Photo Source: © UN Photo/Violaine Martin
Photo Source: © UN Photo/Violaine Martin

Letter to UN Human Rights Council members on atrocity prevention priorities at the Council’s 53rd session

9 June 2023

Your Excellency,

On behalf of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, I am writing to you regarding the 53rd Session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva.

The HRC plays an essential role in the prevention of mass atrocity crimes by responding to situations where populations are at risk of, or are experiencing, genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing. During its 44th session in July 2020 the HRC adopted Resolution 44/14 on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), recognizing the important contribution of the UN human rights system in addressing situations where there is a risk of atrocity crimes being committed. This is in line with the Council’s prevention mandate, enshrined in General Assembly Resolution 60/251, which stipulates that it shall “contribute, through dialogue and cooperation, towards the prevention of human rights violations and respond promptly to human rights emergencies.”

We strongly urge you, as a current member of the HRC, to uphold this shared commitment to prevent atrocity crimes. The Global Centre respectfully encourages you to consider the following recommendations as you engage in the 53rd regular session:


Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan on 15 August 2021, they have committed serious human rights abuses targeting vulnerable populations, including religious minorities and women and girls. The Taliban de facto authorities have reportedly perpetrated extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, beatings and threats against former Afghan government officials, political opponents, journalists, civil society activists and human rights defenders. These violations are coupled with severe restrictions on fundamental rights, including freedom of religion, as well as access to civic and public space. In addition, over 3,195 civilians have been killed or wounded since 15 August 2021, mainly due to targeted attacks perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K). Attacks by ISIL-K have primarily targeted ethnic and religious minority communities, in particular Hazara Shi’as, Shi’a Muslims and Sufi Muslims.

The Taliban de facto authorities have also institutionalized large-scale and systematic gender-based discrimination and violence against women and girls, including forced marriage and restrictions on freedom of movement and expression, employment opportunities and access to education and healthcare. These actions likely amount to the crime against humanity of gender persecution. During the Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur for human rights in Afghanistan and the UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, the Global Centre respectfully urges you to highlight the elevated atrocity risks facing populations in Afghanistan, including the crime against humanity of gender persecution. We also respectfully encourage you to highlight the importance of legal accountability, including for violations of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention of the Political Rights of Women.


Under the guise of combating religious extremism and terrorism, the Chinese government has increased its persecution of members of the ethnic Uyghur community, as well as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups in the northwestern so-called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) since 2017. Over 1 million people, mainly Uyghurs, have been arbitrarily detained in “re-education” or “de-extremification” facilities. In August 2022 then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, released a long-awaited report on XUAR, which determined that the arbitrary and discriminatory detention of Uyghurs and others may constitute crimes against humanity. The report found that the conditions remain in place for serious violations to continue, including probable forced labor. The Chinese government also appears to be intentionally perpetrating at least four acts prohibited under Article II of the Genocide Convention, including with its coordinated campaign to forcibly reduce Uyghur births via forced sterilizations, forced abortions and mandatory birth control. Uyghurs in XUAR and around the world also face surveillance, which reinforces fear and social control. Chinese authorities have also engaged in the systematic destruction of Uyghur cultural heritage. In a watershed ruling on 24 November the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) released a series of recommendations on XUAR and referred the situation to the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on R2P, marking the first time the Committee has referred a situation to the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and R2P.

At the 51st session of the HRC, a coalition of states introduced a resolution that called for a debate on the High Commissioner’s report. Although the resolution was rejected by a narrow margin, it demonstrated the willingness of many UN member states to discuss its findings in a formal setting and underscored the important role that the HRC can and should play in responding to atrocities in XUAR. In light of ongoing atrocity crimes in XUAR, we respectfully encourage you to introduce and support a new resolution which seeks to hold a formal debate on the High Commissioner’s report. A debate would be an opportune forum for all governments — including China’s —to discuss the report and its findings, as well as identify steps the international community should take to prevent further crimes against humanity in XUAR and to hold perpetrators to account.


According to a 2016 report by the HRC-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Eritrea, the Eritrean government and its ruling party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, have committed possible crimes against humanity, including enslavement, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, persecution and murder since 1991. On 6 March the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea highlighted that ongoing patterns of enforced disappearances may constitute a crime against humanity and urged the HRC to exert maximum pressure on Eritrean authorities to address the disappearance of many Eritreans, spanning decades. The Special Rapporteur also observed persistent human rights violations linked to the system of indefinite military service. Likewise, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that roundups for conscriptions have intensified following the start of the conflict in neighboring Ethiopia’s Tigray region in November 2020. The Deputy High Commissioner also warned that no person has been held accountable for crimes against humanity as documented by the CoI in 2016. Eritrea – a current member of the HRC – continues to be unwilling to cooperate with the UN human rights system, remaining one of the few countries who has never allowed any visit by a Special Procedure mandate holder.

In light of ongoing human rights violations and abuses in Eritrea, as well as abuses perpetrated by Eritrean forces in Ethiopia, the Global Centre respectfully urges you to adopt a resolution to extend the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for a period of one year. Within the mandate we urge you to include strong language on the Special Rapporteur’s “benchmarks for progress,” as they provide a comprehensive path for human rights reforms, as well as substantive paragraphs addressing ongoing violations and impunity for past abuses committed by Eritrean authorities at home and abroad. The resolution should further request the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur to present updates on avenues for accountability in Eritrea at the HRC’s 55th session in an enhanced interactive dialogue. This appeal echoes a joint NGO call released on 17 May 2023.


Since 15 April 2023 an armed confrontation between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has resulted in hundreds of people killed and thousands injured amidst heavy fighting, aerial bombardments and shelling, including in densely populated areas. There have also been reports of increased sexual and gender-based violence, including rape, by armed forces, as well as reports of forced evictions in Khartoum. Violence between the SAF and RSF has also triggered escalating inter-communal clashes, particularly in West Darfur, where hundreds have reportedly been killed. Armed groups and RSF fighters continue to attack, loot and burn down entire neighborhoods. As result of the security vacuum and lack of control over armed militias in Darfur, civilians fear that the violence may degenerate further.

Following a joint NGO call by 91 organizations, including the Global Centre, on 11 May the HRC convened a special session on the human rights impact of the conflict in Sudan and subsequently adopted a resolution that enhances the monitoring and reporting mandates of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and his designated Independent Expert on human rights in Sudan. However, the resolution fell short of establishing a more robust investigative mandate as requested by civil society. In light of the unfolding human rights crisis in Sudan, and in line with the Council’s prevention mandate, the Global Centre respectfully urges you to actively participate in the Interactive Dialogue on the situation of human rights in the Sudan during the HRC’s 53rd session and to raise awareness about the imminent risk of atrocity crimes that populations are facing. The Global Centre also urges you to explore opportunities and avenues for more robust scrutiny and engagement of the situation in Sudan by the HRC, including through the establishment of enhanced investigative, monitoring or reporting mechanisms which would support the work of the Independent Expert and the High Commissioner for Human Rights.


Since at least 2014 Venezuelan security and intelligence forces have perpetrated arbitrary detentions, short-term enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment and sexual and gender-based violence against the country’s population. Venezuelan human rights project Lupa por La Vida documented more than 700 alleged extrajudicial executions between January and November 2022 alone. In September 2022 the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela warned that such patterns are “part of a plan orchestrated at the highest levels of the government to repress dissent through crimes against humanity.” Since the successful renewal of the investigation and technical cooperation mandates of the FFM and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in October 2022, the Venezuelan government has further intensified ongoing repression and closure of civic space. On 24 January 2023 the ruling-party dominated National Assembly provisionally approved draft legislation aimed at essentially criminalizing the work of civil society organizations. Absence of accountable state authority, high levels of crime and illicit economic exploitation in large parts of the country, including in border areas, as well as the country’s gold mining region, Arco Minero del Orinoco, leaves populations at risk of extreme violence. Indigenous peoples also remain at particular risk of targeting by both state and non-state actors aiming to control territory and resources.

Ahead of Venezuela’s scheduled elections in 2024 and 2025, the HRC provides a vital forum to exert diplomatic pressure on the Venezuelan government to end systematic repression and implement structural reform of state institutions that are facilitating state-led violence. The Global Centre therefore respectfully urges you to actively participate in the Interactive Dialogue with High Commissioner Volker Türk on his upcoming first report on Venezuela. We also encourage you to call on the Venezuelan government to withdraw the proposed legislation that seeks to legitimize persecution of human rights defenders and civil society organizations and to fully cooperate and grant access to the FFM.


Since March 2015 all parties to the conflict in Yemen have perpetrated violations and abuses of international law that may amount to war crimes, including indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling, torture, arbitrary detention and sexual and gender-based violence. During October 2021 the HRC abruptly terminated the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) on Yemen. Hostilities dramatically escalated as missiles and airstrikes targeted and destroyed civilian objects and critical infrastructure, killing and injuring over 1,100 civilians before a negotiated truce was reached on 2 April 2022. Despite a significant decrease in civilian casualties during the six-month truce, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project recorded 2,208 incidents of shelling, artillery and missile attacks, 374 air and drone strikes and 369 armed clashes. Civilians were also still widely subjected to violations and abuses of human rights, including enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence. Following the expiration of the truce in October 2022, human rights violations have remained rampant. Additionally, there are no viable paths to address accountability for previous atrocities despite ongoing calls from civil society.

The Global Centre therefore respectfully urges you to deliver a joint statement under any relevant agenda item to draw attention to the ongoing human rights crisis in Yemen, as well as the need for transitional justice, including investigations and accountability. We also urge member states to actively work towards establishing a new international independent accountability mechanism for the situation in Yemen, mandated to collect and preserve evidence of violations of international law, prepare files for criminal proceedings in accordance with international legal standards, identify victims and document harms for possible future reparation claims.

Prevention of Genocide

The HRC will hold an Interactive Dialogue with the Special Adviser of the UN Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, Alice Wairimu Nderitu. The UN Office on Genocide Prevention and R2P (Joint Office) is mandated to provide early warning and work to enhance UN capacity to analyze and manage information relating to genocide or other atrocity crimes. As such, the Special Advisers should work to raise awareness of situations at risk of atrocity crimes and provide UN member states and the UN human rights system with targeted recommendations for action.

The Global Centre respectfully encourages you to actively participate in the Interactive Dialogue with Special Adviser Nderitu and call on the Joint Office to enhance their engagement and collaboration with OHCHR and all relevant HRC mechanisms and procedures monitoring, reporting on and investigating possible atrocity crimes, as well as civil society and affected communities. We also encourage you to request the Joint Office to regularly provide early warning and horizon-scanning briefings to member states on situations at risk. Lastly, we urge you to specifically highlight and welcome the decision by CERD to refer their recommendations on XUAR to the Special Adviser on R2P and enquire which type of follow-up action the Joint Office will consider in this regard. To date, the referral has received no formal acknowledgment or recognition from the Joint Office.

Interactive Dialogues on country-situations at risk of, or experiencing, atrocity crimes   

During its 53rd session, the HRC will discuss numerous other atrocity situations. We respectfully urge your delegation to actively participate in the interactive dialogues with the CoI on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem and in Israel, the FFM on Iran, the Special Rapporteur on Burundi, the Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territory and the Independent Expert on the Central African Republic and the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, as well as in the interactive dialogues with the High Commissioner on Ukraine and on Myanmar. During the General Debate under Item 4, we respectfully urge your delegation to note that possible atrocity crimes are also currently being committed in Cameroon, the Central Sahel, Mozambique and Nigeria, and that the international community must do more to uphold its collective responsibility to protect.

Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect


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Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
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