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UN calls for action on worst ‘cascade of human rights setbacks in our lifetimes’

Rights chief Bachelet highlights situations in China, Russia and Ethiopia; warns extreme poverty, inequalities and injustice are rising as democratic and civic space are eroded

Elena, 7, center, lines up with other displaced Tigrayans to receive food donated by local residents at a reception center for the internally displaced in Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, on May 9, 2021 (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Elena, 7, center, lines up with other displaced Tigrayans to receive food donated by local residents at a reception center for the internally displaced in Mekele, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, on May 9, 2021 (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

GENEVA — The UN rights chief called Monday for “concerted action” to help recover from the worst global deterioration of rights seen in decades, highlighting situations in China, Russia and Ethiopia among others.

“To recover from the most wide-reaching and severe cascade of human rights setbacks in our lifetimes, we need a life-changing vision, and concerted action,” Michelle Bachelet told the opening of the UN Human Rights Council’s 47th session.

“Extreme poverty, inequalities and injustice are rising. Democratic and civic space is being eroded,” she warned.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights voiced deep concern about a number of country situations.

She said she was “deeply disturbed” by reports of “serious violations” in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, wracked by war and with some 350,000 people threatened by famine.

She pointed to “extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, sexual violence against children as well as adults, and forced displacement,” and said she had “credible reports” that Eritrean soldiers were still operating in the region.

Refugees who fled the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region ride a bus going to the Village 8 temporary shelter, near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in Hamdayet, eastern Sudan, Dec. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

Other parts of Ethiopia, which was holding elections Monday, were also seeing “alarming incidents of deadly ethnic and inter-communal violence and displacement are linked to increasing polarization about longstanding grievances,” Bachelet said.

“The ongoing deployment of military forces is not a durable solution,” she said, calling for national dialogue.

‘Chilling impact’

The UN rights chief also pointed to the “chilling impact” of a sweeping national security law introduced in Hong Kong.

The law, which took effect on July 1, 2020, is seen as the speartip of a sweeping crackdown on Beijing’s critics in the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong following 2019’s huge democracy protests.

People sitting on the ground are arrested by police officers at a downtown street in Hong Kong Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020 (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

It has criminalized much dissent, given China jurisdiction over some cases and awarded authorities a suite of powerful new investigation powers.

Bachelet warned that “107 people have been arrested under the National Security Law and 57 have been formally charged.”

The first trial under the new law is due later this week, in what she said would “be an important test of independence for Hong Kong’s judiciary.”

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, attends a meeting of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, June 17, 2020. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)

She also said she hoped to finally be able to visit the Chinese region of Xinjiang this year.

“I continue to discuss with China modalities for a visit, including meaningful access, to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and hope this can be achieved this year,” Bachelet said, pointing out that “reports of serious human rights violations continue to emerge.”

A guard tower and barbed wire fence surround a detention facility in the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux in western China’s Xinjiang region. December 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

China has faced mounting international criticism over its policies in the northwestern region, where the United States has accused Beijing of committing genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs.

At least one million Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been held in camps in the region, according to rights groups who also accuse authorities of imposing forced labor — allegations Beijing vehemently denies.

Kremlin undermining critical voices

The UN rights chief also criticized recent measures by the Kremlin shrinking the space for opposing political views and access to participation in upcoming elections.

“I am dismayed by recent measures that further undermine people’s right to express critical views, and their ability to take part in the parliamentary elections scheduled in September,” she said.

She highlighted in particular the recent moves to dismantle the movement of Russia’s main opposition politician Alexei Navalny, currently behind bars.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands in a glass cage during a hearing in the Moscow City Court in Moscow, Russia, February 2, 2021. (Moscow City Court via AP)

Barring his organizations from working in the country, a Moscow court earlier this month branded them as “extremist,” in a ruling Bachelet said was “based on vaguely-defined allegations of attempting to change the foundations of constitutional order.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has meanwhile signed legislation outlawing staff, members and sponsors of “extremist” groups from running in parliamentary elections.

“I call on Russia to uphold civil and political rights,” Bachelet said, insisting “legislation restricting the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association should be brought in line with international human rights norms and standards.”

“I further urge the authorities to end the arbitrary practice of labelling ordinary individuals, journalists, and non-governmental organizations as ‘extremists,’ ‘foreign agents’ or ‘undesirable organizations.'”

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