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Bachelet calls pandemic key test for leaders

The U.N. human rights chief opened the Human Rights Council's summer session urging leaders to correct the many inequalities laid bare by the pandemic.

People at a local market in Milan, Italy, during the COVID-19 pandemic
People at a local market in Milan, Italy, during the COVID-19 pandemic (AN/Matteo Jorjoson)

GENEVA (AN) — U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet opened the Human Rights Council's summer session on Monday forecasting a make-or-break scenario for world leaders that will depend on how much they do to correct the world's devastating inequalities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The former president of Chile said the 15th anniversary of the council was "sadly, a time of grave setbacks in human rights" around the world.

"Extreme poverty, inequalities and injustice are rising. Democratic and civic space is being eroded," said Bachelet, head of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a global update to the 47-nation council based in Geneva. "Navigating a clear way out of the complex COVID-19 crisis, and towards an inclusive, green, sustainable and resilient future, will be the work of this generation of world leaders — or their downfall."

The military coup in Myanmar clouded the council's opening session. Despite the lack of a representative from the country in the council, Western nations sought to push ahead with two planned debates over the violence and killings in the Southeast Asian country since the junta overthrew the civilian government on February 1. China, the Philippines and Venezuela, however, said a representative should be present for any such debates.

Last week, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning Myanmar’s military coup and urging a halt in arms sales to the nation. In March, just one week after his nation’s powerful military tried to remove him, Myanmar’s U.N. Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun remained in his post in New York due to the resignation of a military-appointed replacement. The nation has not had an envoy in Geneva since the military took charge.

Human rights from A to U

Bachelet said she was alarmed at a sharp increase in violence and civilian harm in Afghanistan, while numerous U.N. agencies were needed to help deal with "critical" human rights concerns in Argentina as the pandemic took hold.

There have been many allegations of arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and ill-treatment of people in Belarus, said Bachelet, and poverty doubled during the pandemic in Cambodia, affecting 18% of its 16.9 million population — up from 10% just two years ago.

In Chad and Mali, she said, non-democratic and unconstitutional changes in government weakened the institutional protection of democratic freedoms.

China's crackdown on Hong Kong has had a "chilling impact" on democracy with the arrest of 107 people under a new security law, she said, and her office is negotiating with Beijing over the "modalities for a visit, including meaningful access" sometime later this year in Xinjiang Province, so her office can investigate alleged crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs.

Colombia's nationwide protests highlight potentially serious human rights abuses by state security forces, she said, and 350,000 people are threatened by famine in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where there are "reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights violations and abuses against civilians by all parties to the conflict."

Her agency's assessment of mining in Guinea, its main source of revenue, is helping drive policy reforms that could reduce human rights abuses, according to Bachelet. Political turmoil in Haiti led to at least 50 deaths and more than 13,000 displaced people, causing her to be "acutely concerned" about the situation.

Lebanon's port explosion and economic crisis, including skyrocketing food prices, are reaching "critical levels, with lives and a fragile social stability hanging in the balance," she said. As in Guinea, Bachelet's office said it has worked in Madagascar on policies to raise additional revenues from mining companies to combat extreme poverty and contribute to sustainable development, including of local communities.

Bachelet expressed alarm at Mexico's "high level" of political violence in the runup to elections earlier this month — at least 91 politicians and members of political parties killed since last September — and at Mozambique's "grave abuses" by armed groups, including the brutal killing of civilians, sexual and gender-based violence, trafficking, child abductions and exploitation.

She called on Russia to uphold civil and political rights of dissidents such as Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned and imprisoned, and to end the "arbitrary practice" of labeling ordinary individuals, journalists, and NGOs as "extremists," "foreign agents" or "undesirable organizations." In Serbia, U.N. officials joined with government agencies and others to offer pandemic care for the mainly Roma residents of more than 700 poor, informal settlements.

Sri Lanka's apparent targeting of Muslims and harassment of Tamils raised concerns, said Bachelet, while U.N. officials are working with the Philippines government to stop alleged police killings, and a mission monitoring Ukraine's human rights recommended stronger protections for the poorest and most socially excluded people. Bachelet said the council also plans to take up concerns in Georgia, Iran, Myanmar, Nicaragua and Venezuela this session.