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PRESS CONFERENCE BY HUMAN RIGHTS COMMITTEE

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

9 April 1999

It was a matter of great concern to the Human Rights Committee that the continuation of amnesty laws in Chile and that country's inability to abolish the jurisdiction of military courts had ensured the impunity of the security forces for the many human rights violations perpetrated during the previous military regime, Committee Vice-Chairman Elizabeth Evatt (Australia) told a Headquarters press conference this morning. Committee Chairman Cecilia Medina Quiroga (Chile) and Vice-Chairman Prafullachandra Bhagwati (India) also attended the press conference.

Ms. Evatt said those two factors had prevented the investigation and discovery of the perpetrators of those offences. In some cases, they had prevented even investigations to locate the burial places of those who had been killed. While the Committee had been pleased to receive Chile's first report since the restoration of democratic government, it was nevertheless concerned about certain terms of the government handover, such as the continuing domination of the Senate by representatives of the military and other groups allied to the former regime.

Other serious issues that had been examined with regard to Chile were the low participation of women in public life and the lack of divorce under national law, she said. In particular, the criminalization of abortion had had disastrous consequences for many women. Not only were they forced to use unsafe abortion, but if they reported to a hospital for treatment they risked being held in detention and charged with that offence. Another concern was the dominant position of the Catholic Church, which led to public discrimination against those belonging to other religious groups. Some of the issues dealt with in Chile were also reflected in other countries, she added, including impunity in Lesotho and abortion in Costa Rica. The fourth country examined during the Committee's just-concluded sixty-fifth session was Canada.

Ms. Quiroga highlighted for correspondents the following issues examined during the session: impunity and fair trial; right to life; torture and excessive use of force by police forces; treatment of detainees; excessive delays in pre-trial detention; freedom of religion; freedom of association; rights of indigenous peoples; non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; and participation of women in public life.

Referring to the report of Lesotho, Mr. Bhagwati said it had raised important concerns, including a legal system under which customary law coexisted side by side with Roman Dutch common law. Customary law discriminated against women, imposing severe restrictions with regard to their inheritance and property rights. Under both common and customary law, married women could not apply for passports, open bank accounts or enter into contracts without the permission of their husbands.

A second issue of concern was female genital mutilation, which occurred in some parts of Lesotho, he said. The practice was a violation of human dignity, of the right to life and of the protection against cruel and unusual degrading treatment. Abortion was illegal in Lesotho, except in certain rare cases where conception was the result of rape or incestuous intercourse. That was wrong, the Committee felt, because a woman could not have an abortion even when her life was in danger.

He said there was impunity in Lesotho, where the military was still the dominant partner in the life of the country. Primacy must be given to civil and political life. However, the Lesotho delegation had been quite willing to cooperate with the Committee, saying they would take up certain provisions of the country's Constitution with the Government to ensure they were brought into conformity with the Covenant.

Asked by a correspondent whether reporting was voluntary, Ms. Quiroga said article 40 of the Covenant stated that any State party that acceded to or ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights should present a report within one year. There was an international obligation.

The same correspondent asked whether a person tortured under the Pinochet military regime in Chile and whose torturer had not been punished could seek justice from the Committee. Ms. Evatt said Chile had ratified the Optional Protocol, allowing for individual complaints, but only with effect from 1992. The Committee could not deal with violations that had occurred before that date unless they had some continuing effects. In many such cases, the amnesty laws and the military jurisdiction prevented action being taken.

Asked to comment on the Committee's concluding observations about the Canadian report regarding aboriginal peoples, Ms. Evatt said that since the report had been prepared and Canada had met with the Committee, there had been reports about a Royal Commission on aboriginal peoples, which had recommended that the Government recognize the right of Canada's indigenous people to self- determination.

Since then, there had been a process to try to develop what that concept could mean for indigenous people within the sovereignty of Canada itself, she said. There had been some progress, but the Committee felt that Canada had to grasp the issue more firmly and carry it through to a conclusion that respected the right to self-determination and the right of members of indigenous communities to maintain their language, culture and religions. That, in turn, was linked to land and the use of traditional resources.

With regard to the death of an indigenous activist, she told the same correspondent that the death of an apparently unarmed indigenous person in an incident involving a land claim, the responsibility of the federal government required that some further inquiry be made into the matter as to how that could have happened.

On homelessness, Ms. Evatt noted that Canada was not a third world country, but a prosperous one, and it ought not to be in a situation where homelessness could result in a risk to life. A little more needed to be done to protect the lives of people forced into homelessness.

What would be the Committee's next step? another correspondent asked. Ms. Quiroga said the concluding observations would be sent to the States and made public. They would go into the annual report of the Committee, which expected that the States receiving the concluding observations would take action to implement the Committee's recommendations. People within the countries could use the observations as an instrument to argue against measures that were not compatible with the Covenant and as a legal instrument to tell the State that it was not complying with its international obligations.

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