Syria: diplomats agree ‘cessation of hostilities;’ UN rights chief warns of dire situation in Aleppo

As the United Nations human rights chief warned today of “shocking” violence and abuses in and around the city of Aleppo and other parts of war-ravaged Syria, top-level diplomats meeting in Munich on ending the crisis agreed to work out the terms of nationwide “cessation of hostilities” in the coming week.

A note to correspondents issued this evening by a UN spokesperson set out the details of the agreement reached in Munich by the ISSG – the International Syria Support Group working since November to secure a broader ceasefire and Syrian political negotiations – comprising the Arab League, the European Union, the United Nations, and 17 countries including the United States and Russia. The targeting of civilians, including thousands of children, is abhorrent and may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

According to the ISSG statement, “to accelerate the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid, sustained delivery of assistance shall begin this week” in seven besieged areas inside Syria, including the town of Madaya, which drew worldwide attention recently after UN and Red Cross workers reported people starving to death or being killed trying to flee.

The statement explains that the cessation of hostilities will commence in one week, “after confirmation by the Syrian Government and opposition, following appropriate consultations in Syria.” During that week, an ISSG task force will develop relevant modalities. The ISSG also agreed that a cessation of hostilities should apply to any party currently engaged in military or paramilitary hostilities “against any other parties other than Da’esh, Jabhat al-Nusra, or other groups designated as terrorist organizations” by the UN Security Council.

Meanwhile, earlier today, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, strongly condemned rapidly worsening human rights situation in and around the city of Aleppo and other parts of Syria, where he said “shocking violations and abuses are committed on a daily basis.”

“The warring parties in Syria are constantly sinking to new depths, without apparently caring in the slightest about the death and destruction they are wreaking across the country. Women and children, the elderly, the wounded and sick, the people with disabilities are being used as bargaining chips and cannon fodder day after day, week after week, month after month. It is a grotesque situation,” he warned.

Dire humanitarian conditions throughout Syria

The human rights chief also stressed that hundreds of thousands of civilians in other parts of Syria are also facing dire humanitarian conditions, particularly those under sieges imposed both by Government forces and affiliated armed groups, and by armed opposition groups, including ISIL.

“In Moaddamiyat al-Sham, Madaya, Deir ez-Zour, Fuah and Kafreya people are in an utterly desperate situation, with many deaths, including of young children, as a result of severe malnutrition and lack of access to medical care,” he said.

In Moaddamiyat al-Sham, a town located a few kilometres from Damascus, since Government forces established a full siege in December, some 35,000 civilians have been enduring intense shelling and aerial attacks, and a dramatic deterioration of their living conditions, with food prices rising sharply and no infant-formula milk available.

While some food was delivered to the pro-Government eastern side of town, at least six civilians, including five children, died directly as a result of malnutrition in January, and more than 25 children under the age of two are said to be suffering from malnutrition and related health problems.

In Madaya, at least 26 people have died from malnutrition since the beginning of the year, despite the arrival of a large humanitarian convoy on 11 and 14 January, and at least 300 people – including women and children – are in need of immediate evacuation.

Some 200,000 people living under an ISIL-imposed siege in Deir ez-Zour are experiencing severe water shortages and a total lack of electricity. Reports indicate that several people accused of smuggling food into the city have been executed by ISIL fighters.

Despite the delivery of humanitarian aid to the villages of Fuah and Kafreya on 11 and 14 January, the High Commissioner’s Office (OHCHR) reports that the situation remains grim, as approximately 20,000 civilians remain under siege by the armed opposition groups Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra Front, who issued threats that they would slaughter the villagers in retaliation for Government actions against areas under their control.

Violation of international humanitarian law

“The deliberate starvation of civilians as a method of warfare constitutes a clear violation of international humanitarian law,” Mr. Zeid said. “The targeting of civilians, including thousands of children, is abhorrent and may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Those responsible for such acts, including under command responsibility, must be brought to justice.”

“I remind all parties of their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law to protect civilians at all times and to allow full access to humanitarian relief, to collect and care for the sick and wounded, and not to take actions which would deprive civilians of their right to food and health,” the UN human rights chief added.

Mr. Zeid also stressed that all parties to a conflict have obligations under international humanitarian law not to place the civilian population in peril by taking shelter amongst them, or in protected structures such as schools and hospitals.

“The peace talks in Geneva must be resumed as early as possible,” he insisted. “It is unconscionable that the various parties cannot even manage to sit around the table, when, because of their actions, more than a quarter of a million people have died, and the rest of the population is suffering to such a degree. A lasting peaceful resolution of this horrific war must be built on a solid foundation of human rights.”

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arbitrarily detained by Sweden and the UK, UN expert panel finds

The founder of the WikiLeaks website, which published confidential diplomatic information, has been arbitrarily detained by Sweden and the United Kingdom since his arrest in London in December 2010, as a result of the legal action against him by both Governments, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said today.

In a public statement, the expert panel called on the Swedish and British authorities to end Julian Assange’s deprivation of liberty, respect his physical integrity and freedom of movement, and afford him the right to compensation.

Mr. Assange, detained first in prison then under house arrest, took refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy in 2012 after losing his appeal to the UK’s Supreme Court against extradition to Sweden, where a judicial investigation was initiated against him in connection with allegations of sexual misconduct. However, he was not formally charged.

“The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention considers that the various forms of deprivation of liberty to which Julian Assange has been subjected constitute a form of arbitrary detention,” said Seong-Phil Hong, who currently heads the expert panel.

“The Working Group maintains that the arbitrary detention of Mr. Assange should be brought to an end, that his physical integrity and freedom of movement be respected, and that he should be entitled to an enforceable right to compensation,” Mr. Hong added.

In its official Opinion, the Working Group considered that Mr. Assange had been subjected to different forms of deprivation of liberty: initial detention in Wandsworth Prison in London, followed by house arrest and then confinement at the Ecuadorean Embassy.

According to a press release issued by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the experts also found that the detention was arbitrary because Mr. Assange was held in isolation at Wandsworth Prison, and because a lack of diligence by the Swedish Prosecutor’s Office in its investigations resulted in his lengthy loss of liberty.

The Working Group further established that this detention violates two articles of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and six articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

UN officials urge elimination of ‘violent practice’ of female genital mutilation

The most senior United Nations officials are urging the world to eliminate female genital mutilation (FGM) by 2030, calling it a “violent practice” that scars girls for life, endangering their health, depriving them of their rights, and denying them the chance to reach their full potential.

“Never before has it been more urgent – or more possible – to end the practice of female genital mutilation, preventing immeasurable human suffering and boosting the power of women and girls to have a positive impact on our world,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a message ahead of the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation marked annually on 6 February.

The UN chief stressed that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted unanimously by UN Member States last year, contain a specific target calling for an end to FGM.

“Today I raise my voice and call on others to join me in empowering communities which themselves are eager for change,” he declared. “I count on governments to honour their pledges with support from civil society, health providers, the media and young people.”

At least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in 30 countries, according to a new statistical report published by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Global Concern notes that half of the girls and women who have been cut live in three countries – Egypt, Ethiopia and Indonesia – and refers to smaller studies and anecdotal accounts that provide evidence FGM is a global human rights issue affecting girls and women in every region of the world.

“Female genital mutilation differs across regions and cultures, with some forms involving life-threatening health risks. In every case FGM violates the rights of girls and women,” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta in a press release.

According to the data, girls 14 and younger represent 44 million of those who have been cut, with the highest prevalence of FGM among this age in Gambia at 56 per cent, Mauritania 54 per cent and Indonesia where around half of girls aged 11 and younger have undergone the practice. Countries with the highest prevalence among girls and women aged 15 to 49 are Somalia 98 per cent, Guinea 97 per cent and Djibouti 93 per cent.

In most of the countries the majority of girls were cut before reaching their fifth birthdays.

The global figure in the FGM statistical report includes nearly 70 million more girls and women than estimated in 2014.This is due to population growth in some countries and nationally representative data collected by the Government of Indonesia. As more data on the extent of FGM become available the estimate of the total number of girls and women who have undergone the practice increases. As of 2016, 30 countries have nationally representative data on the practice.

“Determining the magnitude of female genital mutilation is essential to eliminating the practice. When governments collect and publish national statistics on FGM they are better placed to understand the extent of the issue and accelerate efforts to protect the rights of millions of girls and women,” Ms. Rao Gupta explained.

UNICEF says momentum to address female genital mutilation is growing. FGM prevalence rates among girls aged 15 to 19 have declined, including by 41 percentage points in Liberia, 31 in Burkina Faso, 30 in Kenya and 27 in Egypt over the last 30 years.

Since 2008, more than 15,000 communities and sub-districts in 20 countries have publicly declared that they are abandoning FGM, including more than 2,000 communities last year. Five countries have passed national legislation criminalizing the practice. Data also indicate widespread disapproval of the practice as the majority of people in countries where FGM data exists think it should end. This includes nearly two-thirds of boys and men.

But the overall rate of progress is not enough to keep up with population growth. The UN says if current trends continue the number of girls and women subjected to FMG will increase significantly over the next 15 years.

“All of us must join in this call. There simply is no place for FGM in the future we are striving to create – a future where every girl will grow up able to experience her inherent dignity, human rights and equality by 2030,” said UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin and UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake in a statement.

UN experts urge US to address legacies of the past, police impunity and ‘crisis of racial injustice’

UN experts urge US to address legacies of the past, police impunity and ‘crisis of racial injustice’

The legacy of slavery, post-Reconstruction ‘Jim Crow’ laws and racial subordination in the United States remains a “serious challenge” as there has been no real commitment to recognition and reparations for people of African descent, a United Nations expert panel said today in Washington D.C., at the end of its second official visit to the country.

“Despite substantial changes since the end of the enforcement of Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights, ideology ensuring the domination of one group over another continues to negatively impact the civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights of African Americans today,” said human rights expert Mireille Fanon Mendes France, who currently heads the group of experts, who added that: “We understand these changes are part of a larger effort to pass criminal justice reforms now pending in Congress, and a lot more needs to be done.”

Indeed, the experts found that contemporary police killings and the trauma it creates are reminiscent of the “racial terror and lynching” of the past. Impunity for state violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency, the said.

From 9 to 29 January, a delegation of the UN Working Group of experts on people of African descent visited Washington D.C., Baltimore, the town of Jackson, Mississippi, Chicago, and New York City, to address current concerns, and assess progress made in the fight against racial discrimination, ‘Afrophobia,’ xenophobia, and protecting and promoting the human rights of African- Americans.

The Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, visiting delegation, which also included human rights experts Sabelo Gumedze and Ricardo A. Sunga III, welcomed various efforts undertaken by the Government to address the issue, like a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal prison system announced this week.

The Group noted that the US has a growing human rights movement which has successful advocated for social change. Following the epidemic of racial violence by the police, civil society networks calling for justice together with other activists are strongly advocating for legal and policy reforms and community control over policing and other areas which directly affect African Americans.

However, the experts expressed serious concerns about the police killings, the presence of police in schools, and violence targeting the African American community with impunity, and racial bias in the criminal justice system, mass incarceration and the criminalization of poverty which disproportionately affects African Americans.

During its 11-day mission, the Working Group’s delegation heard from civil society, researchers and families of victims of police killings about racial discrimination and Afrophobia.

“The persistent gap in almost all the human development indicators, such as life expectancy, income and wealth, level of education, housing, employment and labour, and even food security, among African Americans and the rest of the US population, reflects the level of structural discrimination that creates de facto barriers for people of African descent to fully exercise their human rights,” Ms. Mendes France stressed.

The human rights experts met representatives of the Government at the federal and the state levels, and the US Congress and Senate, as well as hundreds of civil society organization representatives, lawyers and human rights activists from more than 20 states who had gathered in the different cities.

The Working Group regretted however that it did not receive access according to the terms of reference for special procedure mandate holders to visit Mississippi State Penitentiary Parchman. It also regretted that it was not possible to meet with all of the high-level state and local-level authorities requested.

Among other activities, they also promoted the International Decade for People of African Descent , which runs from 2015 to 2024 and aims both to highlight the contribution of people of African descent to societies and strengthen national, regional and international cooperation to ensure the human rights of people of African descent are respected, promoted and fulfilled.

The Working group will present a report containing its findings and recommendations to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council in September 2016. Independent experts or special rapporteurs are appointed by the Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.