The UN’s top human rights body has opened its first and highest-level meeting of 2021, amid growing concerns on issues including the military coup in Myanmar, the arrest of opposition leader Alexey Navalny in Russia and the rights situations in countries including Ethiopia and Sri Lanka.

The four-week session of the Human Rights Council, which started Monday, has drawn several presidents and prime ministers for its “high-level segment”, with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro set to speak.

The United States is set to renew its council participation after a two-and-a-half-year walkout during the term of former President Donald Trump.

Concerns about China’s treatment of the Uighur minority, a squeeze by Ethiopia’s government on the country’s Tigray region and state-sponsored violence in countries including Nicaragua are likely to face scrutiny during the session.

“Every corner of the globe is suffering from the sickness of violations of human rights,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The military coup and violent crackdown on protesters in Myanmar since early February was among the most pressing issues on the council’s agenda.

“Today, I call on the Myanmar military to stop the repression immediately,” Guterres said, speaking in a pre-recorded video message at the opening of the Geneva-based council’s 46th session.

“Release the prisoners. End the violence. Respect human rights, and the will of the people expressed in recent elections,” he said, insisting that “coups have no place in our modern world.

“We see the undermining of democracy, the use of brutal force, arbitrary arrests, repression in all its manifestations. Restrictions of civic space. Attacks on civil society. Serious violations against minorities with no accountability, including what has rightly been called ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population. The list goes on.”

An injured man sits in an ambulance after police fired rubber bullets during a protest against the military coup, in Mandalay, Myanmar, February 20, 2021 [Stringer/Reuters]

The session, almost exclusively online, comes as the fight against COVID-19 has become a pretext taken by some governments to curb human rights, as the pandemic worsened gender inequality and extreme poverty – even as vaccination efforts have largely been carried out in the world’s richest countries.

Guterres also decried racism, discrimination, xenophobia and the “transnational threat” of white supremacy and neo-Nazi movements – saying such groups are “engaged in a feeding frenzy of hate.”

“Far too often, these hate groups are cheered on by people in positions of responsibility in ways that were considered unimaginable not long ago,” he added, without elaborating.

Foreign ministers including Heiko Maas of Germany and Dominic Raab of Britain were to be joined by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in addressing the session.

Trump had pulled the US out of the Human Rights Council over what he cited as concerns that the council was “excessively focused” on Israel and had been too accepting of governments that regularly violate human rights – citing Venezuela in particular.

Pandemic ‘opened up new fractures’

Guterres also used his speech to criticise countries that are using the pandemic to justify cracking down on dissent, reining in the media and suppressing criticism.

“Using the pandemic as a pretext, authorities in some countries have deployed heavy-handed security responses and emergency measures to crush dissent, criminalise basic freedoms, silence independent reporting and curtail the activities of non-governmental organisations,” he said, without naming the countries.

“Human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, political activists, and even medical professionals are being detained, prosecuted and subjected to intimidation and surveillance for criticising government pandemic responses – or the lack thereof,” he added.

In some countries, he warned, “pandemic-related restrictions are being used to subvert electoral processes, weaken opposition voices and suppress criticism.”

The UN chief also decried widespread misinformation around the world about the coronavirus and the pandemic.

In a number of cases, he said, “access to life-saving COVID-19 information has been concealed, while deadly misinformation has been amplified, including by those in power”.

The wide-ranging effects of the pandemic “hit the world without mercy”, he added.

“COVID-19 has deepened pre-existing divides, vulnerabilities and inequalities, as well as opened up new fractures, including fault-lines in human rights.”





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