On behalf of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, I am writing to you regarding the 55th 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 UN General Assembly (UNGA) 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 55th regular session:
In a landmark report issued in February 2014, the HRC-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) established responsibility at the highest level of government for ongoing crimes against humanity, as well as other systematic and widespread human rights violations, including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other forms of sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, forcible transfer of populations, enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation. Many of these abuses remain ongoing. Meanwhile, under the pretext of preventing the spread of COVID-19, in 2020 the DPRK government reinforced its policy of isolation by closing international borders and implementing further repressive restrictions on basic freedoms. These prolonged measures have severely restricted access to food, medicines, healthcare and livelihoods. Throughout 2023 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK also expressed serious concerns about the connection between North Korea’s human rights violations and increasing militarization. This concern was also recognized in UNGA Resolution 78/218, which condemned the DPRK for continuing to divert resources into pursuing its illicit nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs over the welfare of its people.
While the Special Rapporteur and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) continue to issue important reports on the human rights situation in the DPRK, no comprehensive and authoritative UN document has been published since the CoI report. In recognition of the 10th anniversary of the CoI report, the Global Centre therefore respectfully encourages you to support the inclusion of language in the resolution on DPRK which calls for the development of a comprehensive update on the human rights situation in the country, focusing on the most serious human rights violations and abuses identified by the CoI that may amount to crimes against humanity, including an assessment of the implementation of the recommendations issued by the Commission. In addition, the Global Centre encourages you to support the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for a period of one year.
Since the assassination of then-President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, violence has intensified in Haiti, particularly in Port-au-Prince, where armed gangs have rapidly proliferated and are perpetrating widespread abuses with impunity. Approximately 200 criminal groups are fighting over territory, and the UN estimates that 2 million Haitians live in areas under gang control. Several UN officials have warned that insecurity in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area has reached levels comparable to countries in armed conflict. There has also been a significant rise in gang violence in the central region of Lower Artibonite. Populations living in gang-controlled areas are at heightened risk of widespread human rights abuses, including killings, kidnappings and sexual violence, which may amount to crimes against humanity. A group of UN Special Procedures reported that gangs are using systematic sexual violence, including collective rape and mutilation, to exert territorial control and terrorize communities under the control of rival gangs.
In response to the lack of adequate protection from law enforcement, a civilian self-defense movement – known as “Bwa Kale”– has emerged. The UN Secretary-General warned that such vigilante movements have “sparked a new and alarming cycle of violence” that could lead to further recruitment of children. Despite the anticipated deployment of a UN Security Council (UNSC)-authorized Multinational Security Support (MSS) mission, the security situation remains at risk of further deterioration. Meanwhile, insecurity in marginalized areas of the country leave many without access to public services, aggravating the dire humanitarian crisis and existing inequalities which fuel patterns of exclusion and violence. Moreover, many criminal groups are alleged to have ties to political and economic elites, as well as police officers.
The Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Haiti plays a crucial role in providing technical assistance to the government, national human rights institutions and civil society, as well as monitoring the human rights situation, with a particular focus on children. Due to the ongoing risk of possible atrocity crimes, the Global Centre respectfully encourages you to renew the mandate of the Independent Expert for a period of one year. In addition, the resolution should mandate the Independent Expert, in cooperation with OHCHR, to help the MSS establish an oversight mechanism to prevent human rights violations or abuses once the force is deployed.
Violence and instability have been endemic in Mali for over a decade; however, since 2015 the crisis has shifted into inter-communal conflict and an insurgency in northern and central Mali by armed Islamist groups allied with Al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Throughout 2023 the human rights situation significantly deteriorated amid a surge in indiscriminate attacks, sieges and atrocities by such groups, as well as large-scale counterterrorism operations by the Malian armed forces (FAMa) and allied mercenaries from the Wagner Group, during which possible war crimes and crimes against humanity have been perpetrated. A July 2023 report by the then UNSC-mandated Panel of Experts on Mali alleged that FAMa troops and mercenaries have perpetrated systematic sexual violence and other grave abuses to spread terror. In northern Mali, unprecedented clashes between the FAMa and a coalition of predominantly Tuareg and Arab armed groups operating under the Permanent Strategic Framework, as well as the termination of the 2015 Algiers peace agreement, pose significant threats to civilians who are increasingly caught in the crossfire or forced to flee.
Human rights defenders, journalists and real or perceived critics of the transitional military authorities have faced increasing reprisals, including threats, intimidation, enforced disappearances and arbitrary arrests. The withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping mission at the end of 2023 has exacerbated an existing security and protection vacuum and raised concerns regarding independent human rights monitoring and reporting. In this regard, the Global Centre therefore respectfully encourages you to extend the mandate of the Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Mali for a period of one year, as the Independent Expert has played a crucial role in calling upon the Malian transitional authorities to promote and protect human rights, as well as monitoring implementation of these commitments. We also respectfully encourage you to support the inclusion of R2P language in the resolution by “stressing that the Transitional Government of Mali has the primary responsibility to protect its population,” and authorize the Independent Expert to regularly brief other UN bodies, including the UNSC. We further encourage you to call on the transitional authorities to ensure the safety and security of the Independent Expert during field visits and request the Independent Expert conduct assessments of structural risk factors for atrocity crimes.
In February 2021 Myanmar’s military — the Tatmadaw —overthrew the civilian-led government and plunged the country into a grave human rights and protection crisis. In the three years since the coup, the military has killed over 4,177 people and displaced at least 2.6 million. Several UN officials and entities, including the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar and the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, have indicated that abuses committed by the military since the coup likely amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Impunity for past atrocities has enabled the military to continue committing widespread and systematic human rights violations and abuses against civilians, particularly those from ethnic minority populations. The Tatmadaw has increasingly launched airstrikes in civilian areas and used scorched earth campaigns with the aim of quelling dissent and invoking terror throughout the country. The junta has weaponized the delivery of humanitarian aid, deepening the humanitarian crisis in the country. Threats to civilians have been further exacerbated by clashes and military reprisals since an alliance of armed groups launched Operation 1027 in October 2023 and subsequently claimed territory.
The Special Rapporteur plays a critical role in documenting systematic violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL) in Myanmar, contributing to accountability efforts, as well as consistently pushes the international community to take robust and effective action. The Special Rapporteur has also published invaluable white papers on several issues, including arms transfers to the Tatmadaw and human rights violations against children in Myanmar. Therefore, we respectfully encourage you to support the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, as well as the inclusion of R2P language in the resolution which stresses that “the government of Myanmar has the primary responsibility to protect its population from crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
Populations in South Sudan continue to face the risk of atrocity crimes and grave human rights violations. While there has been a decrease in the number of clashes between the signatories of the revitalized peace agreement at the national level, senior political and military leaders continue to manipulate long-standing enmities between rival ethnic communities, enabling political competition and the mobilization of armed groups to exacerbate and trigger localized conflict. Cattle raiding and revenge killings, as well as increased resource competition between herding and farming communities as a result of climate change, have triggered violent clashes. Fragmentation and ethnic divisions have triggered serious human rights violations, including widespread sexual violence. The Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS) warned during 2023 that the entire peace process was threatened on several occasions by political violence at the sub-national level, with the active involvement of national-level actors.
The failure to uphold multiple peace agreements shows a lack of genuine commitment to a political solution by South Sudan’s leaders and the significant delay in implementing the Revitalized Agreement signed in 2018 remains a major source of concern. Delays in reforming the security sector appear to be a deliberate strategy by President Salva Kiir to retain dominance. While South Sudan is preparing for elections, scheduled to take place by December 2024, the CHRSS has warned that the disappearance of civic and political space diminishes opportunities for civilians to participate in constitution-making, transitional justice, national elections and other essential democratic processes and may give rise to grievances that become a trigger for further instability and conflict. In December the UN Secretary-General also warned that the risk of election-related violence is a major security concern in South Sudan and “whether and what kinds of elections will take place in 2024 remains unknown.”
The CHRSS has played a critical role in documenting violations and abuses of human rights and violations of IHL. Due to the fragility of the peace process and multiple extensions of the transitional period, as well as the ongoing risk of atrocity crimes, the Global Centre respectfully encourages you to renew the mandate of the CHRSS in full to allow it to continue to conduct independent investigations and to collect and preserve evidence of, and clarify responsibility for, alleged gross violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes. In addition, the resolution should mandate the CHRSS to submit comprehensive reports to the UNGA at its 79th session, to be followed by an interactive dialogue.
Since 2011 the Syrian government has consistently perpetrated acts that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity against its own population, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian objects, as well as arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances and deaths in detention. The CoI on the Syrian Arab Republic has consistently reported on the government’s failure to comply with its obligations under IHL and IHRL. Various armed groups have perpetrated likely war crimes and crimes against humanity throughout the country, particularly in areas under their control. Syrians continue to suffer from escalating hostilities along multiple regional frontlines, including across southern, northwest and northeast Syria. OHCHR has estimated 306,887 civilian deaths from 1 March 2011 to 31 March 2021.
Since its establishment, the CoI has played a crucial role in the documentation of atrocity crimes in Syria and has meaningfully contributed to the pursuit of justice and accountability. As such, the Global Centre respectfully encourages you to renew its mandate in full. We also encourage you to extend support to facilitate the CoI’s ability to regularly brief other UN bodies, as well as to strengthen its cooperation with the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism on Syria to preserve evidence of crimes for future criminal prosecutions.
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. More than 19,200 civilians have been killed or maimed as a result of airstrikes by the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led international coalition alone, including over 2,300 children. During October 2021 the HRC terminated the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts (GEE), the only international independent mechanism dedicated to monitoring international law violations in Yemen. The abrupt termination of the GEE was followed by a dramatic escalation in armed hostilities and indiscriminate bombing inflicting immense civilian harm, with the Saudi/UAE-led coalition carrying out over 200 air raids per month between October and April 2022. Since a six-month truce expired in October 2022, there has not been a significant escalation in hostilities and no airstrikes have been carried out by the Saudi/UAE-led coalition. However, since then over 2,140 civilians have been killed or injured as occasional clashes continue across several governorates. Additionally, there are no viable paths to address accountability for previous atrocities despite ongoing calls from civil society.
The ongoing negotiation process between parties to the conflict does not sufficiently address widespread violations and abuses of international law or accountability for previous atrocities. The termination of the GEE entrenched impunity and emboldened all parties to the conflict to continue to commit possible war crimes and other serious violations. In July 2023 over 60 Yemeni civil society organizations released the Yemen Declaration for Justice and Reconciliation, in which they set forth their common vision for achieving justice and reconciliation in Yemen. The Global Centre respectfully urges you to express your support for this Declaration in your statements at the upcoming HRC session, as well as identify ways the HRC can support the realization of demands set forth in the Declaration.
On 24 February 2022 the Russian Federation unlawfully launched a military operation into Ukraine that quickly devolved into a countrywide assault on Ukrainian civilians. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) has verified that over 10,000 civilians have been killed since the invasion, while acknowledging that the actual death toll is much higher. Both the HRMMU and the CoI on Ukraine have documented evidence of the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the conflict, including indiscriminate attacks, torture and sexual and gender-based violence, the widespread use of indiscriminate weapons in populated areas, including heavy artillery, multiple launch rocket systems, missiles, airstrikes and illegal cluster munitions. According to the HRMMU, Ukrainian and Russian forces have committed abuses against prisoners of war, including torture and ill-treatment. In areas under their control, Russian forces have also perpetrated grave abuses, including summary executions and other possible war crimes. Mass graves and burial sites have been found in several areas retaken from Russian forces. There have also been reports of forced deportations of Ukrainians, including children, to Russia and forcible disappearances of local Ukrainian government officials. Russia also continues its assault on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, leaving millions without access to water, heat or electricity.
Despite multiple attempts by the UN and others to mediate an end to the conflict, peace remains elusive. The Global Centre respectfully encourages you to adopt a resolution that condemns, in the strongest terms, Russia’s blatant disregard for IHL and IHRL, and renews the CoI to continue its documentation, reporting and investigative functions.
During its 55th session, the HRC will have an opportunity to discuss numerous other atrocity situations. We respectfully urge your delegation to actively participate in the Interactive Dialogues with the Special Rapporteurs on Afghanistan and Iran, with the Fact-Finding Missions on Venezuela and Iran and the Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua, in the Interactive Dialogues with the High Commissioner on Venezuela and Sudan, the Enhanced Interactive Dialogue on human rights in Eritrea, and in the High-level dialogue on the Central African Republic.
We also respectfully urge your delegation to actively participate in the Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur and on the High Commissioner’s report on the Occupied Palestinian Territory. In particular, we encourage you to condemn all likely atrocity crimes that have been perpetrated in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory both before and since 7 October and to call for an immediate ceasefire.