Editors’ Note: This is the latest in Just Security’s weekly series keeping readers up to date on developments at the United Nations at the intersection of national security, human rights, and the rule of law.
UN Human Rights Chief Addresses Chinese Government Abuses in Xinjiang
In her first annual report as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, former president of Chile Michelle Bachelet addressed the Chinese government’s repression of Uyghur Muslims in the northwest province of Xinjiang. Reports indicate human rights abuses, including mass arbitrary detention, surveillance, torture, and mistreatment, have accelerated in the region since 2016. It is estimated over one million Uyghurs and other Muslims are presently interned in so-called “re-education” camps. Bachelet acknowledged “wide patterns of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions” in Xinjiang and noted the region’s centrality to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. She expressed hope that China could facilitate stability and security with “policies which demonstrate the authorities’ respect of all people’s rights” and indicated her office intends to engage with the Chinese government in order to carry out an independent assessment of the dire situation in Xinjiang.
This week the UN Special Rapporteur on religious freedom, Ahmed Shaheed, also disclosed that he has asked to visit Xinjiang. The Chinese government has yet to respond to his request. In November, Shaheed and five other UN Special Rapporteurs signed a letter to the Chinese government criticizing efforts to create a legal basis to support mass internment in Xinjiang.
On Monday, a bipartisan group of representatives led by Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engel sent a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo calling on the Trump Administration to “take strong measures” to address human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Bills are pending in both the House and Senate, which include provisions for an Intelligence Community report to Congress on the situation in Xinjiang and measures to protect U.S. citizens and residents from intimidation and coercion by the Chinese government. The bills call for the U.S. government to “develop a strategy to support the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and numerous United Nations Special Rapporteurs’ urgent calls for immediate and unfettered access to Xinjiang” and call on Secretary Pompeo to “consider the applicability of existing authorities” to address the situation, including potential sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act.
Stockholm Agreement Implementation Pauses in Yemen
The United Nations continues to work with the Houthi rebels and Yemen’s government to carry out a planned redeployment of forces from key areas as part of the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement. The plan’s first step involves withdrawal from the ports of Saleef and Ras Isa followed by withdrawal from Hodeidah, one of Yemen’s major ports. In late February, UN Envoy Martin Griffiths indicated redeployment was imminent. However, this week Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates accused the Houthi rebels of breaking the ceasefire and refusing to complete the redeployment plan by failing to withdraw from Salif and Ras Issa. They also implored the UN Security Council to instruct the Houthi rebels to continue implementing the Stockholm Agreements. The Spokesman for the Secretary-General reported that Special Envoy Griffiths is traveling around the region for discussions with officials. On Wednesday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed her concern for civilians suffering in Yemen. The World Food Program has regained access to the Red Sea Mills and has fumigated wheat before distribution to those in need, but now awaits analysis regarding possible water damage.
Saudi Arabia Censured at UN Human Rights Council
A group of European countries led by Iceland will censure Saudi Arabia at the 40th session of the UN Human Rights Council. Iceland replaced the United States in the body following US withdrawal citing accusations of anti-Israel bias. In a joint statement, the coalition of European countries calls on Saudi Arabia to free detained activists and cooperate with the UN probe into the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. This is the first time Saudi Arabia has been rebuked at a session of the Human Rights Council. On the sidelines of the session, the MENA Rights Group hosted an event on the human rights conditions in Saudi Arabia. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, spoke about how broad definitions of “terrorism” under Saudi law lead to the targeting of dissidents, human rights activists, and writers. The mandate of the Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism will also be examined at this session of the Human Rights Council, and human rights groups have expressed fear that certain actors, namely Egypt, will seek to undermine the scope of this expert role.
UN Concerned for Civilians Fleeing the Last ISIS Stronghold in Eastern Syria
The UN has expressed grave concern for the safety of civilians fleeing the final ISIS-held enclave in eastern Syria as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) work to drive out ISIS fighters. The SDF has halted bombing more than once in order to allow thousands of civilians the opportunity to leave Baghouz in rural Deir al-Zor province. More than 84 people have died as they embark on the long journey from ISIS-held territory.
OPCW Confirms 2018 Chemical Weapons Use in Eastern Ghouta
On Wednesday, the UN Security Council met in a closed-door meeting to discuss a report by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which found “reasonable grounds” to believe a chemical weapons attack occurred during the battle for Eastern Ghouta in April 2018. In the future, the OPCW will have power to assign blame in such attacks (however, this power does not apply retroactively to its report on Eastern Ghouta).
UN Again Delays Report on Companies Profiting from Settlements in Occupied Territories
UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet has postponed the publication of a report and database of companies doing business with Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. The Human Rights Council called for the creation of this database in 2016. The report was originally scheduled for release in 2017; however, Bachelet’s predecessor also delayed its publication. Bachelet indicated more time is needed before publication due to “the novelty of the mandate and its legal, methodological and factual complexity.” There is no fixed publication date at this time. The report has caused controversy with some viewing it as effectively a “blacklist” that would facilitate efforts to boycott the companies and businesses in the database. Members of the human rights community criticized Bachelet’s decision to delay the report’s public release.
In her speech this week, Bachelet called attention to the negative impact settlements in the West Bank have on Palestinians’ daily lives, affecting “freedom of movement, and access to work, education and healthcare.” She also lamented Israel’s decision to end the Temporary International Protective Presence in Hebron but did not mention Palestinian requests for the UN to deploy a permanent international force in the area. She further addressed the Israeli blockade’s devastating effects in Gaza.
Commission of Inquiry Publishes Report on 2018 Gaza Protests
The Commission of Inquiry into the deadly 2018 Palestinian demonstrations in Gaza presented its findings last week—major findings, key debates, and lingering questions following the report are analyzed in this Just Security article. Israel immediately dismissed the Commission’s results. Michael Lynk, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, welcomed the report and noted that in 2019, Israeli security forces have “continued to respond to protests along the fence with tear gas, rubber coated bullets and live ammunition.” Five children have died in the last two months as result.
NATO and the UN Partner to Strengthen Counter-Terrorism Capacity in Jordan
On Tuesday, NATO representatives and the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism signed a memorandum of understanding on “Enhancing Capabilities to prepare for and respond to a terrorist attack in Jordan featuring the use of Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) weapons.” This joint project will build upon existing work between Jordan and NATO. Dr. Antonio Missiroli, Assistant Secretary General for NATO’s Emerging Security Challenges, called this a “milestone” in the UN-NATO strategic partnership.