System of impunity making mockery of Special Procedures: Special Rapporteur tells United Nations’ Third Committee

United Nations
30 Oct 07

(The references to Singapore are in bold and italics.)

The abdication of responsibility by both the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly in enforcing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions had rendered the mandate impotent, said Philip Alston, the current mandate holder, to the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural ) today as it continued its review of human rights issues.

In a packed programme, the Committee heard from six experts, including Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts, on topics ranging from executions to raids on migrants to the success of the latest donor roundtable in Burundi.

In a forthright presentation that reflected on the 25-year history of the mandate he now held, which was also the oldest of all the Special Rapporteurs, Mr. Alston said that uncooperative States were being rewarded and a system of impunity was being established in relation to the most serious concerns relating to extrajudicial killings. This made “a mockery” of the special procedures to address such killings. Addressing specific country situations, he named Iran as the country that executed more juveniles than any other, and also singled out the situations in the Philippines and Sri Lanka for special attention.

Jorge A. Bustamante, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants told the Committee that, ironically, it was restrictive migration policies that were a fundamental cause of immigrants falling into patterns were they were trafficked and smuggled.

He said that children – “little girls and little boys” – used for the sex market in many countries was one of the worst cases of violation of human rights. Such a market was not an abstraction; it had a supply and a demand, but that demand had not been recognized. Recognition of that demand would require action by the United Nations. It would otherwise be hard to advance the overall defence of the human rights of migrants, he warned.

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Vitit Muntarbhorn, told the Committee it was regrettable that, to date, the authorities in that country had declined to cooperate with him. But, on a constructive note, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was party to human rights treaties; the six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula had made welcome progress; and the October 2007 summit between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea was a welcome development.

Yet the human rights situation remained grave, noted Mr. Muntarbhorn. The country was under a non-democratic regime that adhered to a “military first” policy that depleted resources and created budgetary distortions in favour of the ruling elite and militarization. On the issue of asylum, the Special Rapporteur said that many who left the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea due to hunger or economic reasons, could be seen as “refugees sur place”, as there was a threat of persecution or prosecution if they were sent back, on the basis of their having left without an exit visa. Those who sought refuge should not be treated as illegal immigrants; nor should they be detained. And the international community should help countries of first asylum to find durable solutions to the refugee problem.

Asma Jahangir, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, pointed out that the right not to profess any religion or belief was also protected, and such persons should not be discriminated against.

Akich Okola, the Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Burundi pointed out that the country had come a long way since only two years ago. Back then, his report had been concerned with child soldiers and demobilization and like matters. Today, the country was considering a steering committee to set up a truth and reconciliation commission.

Titinga Frederic Pacere, Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, highlighted numerous situations of concern: arbitrary executions, rape and inhuman and degrading treatment – all taking place in a climate of impunity. The Armed Forces and police were notable among violators, he said.

The Committee also heard the introduction of a draft resolution by Mongolia on cooperatives in social development.

The Committee will meet again at 10 a.m. on Monday, 29 October, to continue its general discussion on human rights.


The Third Committee ( Social, Humanitarian and Cultural ) today continued its general discussion of human rights. For more background, please see Press Releases GA/SHC/3894 and GA/SHC/3893.

Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions

Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions said his report to the General Assembly this year contained a historical review of the evolution of his mandate, and he had selected several specific themes to illustrate the ways in which that mandate had evolved to deal with changing threats and challenges. These threats and challenges included counter-terrorism, the protection of refugees and internally displaced persons, and the role of non-State actors. The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions was the first human rights rapporteur to be appointed, 25 years ago on 11 March 1982.

He said the mandates of Special Rapporteurs like him had evolved in response to factors such as additional demands by States, new forms of violence, increasing public demands for effective responses, and the development of new techniques within the overall human rights regime. That ability to adapt and evolve was essential. In recent discussions on the reform of the system, it had often been alleged that many of the special procedures involved Western experts focusing on the problems of developing countries. In that light, he pointed out that he was the first Special Rapporteur on this mandate to come from a Western country, with his predecessors coming from Kenya, Senegal and Pakistan.

In his reports on country visits, he had been careful to respect the confines of his mandate while acknowledging the broader context. But despite efforts to improve that mandate’s functions, serious problems still persisted. In his efforts to respond to alleged killings, he had found that the majority of Governments were failing the basic test of accountability. 90 per cent of countries he had identified as warranting a country visit had failed to cooperate. And neither the Assembly nor the Human Rights Council had done anything in response. That “abdication of responsibility” had resulted in uncooperative States being rewarded, and a system of impunity being established in relation to the most serious concerns relating to extrajudicial killings. The impotence of the Special Rapporteur in such situations made “a mockery” of the special procedures to address extrajudicial killings.

He then addressed specific country situations, starting with Iran, which executed more juveniles than any other country. Another major problem, he said, was that country’s application of the death penalty for a wide range of crimes which “by no reasonable measure” met international law’s requirements; that executions should be restricted to and applied to those guilty of the most serious crimes. Adultery, unlawful sexual relations, homosexuality, rape, insulting religions, acts against national security and abduction were among the crimes for which people had been executed. Laws that allowed adulterers to be stoned to death were “barbaric” by any standards, he said. It was long past the time for the Assembly to stand up and respond to those chronic violations of human rights.

Although his report on the Philippines had not yet been made public, he informed the Committee that he continued to receive deeply disturbing information, and he was concerned about a missing activist, Jonas Burgos, who might have disappeared or been killed.

As for Sri Lanka, he reminded the Committee that he had warned of an impending crisis last year. That crisis continued to worsen, and he believed that the establishment of an international human rights monitoring presence by the United Nations would significantly reduce the number of human rights abuses in that country.

It was time for the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council to act, he urged.

Eduardo R. Ermita, Executive Secretary of the Philippines, noted that the Special Rapporteur had concluded that there was no State policy in the Philippines either condoning or instructing extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings; both the independent Philippine Human Rights Commission and the Melo Commission had reached similar conclusions as well. Responsibility for such killings rested with rogue elements in uniform and members of insurgency groups. Two days ago, Philippines President Gloria Arroyo reiterated instructions for security forces to stop human rights violations by rogue men in uniform. Six persons had already been convicted but more convictions in significant numbers would send a signal that such killings would not be tolerated. Mr. Ermita went on to detail a number of steps that his country had been taking to address the matter.

The representative of Iran said that capital punishment had been recognized by his country and other States as effective. It was absolutely up to sovereign States to define the scope of serious crimes and it was outside the mandate of the Special Rapporteur to do otherwise. The way that Mr. Alston had been conducting his mandate was one of the main reasons why some countries had not been cooperating with him. Addressing the execution of juveniles, he said plenty of exaggerations had been made. Due process was abided by in Iran, where the courts proceeded guided by both domestic and international law. It was for States, however, to define the most serious crimes, he reiterated.

The representative of Portugal, on behalf of the European Union, asked the Special Rapporteur to outline the most significant developments vis-“-vis extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. She also asked about the situation in Darfur, noting that the Special Rapporteur had submitted an interim report to the Human Rights Council, and about what steps could be taken to address the non-cooperation of States with special procedures mandate-holders.

The representative of Venezuela said that his Government hoped in the near future to act on the Special Rapporteur’s request for an invitation to visit his country; and Venezuela had not been making a mockery of Mr. Alston’s efforts. He went on to ask about the legal ramifications surrounding private actors hired by States during armed conflicts.

The representative of the Russian Federation said the use of private security units in military action had become the norm today, to ensure impunity for any violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. What could be done when such units were created to avoid shouldering responsibility for certain acts?

The representative of the United States said her country looked forward to the Special Rapporteur’s visit. She added that, as the Special Rapporteur himself had noted in his report, responsibility in armed conflicts could be a legally complex issue.

The representative of Indonesia said her country would love to invite as many mandate holders as possible, but it was a matter of timing so that as many stakeholders as possible could be involved.

The representative of Sri Lanka said that since last year, there had been several developments, including a recent visit by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, who herself had described that visit to the Committee as useful and constructive. Sri Lanka engaged with Ms. Arbour’s Office and other international parties vis-“-vis human rights, and it would make a more detailed statement at a later Committee meeting.

The representative of China said that his country had a complete set of domestic laws regarding extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. He noted China’s membership in the Human Rights Council, adding that it had cooperated with several Special Rapporteurs.

The representative of Singapore said that his country neither committed nor condoned extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; the integrity and transparency of its judicial system was well known and every capital case had to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Mr. Alston had used his position to actively campaign against death sentences handed down by the Singapore courts. International law did not prohibit capital punishment as long as it was imposed according to due process with judicial safeguards. There was no international consensus on whether capital punishment was a violation of human rights and the issue of capital punishment was a question that every State had the sovereign right to decide upon. Mr. Alston should not abuse the authority of his office to pursue his personal agenda, using limited United Nations resources.

The representative of Kenya said that his country would welcome a visit by the Special Rapporteur, but right now it was in the midst of a general election; that process would not settle down until early next year.

Mr. Alston began his answers by thanking the Philippines, adding that the country’s high-level presence today was important. While he, in his treatment of the issue in that country, would remain very critical, he said the invitation and the Government’s engagement on the issue was creditable. Turning to visits, he said he was very grateful to the United States for its cooperation, and he looked forward to a productive dialogue with the Government there. He appreciated Venezuela’s comments, and hoped that other countries’ comments were indications that they were giving careful consideration to the possibility of a visit.

He appreciated comments by countries about the need to balance the range of Special Rapporteurs who visited, and that timing was also up to Governments. But at the end of the day it was significant if a Government would not permit a visit by him. Although the human rights agenda was broad, concern about extrajudicial killings should be very high on the agenda. In response to countries that said his was just one of many issues, he stated that the international community needed to address that view.

He thanked Venezuela and the Russian Federation for raising the issue of non-State actors and the problems surrounding private contractors. Clearly, that was a major issue, and it was being considered by the Working Group on mercenaries, as well as by a number of key Governments. The host State had the primary responsibility for mercenary groups, and in that regard, the Iraqi Cabinet’s decision to rescind the provisions that gave contractors immunity and impunity was a crucial first step. The countries that sent mercenaries in should also ensure that human rights law was upheld. Those were issues that he would take up in future visits. State responsibility should not be evaded through the use of contractors, he noted, and where those contractors were accused of extrajudicial killings, the international community had to act.

Turning to Singapore’s concerns, he said that during a visit to that country, he had read about developments vis-“-vis some of its citizens who had been sentenced to death in other countries for drug crimes. Those individuals were not kingpins or part of drug cartels, but just stupid people who had agreed to transport drugs. Now they were facing the death penalty in foreign countries. What that newspaper article should have said was that those people were far better off in foreign countries than in Singapore, he said, because in the latter they would be mandatorily executed for those crimes. The compulsory nature of the death penalty had led to many peoples’ execution in Singapore, in violation of international human rights law. The Singaporean Law Society had recently taken up the issue of mandatory death sentences, and cited the need to respond, not to the international community, but to emerging values in Singaporean society. That was why he hoped that country would take a different approach, adding that a nation which did so many things so well, would do itself proud by engaging in dialogue.

Replying to Portugal’s question which was also raised on behalf of the European Union, he said the group of experts was currently meeting on the Darfur issue and would later meet with the Government of Sudan in Geneva. He had been pleased at the Sudanese Government’s participation at the procedural level, and the way they had begun to address recommendations. The procedure was working effectively, and the Government was cooperating, but whether there would be substance to the participation was still the question.

In terms of visits, he thought Portugal’s representative was right, and it was incumbent on the members of the Human Rights Council to be seen to be engaging with the special procedures. The final word – he very firmly believed that the special procedures were the crown jewel of the human rights system. Even if he appeared critical and combative, Governments sustaining that system and cooperating with Special Rapporteurs, as well as the new Human Rights Council’s renewal of the system, was very important and encouraging.

The representative of Singapore then took the floor again to say that the newspaper article the Special Rapporteur had talked about had referred to the plight of Singaporeans who had carried drugs into other countries. The Straits-Times was just a local newspaper and did not represent the Government’s views. His Government had always said that breaking the law in a foreign country was the responsibility of those citizens who had broken the law. The Law Society of Singapore’s debate was entitled to raise issues – it was after all the Law Society – and these issues would be discussed in Singapore. It was not for the Special Rapporteur, however, to tell his country what to do about the Law Society’s discussions.

Freedom of Religion or Belief

The Committee then heard from Asma Jahangir, Special Rapporteur of freedom of religion or belief, who noted how such freedoms were a multifaceted human right. Creative initiatives by Governments could diffuse religious tensions. Specific attention should be paid to vulnerable groups, such as women, people deprived of liberty, refugees, children, minorities and migrant workers. Her report discussed the special vulnerability vis-“-vis refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced persons; it also addressed concerns raised by atheistic and non-theistic believers. An analysis of the drafting history of pertinent human rights standards showed that the right to freedom of religion or belief applied equally to theistic and non-theistic as well as atheistic beliefs; the right not to profess any religion or belief was also protected. Such persons should not be discriminated against.

Since the inception of her mandate 21 years ago, more than 1,100 allegation letters and urgent appeals had been sent to 130 States; the average rate of reply from Governments had been 63.6 per cent, she said. Twenty States had never replied to communications since 1986. This year, she had visited Tajikistan and the United Kingdom, and would visit Angola next month. Noting a thematic study that she had co-prepared for the Human Rights Council on incitement to racial and religious hatred, she said that body should call upon Member States to show firm political will and commitment to combat that problem.

Freedom of religion or belief was not a reality for many throughout the world, she said. Victims belonged to all religions and beliefs; at the same time, perpetrations had not been confined to one or a few identified religions or beliefs. Religious intolerance had increased, especially since 2001, and advocates of peace and tolerance had been marginalized. Ganging up on minority views could be detected at both the national and international levels. There should be no impunity when criminal acts that infringed on human rights were given a religious label; at the same time, all government actions should be law-abiding and proportional.

Elaborating on how Governments could act, she said that they should tackle underlying problems by taking well-thought-out steps, rather than resorting to knee-jerk reaction. Wise and balanced decision-making and non-discriminatory legislation were crucial; so too was an independent and non-arbitrary judiciary. States should be pro-active, identifying and addressing possible conflicts between communities. Interreligious and intrareligious dialogue should also be encouraged. Education could also play a preventative role, especially when it ensured respect for, and acceptance of, pluralism and diversity. The quality of education and learning materials was, therefore, crucial. There were several root causes of religious intolerance, varying from society to society. Political and religious leaders also needed to react in a balanced manner, as extreme measures would only give rise to further extremism.

The representative of Portugal wanted to know what obstacles were there to implementing useful alternatives to blasphemy laws, and what were the most urgent measures? She also asked the Special Rapporteur to elaborate on her comments about compulsory over-legislation. She further raised a question on extending rights to religions rather than to their members, and asked about the most effective measure to prevent a hierarchy of beliefs from developing.

The representative of the Russian Federation asked when the Special Rapporteur would define the appropriate role of Governments in balancing freedom of conviction and religion, and protection of religions and groups. He also asked about the responsibility of non-State actors on violations of human rights.

The representative of Canada asked if there had been requests made to countries of concern that had not been responded to. She also asked how the Special Rapporteur cooperated with other mandate holders.

The representative of Venezuela asked about non-State actors or religious groups who sought to change religious beliefs among indigenous communities. She also asked about definitions of “defamation of religion”, which Venezuela believed was a legal concept, whereas others said defamation was only applicable to a person and not a religion.

The representative of the United States asked if the Special Rapporteur had approached any Governments on the implementation of her recommendations, and also expressed opposition to the view that issues of “defamation of religion” could be seen in opposition to basic freedom of speech.

The representative of Indonesia wanted to know what difficulties the Special Rapporteur saw in accepting the concept of defamation of religion.

The representative of Philippines asked the Special Rapporteur to focus her attention on multilateral aspects as well and to elaborate on the role that interfaith dialogue played in promoting respect.

The observer for the Holy See said his delegation shared the Special Rapporteur’s concern for the most vulnerable groups, and supported the recommendation that States should provide pro-active strategies for dealing with discrimination. He also asked for more examples that could serve as models in that regard.

The representative of Viet Nam wished to clarify an issue in the footnotes of the Special Rapporteur’s report, and stated that there was ambiguity about whether his country had replied to the Special Rapporteur’s request for a visit. The delegation asked for an amendment to the report to clear up the issue, as he said Viet Nam had indeed replied.

The representative of Myanmar said his country was a model of religious harmony, and that the Special Rapporteur’s charges that citizens of his country were fleeing religious prosecution and going to Bangladesh were putting a wedge between two friendly, neighbouring nations.

The representative of Egypt said it was important for the Special Rapporteur’s work to also include the issue of religions defamation. A relative definition under the pretext of freedom of expression was a violation of the human rights of others, and Egypt believed that the promotion of some rights should not come at the expense of others.

The representative of Chile said that the Special Rapporteur’s report had warned of the situation of vulnerable groups, and asked for attention to be paid to the right not to have a religion. Chile supported the Special Rapporteur’s position on education and on the need for dialogue between different religions.

The representative of Libya commented that Muslims in some countries were facing difficulties, under the pretext that there was a connection between terrorism and Islam. This was false, so Libya hoped that the Special Rapporteur would continue her efforts to pursue dialogue between all religions, to safeguard the freedom of religion and conviction in all societies.

Ms. Jahangir referred to the report on incitement for the Human Rights Council that she had prepared with Doudou Diene, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. She said that it had argued that defamation was a matter of legal terminology. It could range from an academic denunciation of a religion to an Article 20 violation of human rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. If it was defamation to say that one religion was better than another, the result would be the religious prosecution of those who embarked on intellectual analysis of religions or those who were within their rights to say that their religion was superior. Religion and race were different; the former could be criticised objectively, but criticism of race was subjective.

She said that she and her predecessor had looked at several blasphemy laws that had been used initially against vulnerable religious minorities and those who had been dispassionate about religion. It would be counterproductive if defamation at any level became a human rights violation, unless it led to violence. People might try to use defamation in such a case to provoke Governments. Sri Lanka had considered such legislation, but in its great wisdom, the Government had decided that it would be counterproductive.

Regarding defamation in the context of indigenous peoples, she said that another route had to be taken, rather than saying that such persons had been converted due to misuse of certain powers.

Addressing what Governments should be looking at, she said they should be thinking about the situation in the longer term, such as in 20 years. For instance, there had been a proliferation of new religions; what would be the space and respect afforded to them?

Turning to the action of groups during a humanitarian crisis, and whether proselytising should be limited at such times, she said a discussion on that matter was continuing among religious organizations. On good practices, she had seen many, citing Nigeria, Sri Lanka and to a certain extent Azerbaijan. Instead of calling in the police, communities had sat down and talked, with positive results.

Regarding mandate holders, she said that she and her counterparts worked together, meeting every June to discuss where they were going and drawing up a holistic picture of human rights. The feeling was that they needed good cooperation from Governments to ensure that respect for human rights was being taken into consideration very seriously.

%d bloggers like this: