2000 United Nations Commission on Human Rights - Time to defend the defenders

At a press conference today, Amnesty International renewed its call to the UN Commission on Human Rights to create a post of Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders This Special Rapporteur would intervene on behalf of those who are at the forefront of the struggle to protect and promote human rights.

'Last year we were told that the time was not ripe because the Commission had to review its system of rapporteurs, experts and working groups,' said Stephanie Farrior, Director of Amnesty International's Legal and International Organizations Program. 'But it is time the creation of a Special Rapporteur's post stopped being held hostage to this review process.'

'While this review is important it must not block the protection of human rights defenders who provide the Commission with indispensable information from the ground,' added Stephanie Farrior.

The Commission must put the victims and human rights defenders at the centre of its agenda. Yet all too often the Commission fails to act decisively and political compromise takes precedence over human rights.

At this session of the Commission, Amnesty International will also raise concerns about countries where there is a pattern of systematic and severe human rights violations, with a particular focus on China, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia/Kosovo, Mexico, Russian Federation/Chechnya,

Saudi Arabia and Sierra Leone.

'The Commission should speak out on the human rights situation in China and other countries such as Saudi Arabia which have appalling human rights records. In the interest of realpolitik the international community has remained silent for far too long but no country should be seen as 'untouchable' by the Commission,' said Stephanie Farrior.

'Commission action will drive home the message that the standards applied to China and other powerful countries are no different from those applied to smaller, less powerful countries that are regularly censured by the international community for their human rights record.'

China: The crackdown on peaceful dissent in China is becoming harsher by the day. In addition, sentences passed recently against followers of the Falun Gong movement have been among the most draconian in recent years.

'A weak and divided response from the Commission to these human rights violations would be an insult to the victims, allowing the Chinese authorities to act with virtual impunity ' Stephanie Farrior stressed. 'In the past, some Commission members have argued that dialogue alone will produce positive results, but dialogue is a means to an end. It cannot be meaningful if it has no impact on the human rights situation, which has steadily deteriorated since the end of 1998.'

More people are executed each year in China than in the rest of the world put together. The Commission should urge the Chinese government to stop these executions and immediately release all those imprisoned solely for expressing their beliefs It should also take steps to stop human rights violations in the Xinjiang and Tibet autonomous regions.

Federal Republic of Yugoslavia/Kosovo: Progress towards stability in Kosovo is hampered by continued killing of people because of their ethnic origin

a failure to resolve cases of 'disappearances' and a general lack of security. This is despite the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo's determination to establish an international administration from scratch and the efforts of the NATO-led international security force (KFOR) in Kosovo to provide protection. The lack of an effective judicial system perpetuates impunity for human rights abuses.

'The international community has failed to provide the resources for an adequate international civilian police force or for a new judiciary.

Until that happens, violence against minority communities is likely to continue,' Stephanie Farrior said.

'NATO member states who persistently called on Yugoslav army personnel during the military conflict to desert should now live up to their international obligations and promote durable protection to conscientious objectors who fled from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on the grounds of their conscientiously held convictions or beliefs.'

Mexico: The human rights situation in Mexico could turn into a crisis of major proportions if the government does not take concrete steps to ensure the protection of human rights at all levels of society.

Ordinary citizens, public figures, and those linked to human rights organisations, persistently face death threats, arbitrary detention,

torture and are sometimes even killed. Yet those responsible for such violations, including security forces and so-called 'paramilitary groups'

reportedly acting with their support, often walk free.

One of the central problems underlying the persistent cycle of human rights abuses is that Mexico's justice system is ineffective and lacks independence.

'A crucial step towards reducing tensions and bringing human rights abuses to an end is for the Mexican Government to ensure that those responsible for human rights violations, no matter their position or status within society, are brought to justice,' stressed Stephanie Farrior.

Amnesty International is requesting the Commission to adopt a resolution calling on the Mexican authorities to implement recent recommendations made by treaty bodies as well as by UN experts following recent visits, and to invite other relevant thematic mechanisms to visit Mexico to assess the human rights situation.

Russian Federation/Chechnya: In Chechnya, Russian forces have been waging war in a ruthless manner in apparent disregard of international humanitarian law. In Moscow, the Russian authorities continue to treat Chechens with discrimination. This suggests that the government is targeting an entire ethnic group

'The Russian Government's claim that it is 'fighting crime and terrorism' is no justification for violating human rights,' said Stephanie Farrior.

Human rights violations have been committed on a massive scale. There are many reports of torture and ill-treatment in 'filtration camps'

including rape, execution of civilians, arbitrary detention and 'disappearances' by Russian forces. Chechen fighters have reportedly also been responsible for abuses such as using civilians as 'human shields',

torture and ill-treatment including rape, and the killing of captured combatants.

'The Commission should recognise that only an international investigation can do justice to the allegations of grave abuses of human rights and humanitarian law,' Stephanie Farrior said, pointing out that last year, Amnesty International urged the Security Council to initiate an international investigation into such abuses.

Amnesty International is calling on the Commission to adopt a resolution expressing grave concern about the abuses of human rights and humanitarian law and urging all parties to the conflict to take immediate steps to stop them. The Commission should also urge the Russian Government to invite various thematic mechanisms to visit Chechnya and neighbouring republics and present their reports to the Commission and the General Assembly as soon as possible.

Saudi Arabia: Secrecy and fear permeate every aspect of the state structure in Saudi Arabia, and those who dare to criticise the system are severely punished. Executions and torture including amputations and flogging, are carried out, and the most basic international fair trial standards are routinely ignored. Yet, despite the gravity of the situation Saudi Arabia's record has never been publicly scrutinized by the UN.

Last year, under the confidential 1503 procedure, the Commission discontinued its consideration of Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International believes that this decision had more to do with Saudi Arabia's strategic and economic influence than any human rights improvement.

'The Commission, the UN's main human rights watch dog, simply cannot turn its back on Saudi Arabia. The Commission must break its wall of silence around Saudi Arabia and publicly scrutinise its appalling human rights record.' said Stephanie Farrior.

At the very least, the Commission should adopt a resolution condemning gross human rights violations in the country and request the government to invite the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers to visit Saudi Arabia in 2000 and report to the 2001 session of the Commission.

Sierra Leone: Despite the peace agreement signed in Lom», Togo, in July 1999 between the government and the armed opposition, deliberate and arbitrary killings, rape and abductions of civilians by former rebel forces have continued in Sierra Leone.

'The Commission should call on former rebel leaders now in political office to exert their influence over their former fighters and urge them to end attacks on civilians,' urged Stephanie Farrior, pointing out that the general amnesty provided by the peace agreement does not extend to abuses since July 1999 and that those responsible must be brought to justice.

Abuses, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, during Sierra Leone's internal armed conflict have been among the worst known.

The peace agreement's amnesty for all acts undertaken by combatants during the conflict contradicts the Commission's resolution on Sierra Leone at its last session, and led the UN Secretary-General to state categorically that the UN did not recognise that the amnesty applied '...to international crimes of genocide crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law'.

Amnesty International is now urging the Commission to explicitly support an international commission of inquiry to investigate human rights abuses committed during the conflict, as recommended by the UN High Commissioner for Human and Rights and mentioned by the Secretary-General,

in order to bring those responsible to justice.

Amnesty International is also urging the Commission to:

- Adopt a resolution on the death penalty urging all states that have not yet abolished the death penalty to suspend all executions and forbid the imposition of the death penalty on the mentally impaired and persons below 18 years of age at the time the crime was committed.

- Form an Intersessional Working Group to finalise - with the participation of non-governmental organisations and within the tightest possible time frame - the draft Convention on 'Enforced Disappearance', incorporating the strongest guarantees.

- Adopt a resolution calling for the finalisation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture that provides for an effective inspection system.

- Child soldiers: approve the draft optional protocol, which bans the use of children under 18 in armed conflict, and recommend its adoption by the UN General Assembly later this year. Amnesty International regrets that the optional protocol fails to establish 18 as the minimum age for voluntary recruitment into government armed forces.

Note: The 56th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights will meet for six weeks in Geneva from 20 March to 28 April 2000.

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