and the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE). The HRC will also discuss numerous other atrocity situations, including Myanmar (Burma), South Sudan, Syria and Ukraine.
As the primary international human rights body, the HRC and its mechanisms play an essential role in providing early warning of situations where systematic violations and abuses of human rights may result in potential genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing. By reporting on human rights violations and abuses that may escalate to mass atrocities and by investigating and collecting vital evidence regarding potential crimes, special procedures and investigative mechanisms play a fundamental role in helping states uphold their Responsibility to Protect and enabling accountability.
The FFM on Venezuela remains the only international monitoring body with a mandate to investigate alleged atrocity crimes in the country and provide recommendations to ensure justice for victims. The FFM has previously warned that ongoing patterns of state-led human rights violations and abuses may amount to crimes against humanity. Ahead of elections scheduled for 2024, the FFM may also fulfill a crucial early warning and risk assessment role by monitoring any further crackdown on civic space.
During the session ICHREE will present its first report on the situation in Ethiopia, despite struggling with funding and staffing gaps in the months since it was mandated. Amidst renewed fighting, the work of the ICHREE is vital to ensure ongoing scrutiny of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as to advance accountability and provide justice and redress for victims, survivors and their families.
Elisabeth Pramendorfer, Senior Human Rights Officer of the Global Centre for the Responsibility Protect, said that, “the HRC has a unique potential to respond to atrocity situations around the world. We call upon the Council to uphold its responsibility to protect populations during the upcoming session by renewing the mandates of all investigative mechanisms and Special Procedures documenting atrocity crimes and highlighting the need for appropriate resources. The HRC should also work towards establishing a new international independent accountability mechanism for the situation in Yemen.”