27 October 2009
Press Conference

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

Press Conference by Special Rapporteur on Summary or Arbitrary Executions

“My mandate covers any killings which are in contravention of international law, whether humanitarian law or human rights,” said Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon.

Mr. Alston had been in that post ‑‑ the first special rapporteur post created by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, in 1982 ‑‑ since 2004, and had visited numerous countries during that time, among them Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Israel, Central African Republic, Afghanistan, United States, Kenya, Colombia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In a briefing focused on his most recent report, presented this morning to the General Assembly’s Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) on vigilante killings and mob justice (see Press Release GA/SHC/3960), the Special Rapporteur answered wide-ranging questions from reporters.  He invited questions on the report or on his recent visits to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Colombia, the United States and Kenya.

The problem with the United States, he said, was that it was making increasing use of drones and “Predators” to fight conflicts in which it was involved, prominently in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  The concern was that those weapons were being operated in a framework that might violate international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

The United States position was untenable, he said, in that it claimed that the Human Rights Council (the successor to the Commission on Human Rights) and the General Assembly, by definition, had no role in relation to killings that took place during armed conflict.  That position would remove the great majority of issues that came before those bodies.  By example, he said the whole set of issues arising in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the Goldstone report (on the war in Gaza), in Kenya, in Sri Lanka, all concerned areas of armed conflicts.  If the United States position were applied, then none of those issues should be discussed by the relevant United Nations bodies.

Continuing, he said that United States needed to provide the legal basis on which it was operating, and indicate, in terms of domestic law, who was running the programme, and what accountability mechanisms were in place in relation to that or those organizations; what precautions it was taking to ensure that the weapons were used strictly for purposes that were consistent with international and humanitarian law; and what sort of review mechanism was in place to evaluate what had happened when those weapons had been used.  Otherwise, the result would be that the Central Intelligence Agency would be running a programme that was killing significant numbers of people with absolutely no accountability in terms of the relevant international laws.

In response to a question on “self-investigations”, he said that military investigations of allegations against their own activities did not enhance credibility. On one allegation, accompanied by a video, that the Sri Lankan military had conducted summary executions, the Sri Lankan Government had declared the video to be a fabrication based on what it called “expert advice”.  Two of those experts had been from the military, Mr. Alston noted.  In addition that Government already had credibility issues due to its abandonment of an inquiry by independent investigators, on prior allegations, when those investigators had resigned, claiming that the investigation was not serious.  Mr. Alston was initiating his own analyses of the tape.

When allegations reached a certain threshold, he said, it was not sustainable for a Government to say either that they would not investigate or would investigate by appointing friends of the army to do so.  Israel, which also had ongoing military investigations of incidents from the war in Gaza at the beginning of the year, was now considering setting up an independent commission of inquiry on the matter.  That country did have a strong record of such independent inquiries, usually led by former judges, which had been very serious, he said, although Israel had yet to respond to his recent request to visit.

Peacekeepers also came under the Special Rapporteur’s purview.  He had just returned from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he had found “serious and complex” problems.  A question was raised on a seeming contradiction between Mr. Alston’s findings that there had been killings of Rwandan refugees by the Congolese Army, which was now backed by the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), in Shalio, and the response from the head of that Mission who had cast doubt on whether they had actually occurred.  Mr. Alston said that there was very strong evidence that the killings had taken place and that even the Minister for Communications in Kinshasa had recognized the fact.

“I understand the reluctance of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General who was in charge of an incredibly difficult mission not wanting his work to be derailed by what seemed to be fairly minor human rights allegations,” he said.  “I think that MONUC’s work is going to become increasingly unsustainable […] unless and until it can demonstrate that it’s taking a much stronger line in relation to these allegations of human rights violations.”

What was needed was for MONUC to explain specifically how the allegations had been investigated, he said.  The vague responses he had received would not leave the United Nations in a good position nor lay a viable basis for future cooperation with the Congolese Army.

On the protection of people who had spoken with the Special Rapporteur, Mr. Alston noted continued harassment of civil society monitors in Kenya.  Although he had sought reassurances from that Government that there would be no retaliation against those with whom he had conferred, he had instead received a letter from the Government that threatened them.  Many people were forced to leave the country.  Within several days of his departure, two of the people with whom he had met were shot in cold blood.  An international inquiry was rejected by the Kenyan police, which was no surprise as they were the main suspects.

He had recommended to the Human Rights Council that a mechanism be set up to respond when such threats occurred, he said.  Possibly there should be a trust fund to save the lives of human rights defenders who were at serious risk for having spoken to a United Nations rapporteur.

On Iran, he said that the death sentences received by three people who had protested election results contravened the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran was party, and violated international law, which forbade execution for crimes that did not involve killings.

He had hoped to be able to play a constructive role in Mexico, but was only invited to visit the country in 2011, while his mandate ended in August 2010.  He could not prejudge, but he said that the situation with regard to the “drug lords” was extremely complex.  He had wanted to visit the country to try to understand what was going on.

Ten Members of the Human Rights Council had not taken up his requests to visit their countries.  Asked what measures should be taken with regard to alleged abusers on the Council, he said that “[e]xtrajudicial executions really go to the heart of a State’s human rights obligations”.  Almost a quarter of Member States on the Council had serious allegations against them based on killings in their countries.  That was a real problem, he said.  The countries on the Council, as well as other countries, had to start thinking of how to respond, as that state of affairs put the Council’s credibility in question.  The issue had to be taken up and debated openly.

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For information media • not an official record