PRESS BRIEFING BY HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York
29 July 2005
The report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Darfur, released today in Geneva, had revealed troublesome shortcomings regarding the Sudanese Government’s capacity or willingness to take seriously the repression of sexual violence, High Commissioner Louise Arbour told correspondents at a Headquarters briefing this afternoon.
In terms of how she would rate the Government’s performance in the area of sexual violence, she said she was not judging whether the deficit was one of capacity or of political will, but there had been extremely poor results in the investigation and successful prosecution of the perpetrators of very serious sexual violence, including gang rape, which remained prevalent. It was not a fabrication of humanitarian workers or non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but a reality for many women in the camps for internally displaced persons, who were maliciously preyed upon by people who should be brought under the Government’s control.
The Government’s deficit stemmed from its “extremely unreceptive” attitude to recognizing the magnitude of the problem, she said, adding that the report had also identified several other obstacles, such as the current legal infrastructure, which was not conducive to proper prosecution. For instance, women who brought rape charges might themselves face prosecution if the prosecutor of the rape case proved unsuccessful. The investigative capacity, or will, was also extremely delinquent, as demonstrated by extremely unenthusiastic investigative efforts. Prosecutorial capacity was also very poor. The report recommended several specific steps for the Government to take in order to address the inadequacies, but that had to start with a change in attitude and a willingness to offer women the kind of security they were entitled to by law.
Entitled “Access to Justice for Victims of Sexual Violence” and prepared on the High Commissioner’s initiative, according to a press release from Geneva, the report assesses how the Sudanese Government had lived up to commitments, undertaken a year ago in a joint communiqué with Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to investigate and punish sexual violence in Darfur. It looks at patterns of rape, lists specific cases and details obstacles to justice, as well as instances of arrest, intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders and medical providers. It concludes that armed elements in Darfur, including law-enforcement officers and the military, continued to perpetrate rape and sexual violence, with authorities seemingly unable or unwilling to hold them accountable.
According to the Geneva press release, the Government was starting to take some steps to address the issue, but to date, most perpetrators of rape and sexual violence had not been brought to justice and it remained to be seen whether a recently established Special Criminal Court for the Events in Darfur would effectively address those crimes. The report was specifically directed at examining in great detail the Government’s response.
Asked whether she was disappointed at the Security Council’s failure to address the situation in Zimbabwe, she said she had been very encouraged by the visibility that issue had received since the release of the Special Envoy’s report. That would galvanize international energies on many fronts, including that of the 700,000 people who had been forcibly evicted.
To a series of questions concerning the possible creation of a human rights council, she said that was an absolutely critical step forward. The Human Rights Commission had a long and remarkable history as a main contributor of human rights norms and standards, but in recent years, there had been a shift from that normative mission to implementation of accepted norms where the Commission had performed extremely poorly. That had led to the perception of double standards, political motives and a lack of credibility, which could only be properly addressed by a fundamental change in attitude. That, in turn, could only be trigged by a profound institutional change.
It would be greatly disappointing if that change was only cosmetic and if business continued as usual, she added. The next step should be to address the context in which a human rights council would work. As far as eligibility to serve was concerned, human rights work was inclusive by definition and such an environment had to be created in a way that was not seen as a self-selected club of do-gooders who had earned the right to put the rest of the world on trial. By the same token, its creation should not go in the opposite direction, whereby a major human rights body of the United Nations was essentially led by those who seemed to have no commitment to human rights in their own countries. She had not heard any satisfactory proposal as to how member countries would be selected, but lots of mechanisms could be used to ensure that the council would be composed of Member States that were genuinely and credibly interested in enhancing the implementation of human rights.
In further response to related questions, she said that eligibility should not be based simply on whether a country had ratified all the human rights treaties, because many had ratified everything but complied with nothing. The way to go was to say that any Member State was eligible to serve, but upon election, it should provide some concrete and verifiable “undertakings”.
Responding to another question, she said she had no figures about civilian casualties in Iraq, but her Office was trying to plan with that Government the kind of assistance it could offer in the future. However, the human right component, indeed the United Nations presence overall, was relatively modest compared to the challenges it faced.
Asked how the situation of Iraqis compared their situation before the war, she said there was something odious about comparing the bad with the worse. In human rights doctrine, all rights were indivisible, but must be equally promoted and respected. There was something unseemly about trying to compare political oppression with a lack of protection for physical integrity and safety.
In a follow-up question about the use of a human rights terminology to invade Iraq, she said that if a government was clearly preying on its own people, it was difficult to predict whether or not a further deterioration of conditions could be tolerated before the situation could be turned around. An ideal strategy should aim at an immediate improvement, but reality was not always predictable.
Asked whether any police officers or soldiers had been accused of gang rape in the Sudan, she said they had, but very few cases had been completed. Only in a handful of cases had it been possible to document a successful prosecution. In some cases, what had started out as a rape case was eventually prosecuted as “gross indecency”. Certainly, Sudan’s rape laws were not a sufficient deterrent.
Referred back to the modalities of a human rights council, she said that such questions were part of a transitional process. There had not been much discussion about what would happen post-summit if a human rights council was agreed in principle. At that point, there would be a lot of discussion about how often it would meet, at what intervals and whether or not it would be situated in Geneva. Those points were unlikely to be resolved in the context of the September Summit.
Regarding selectivity in the work of the Human Rights Commission, she explained that the idea for a human rights council was that all countries would be examined periodically for their implementation of human rights obligations rooted not only in treaties, but also in the United Nations Charter. No country had a perfect human rights record, and it would be very healthy for those who passed judgement on others to be brought under scrutiny, as well. The strategy should be to measure the progress achieved by individual States in human rights capacity.
It was difficult to know how such a council would set up its work methods, she replied to another question, but the language had always stressed the wish to preserve the best features of the Human Rights Commission. The council should embrace the structure of Special Rapporteurs. Their work, like that of the treaty bodies, would feed into the peer review by Member States. The worst thing would be to start imposing additional reporting burdens on countries already on overload. A human rights council should devise a mechanism by which it could collect the work done by special procedures and treaty bodies and then pass judgement, including by activating specific procedures or tasking the Office of the High Commissioner to provide technical assistance when and where needed.
Asked for statistics on the number of rape cases in the Sudan, she said it had been decided that the report should reflect the magnitude of the problem, but also emphasize the Government’s response, and encourage it to address the problem. It was extremely difficult to put forward statistical information as reporting was still very poor. It was, therefore, very difficult to have a sense of the full scope of the problem, but based on available information, it was clear that serious problems persisted, as did systemic disincentives against reporting.
She replied to a further question that there had regular evidence of intimidation and harassment of both victims and humanitarian “interveners” who tried to assist them. There had been actual intimidation of victims, witnesses and those who tried to move cases forward.
How important was the report and how influential in terms of the Security Council’s work? a correspondent asked.
She said it was important to inform all the political actors, as well as the general public. It was also important to inform the Government of the Sudan about what was happening and to give it some guidance. It would then be possible to determine whether or not such guidance had been followed. In addition, such a report was also relevant to the work of the International Criminal Court, which had a jurisdiction rooted in the inability or unwillingness of national authorities to take on such prosecutions. At some point, the question had to be asked, and answered, whether a situation was due to a lack of capacity or a lack of will.
The Office of the High Commissioner had been very involved in the Uzbekistan situation, she replied to another question. It had worked very closely with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). After her call for a public investigation into recent events had met an unfavourable response, she had felt it was necessary to ascertain, to the extent possible, what had occurred. A mission had been dispatched to Kyrgyzstan, which was no substitute, however, for a full-fledged independent international investigation with access to Uzbekistan, as it had only had access to refugees and asylum-seekers who had fled the country. Nevertheless, the Office of the High Commissioner had published a report and documented the vast discrepancies between what the Government’s account of what had happened in Uzbekistan and that of others. That supported a call for an independent, credible investigation, but as time passed, forensic and other evidence became more and more difficult to obtain.
Stressing the urgency of getting to the bottom of what had happened, she said that the more current human rights concern was the fate of those who had fled Uzbekistan. The UNHCR had been very proactive in ensuring their resettlement and proper treatment. She herself had written yesterday to the President of Kyrgyzstan about his obligation not to return anyone to a situation where they faced a real possibility of torture. There had been numerous and repeated allegations against Uzbekistan, suggesting a history of numerous allegations of torture.
Asked about the development of women’s human rights and the question of abortion, she said she took very seriously the question of a person’s physical integrity and security. In her recent visit to Sierra Leone, she had expressed very serious concern that the Government was not taking a leadership position in advocating the eradication of female genital mutilation and that it was simply holding consultations on that cultural issue.
As for her opinion about “the growing Islamophobia” and whether there was a link between terrorism and Islam, she said that was like suggesting there was a link between terrorism and gender because most of the terrorists so far had been male.
To a question about human rights in Cuba, she reiterated her hope that the Government would grant access to her special representative.
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For information media • not an official record
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