3 April 2009
Press Conference

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

PRESS CONFERENCE BY MEMBERS OF HUMAN RIGHTS COMMITTEE ON CURRENT SESSION


Fresh from evaluating three countries with varying human rights legacies -– Rwanda, Sweden and Australia -- Human Rights Committee experts today both recognized Governments’ willingness to overcome past struggles and pressed them to urgently solidify hard-won gains to ensure meaningful future success.


Speaking at a Headquarters press conference about the Committee’s ninety-fifth session, which concluded today (see Press Release HR/CT/712), were Chairperson Yuji Iwasawa of Japan, Ruth Wedgwood of the United States and Nigel Rodley of the United Kingdom.  The 18‑member expert body, which monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, was also to have considered theinitial report of Chad, but had postponed that evaluation until July, when it would begin its ninety-sixth session in Geneva.


Presenting an overview of the Committee’s work, Mr. Iwasawa said its main task was to consider reports on implementation of the Covenant by its 164 States Parties.  In July, experts would consider, besides Chad’s submission, reports by the Netherlands, Azerbaijan, United Republic of Tanzania, and an unnamed country that had not submitted its report.  The Committee would also send out a list of issues to be considered by other countries due to appear before it in future sessions, including Argentina, New Zealand, Ecuador, Uzbekistan and Mexico.  The Committee also considered communications submitted by individuals.


He said that, of the 30 communications examined during the just ended session, 19 had been found to have violated the Covenant, 3 had been found to be in compliance and 6 had been deemed “inadmissible”.  Two others found admissible would be examined in July.  The body also issued general comments relating to the Covenant’s articles and in upcoming work its experts would focus on general comment 34, relating to the revised general comment 19 on freedom of expression.


Highlighting experts’ concluding observations about Rwanda’s third periodic report, Ms. Wedgwood said that, in making suggestions, the Committee had taken as a starting point the “unworldly chaos” that the country had had to resolve following the 1994 genocide. Among the positive observations were Rwanda’s adoption of a new Constitution in 2003, thereby helping to establish the rule of law, its abolition of the death penalty and its promotion of electing women to Parliament.  (See Press Releases HR/CT/704 and HR/CT/705)


Other more “persuasive” recommendations urged Rwanda to avoid -- and remedy -- reported cases of disappearances and summary or arbitrary executions, she said, stressing that the experts were particularly concerned about the lack of information on the disappearance of Augustin Cyiza, former President of the Court of Cassation, and Leonard Hitimana, a parliamentarian.  Rwanda was also encouraged to investigate reports of civilian casualties in the wake of the 1994 events; to eliminate the “solitary” nature of life imprisonment sentences; and to operate the customary Gacaca court system under the rules prescribed by the Covenant.  In the area of press freedom, the experts encouraged Rwanda to aspire to freedom of expression and remedy any acts of press intimidation.


Discussing Australia’s fifth periodic report, Mr. Rodley focused on the country’s terrorist legislation, whose far-reaching scope was a concern, and other counter-terrorism measures that appeared incompatible with the Covenant.  Among other things, the definition of a “terrorist act” was vague.  Additionally, there had been a reversal of the burden of proof, contrary to the right of presumed innocence.  There was also legislation that, while not used, allowed intelligence organizations to detain people for up to seven days without access to a lawyer.  “One has to hope that, in the changed atmosphere in Australia […] the new Administration would review such legislation.”  As for violence against women, the Government’s zero-tolerance policy was noteworthy, but it could, nonetheless, boost efforts to protect women, especially indigenous women.  (See Press Releases HR/CT/706 and HR/CT/707)


The big issue was Australia’s policy of mandatory detention -- some of it offshore -- of unlawful immigrants, including those seeking asylum, he said.  The Committee had found that, in a number of individual cases, Australia had violated the Covenant in the amount of time it held people in mandatory detention.  While changes in that policy were encouraging, the word might not have made its way to “the ground level”, as people were still held off-shore on Christmas Island.  The detention centre there should be closed.


Taking up Sweden’s sixth periodic report, Ms. Wedgwood pointed first to the issue of violence against women, drawing out the need for shelters and adequate funding for them.  Experts were also worried about the practice of female genital mutilation in immigrant communities.  Other issues centred on reports of physical abuse of disabled persons in various institutions, the use of electroshock therapy, the practice of rendition -- which could lead to cruel and degrading treatment -- and the participatory rights of the indigenous Saami people.  As a people who maintained a reindeer economy, they deserved more power in making decisions concerning natural resources.  (See Press Release HR/CT/708)


Responding to a question about Rwanda, Ms. Wedgwood said the Committee had addressed the question of the Twa people and worried about the fate of any indigenous aboriginal group.  While it had not addressed whether use of the terms “Hutu” or “Twa” was prohibited, the Committee had expressed concern, in recommendation 22, about the non-recognition of the existence of minorities and indigenous peoples.  Many countries liked to suppose they had no minorities, but if a community considered itself a separate ethnic group, under the Covenant’s article 27, it had a right to peaceful, internal self-determination, including maintaining its culture.


She added that the Committee had not specifically discussed former Democratic Republic of the Congo rebel leader Laurent Nkunda [reportedly under house arrest in Rwanda], but the Covenant could apply “off shore” in some circumstances.


Regarding a decision by the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations to disbar the Alkarama organization, Ms. Wedgwood admitted she was not familiar with that group or decision, adding that she was not aware of any restrictions on which organizations the Human Rights Committee could talk with.  “We have a pretty open-door policy.”


Addressing Sweden’s willingness to return asylum seeker Terhas Mlash Abraha to Eritrea, where she would be tortured, she said that observation 16 of the Committee’s report did not say that one country could never return a person to another accused of “nasty practices”, such as torture.  Rather, it authoritatively urged States Parties to take such issues on board as a very solemn obligation.  It urged them to recognize that, the more systematic the practice of torture, the less likely that a risk of such treatment would be avoided.  That applied to a “great many” other countries.


* *** *


For information media • not an official record