Warning Third Committee, Experts Express Alarm at Organ-Harvest Attacks on Persons with Albinism, Criminalizing Homelessness, Violence against Rights Defenders

GA/SHC/4141
22 October 2015
Seventieth Session, 23rd & 24th Meetings (AM & PM)

Warning Third Committee, Experts Express Alarm at Organ-Harvest Attacks on Persons with Albinism, Criminalizing Homelessness, Violence against Rights Defenders

Harvesting of body parts from persons with albinism, criminalizing homelessness and the evermore dangerous conditions facing human rights defenders were among top experts’ grave concerns, the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) heard as it engaged in interactive dialogues with special rapporteurs.

Addressing the Committee for the first time since assuming her mandate was Ikponwosa Ero, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism.  Highlighting her report to the Committee, she warned delegates of the rising number of targeted attacks, including mutilation and murder, on persons with albinism for the purpose of harvesting body parts for sale on the black market for thousands of dollars.  That grim trend had, in part, grown out of a belief that such body parts would bring wealth and good luck when used in witchcraft rituals and potions, she said.

Such attacks highlighted impunity for perpetrators, the possible involvement of a wealthy and powerful elite and the use of temporary shelters as “long-term dumping grounds” for children with albinism.  While persons with albinism in the Western world faced misconceptions, misunderstanding and, among children, bullying, those in sub-Saharan Africa faced more severe discrimination that included infanticide, barriers to education and lack of employment.  Women and girls bore the brunt of discrimination and stigma, with women facing sexual violence and rape due to a belief that they could “cure” HIV/AIDS.

Raising her extreme concern about the criminalization of homelessness, Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, said her current report challenged all stakeholders to recognize the limitations of current approaches to urbanization.

Homelessness was a persistent and growing phenomenon, she said, adding that she was “quite horrified” that it was being allowed to happen.  Forced eviction continued unabated with millions of men, women and children forcibly removed from their homes each year and emerging boundaries of spatial segregation illustrated the plight of marginal groups pushed to the outskirts of urban centres — dislocated from their sources of livelihood.

Those realities were clear evidence of a critical systemic failure of the international community, national and local governments to coordinate and design relevant legislation, programmes and policies in a manner consistent with the right to adequate housing, she said, adding that she looked forward to discuss those and other issues at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in Quito, Ecuador, in 2016.

Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said defending and promoting human rights had become an extraordinarily dangerous activity in many countries.  It was unfortunate that human rights defenders were faced with attacks, threats, harassment, intimidation, criminalization and physical violence. 

Calling the current state of human rights activism complex and saddening, he said he had been unable since 2014 to carry out any country visits, due to a lack of cooperation by Member States.  He called on the international community to take action, and reinforce its efforts to protect and support human rights defenders.

Also participating in the interactive dialogue segment were the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

The Third Committee will resume its work at 10 a.m. on Friday, 23 October, to continue its discussions on the promotion and protection of human rights.

Background

The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) met today to continue its debate on the promotion and protection of human rights.  For further information, see Press Release GA/SHC/4140.

Interactive Dialogues

DAINIUS PŪRAS, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, said the report focused on the right to health and its relationship to the right of young children to survival and development.  Early childhood was a crucial time for effective investments in individual and societal health, and it must receive more effective responses from all relevant actors, including in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  Significant progress had been made in reducing deaths among children under five, to 6.3 million in 2013 from 12.7 million in 1990.  However, in many countries and among disadvantaged groups of the population, mortality and morbidity rates in early childhood remained unacceptably high.  To that end, he said, more needed to be done to eliminate deaths from preventable causes in early childhood.

The right of young children to healthy development was crucial to promoting the right to health throughout life and fostering sustainable human development.  Despite the very large number of children that failed to reach their development potential, the issue had not been the focus of global attention.  Particularly, in low- and middle-income countries, even if awareness of child development was increasing, progress was far too slow.  The 2030 Agenda signalled a shift from the focus on the survival and health of children under five to their survival, health, well-being and development.  Accordingly, he said, the international community should seize that opportunity to formulate and implement policies to prevent child mortality.  He also stressed the need to modernize existing health care systems and medical education so that “new morbidities” and challenges related to the emotional and social development of children were adequately addressed.

In the ensuing dialogue, delegates asked about the capacity-building of health care in developing countries, indicators and benchmarks for monitoring early childhood health and survival, cooperation between institutions and organizations and the right of the child to be heard.

Mr. PURAS said the benefits of investing in early childhood health had been demonstrated by research.  Good practices existed in many regions.  Rather than blaming parents, much could be achieved through greater investment in giving them the knowledge and skill required to raise children in a non-violent way, without resorting to the use of corporal punishment or emotional abuse.  Such development goals as the eradication of poverty, zero hunger, gender equality and reduced inequalities could not effectively be attained without seriously addressing early childhood.

A rights-based approach to early childhood health, if applied in a sustainable way, would have many economic benefits, he continued.  Primary care was the best possible investment with regard to children’s health, but too often that approach lost out to specialized and sophisticated medical interventions.  Very often, violence was rooted in early childhood.  To address that issue would contribute to peace and justice in the world, he said, expressing hope that his report would make a modest contribution in that regard.

Participating in the discussion were representatives of China, Morocco, South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia and Columbia, as well as the European Union.

IKPONWOSA ERO, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism, a genetic condition characterized by an absence of colour pigmentation in any or all of the skin, hair and eyes.  Reports had emerged in the past eight years concerning targeted attacks, including mutilation and murder, for the purposes of harvesting body parts that, in turn, were sold on the black market for thousands of dollars.  All of those attacks appear to be — at least in part — related to a belief that the body parts of persons with albinism bring wealth and good luck when used in witchcraft rituals and potions.

Civil society groups had reported hundreds of such attacks in at least 25 countries.  Harvesting body parts from live victims was believed to improve the potency of witchcraft potions, with children making up a large proportion of victims due to a belief that their innocence somehow “augmented the potency”.

Since assuming her mandate on 1 August 2015, she said at least six countries had reported attacks.  Such attacks had highlighted impunity for perpetrators, the possible involvement of a wealthy and powerful elite and the use of temporary shelters as “long-term dumping grounds” for children with albinism.

To address those issues, the Human Rights Council had adopted five resolutions, she said.  Albinism occurred in every race and ethnicity, regardless of gender, but its frequency varied from region to region.  It had different forms, including a rare form that affected the eyes alone, but nearly all human rights problems centred on albinism affecting the skin.  Albinism affected the eyes of most of its subjects, causing high sensitivity to bright light and significant vision impairment.  It also increased vulnerability to skin cancer.

In the Western world, persons of albinism faced misconceptions, misunderstanding and, among children, bullying.  In sub-Saharan Africa, discrimination was more severe and included infanticide, barriers to education and lack of employment.  Women and girls had borne the brunt of discrimination and stigma, with women facing sexual violence and rape due to a belief that they would “cure” HIV/AIDS.

Going forward, her mandate’s vision and plan of action included working with affected States on ways to end attacks and identifying human rights instruments that would respond to the related issues faced by persons with albinism.  She would also focus on incorporating albinism in national and international agenda, raising awareness and ending myths and stereotypes and conducting research to develop a body of knowledge on the issue of persons with albinism.  There would be a focus on technical cooperation and assistance to States and, by August 2016, a preliminary study from the Independent Expert would be prepared covering the root causes of attacks that would likely be the theme of her next report to the Third Committee.

After the floor opened, delegates asked about awareness-raising efforts relating to discrimination, coordinated actions at the global level and an international framework to address discrimination and violence against persons with albinism.

Responding, Ms. IKPONWOSA ERO said she would conduct awareness-raising initiatives at the African level to address States’ concerns with regard to the lack of awareness on the issue of albinism.

With regard to the international framework, she noted that persons with albinism faced a wide range of human rights violations, which could be addressed through diverse international instruments and mechanisms, including those relating to racism and intolerance, health and to persons with disabilities.

As to her priorities, she informed the Committee that she would focus the first year of her mandate on addressing the issue of witchcraft as a harmful traditional practice, separating it from traditional medicine and making recommendations in that regard.

Participating in the dialogue were the delegates of the United Republic of Tanzania, Portugal and the United States, as well as the European Union.

LEILANI FARHA, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, presented her report concerning the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), to be held in 2016 in Quito, Ecuador.  The report challenges all stakeholders to recognize the limitations of current approaches to urbanization.

Indeed, cities were on an untenable path that was encouraging vast inequalities, ultimately segregating those who had means from those who did not.  Access to adequate housing for burgeoning populations may be the single most critical issue facing cities today, she said, as one in four urban residents were living in informal settlements often in deplorable conditions.  Homelessness was a persistent and growing phenomenon; forced eviction continued unabated with millions of men, women and children forcibly removed from their homes each year; and emerging boundaries of spatial segregation illustrated the plight of marginal groups pushed to the outskirts of urban centres — dislocated from their sources of livelihood.

Those realities were clear evidence of a critical systemic failure of the international community, national and local governments to coordinate and design relevant legislation, programmes and policies in a manner consistent with the right to adequate housing.  Human rights had to be at the forefront of a new urban agenda, but the discussions of Habitat III had lacked a human rights perspective.  Such an approach would allow for a better understanding of the responsibilities and obligations of all stakeholders, including at national and local levels, as well as a better allocation of resources and administrative capacity.

The development of the “Urban Rights Agenda” would require all levels of government and other actors, including civil society, United Nations agencies and the private sector, to work in a coordinated fashion.  It would also require a shift in priorities, the allocation of resources and the inclusion of marginalized groups.

Several representatives then asked about the relationship between the 2030 Agenda and Habitat III, homelessness, forced evictions, the role of local government vis-à-vis adequate housing and guidance for States with regard to the promotion of property rights.

Ms. FARHA said it was heartening to hear expressions of interest in seeing the right to adequate housing with regard to Habitat III.  From an adequate housing perspective, the Sustainable Development Goals were imperfect, but they opened a door.

Habitat III would be an excellent opportunity to establish what target 11.1 [to ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums] would mean on the ground.  On a cautionary note, she said measuring progress on that target would have to be done in both numerical and qualitative ways.

Very good practices were being seen at the local level.  Cities had been adopting charters that included the right to adequate housing and jurisprudence existed in some parts of the world on what constituted adequate housing.  National governments were also tying funding to local authorities in ways that sought to encourage social inclusion and diversity.

With regard to homelessness, her research was very preliminary, but she was “quite horrified” by what was happening around the world.  The fact that homelessness was allowed to happen, as a result of decisions by all levels of government and the private sector, was disheartening.  The criminalization of a socially-constructed group called homeless people was also a matter of extreme concern.  To treat an entire group of people as criminals because they had fewer resources and lived in a way they did not wish to live did not seem just, fair or in line with the right to adequate housing.

A number of steps could be taken with regard to strengthening the capacity of local governments to implement the right to adequate housing, including better communication between national and subnational governments.  Technical cooperation and assistance was always useful and the international community had a role to play to ensure that local governments met their international human rights obligations.  Homelessness had not been included in the Sustainable Development Goals, but perhaps there would be some movement in that regard at Habitat III.

With regard to families living in informal situations, under international law, their forced eviction would be a gross violation of their rights.  If evictions were to take place, all other options must have been explored first and decisions must be taken after a meaningful consultation with affected families.

Representatives from Morocco, Brazil, Indonesia, Germany, Maldives, South Africa, Cameroon and Iraq, as well as the European Union participated in the question and answer session.

MICHEL FORST, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, presenting his report, said fact-finding missions constituted an essential element of his mandate.  Such missions were carried out with a view to identifying tangible achievements in protecting and supporting human rights defenders.

Since 2014, however, he had not been able to carry out any country visit because of the lack of cooperation by Member States.  Despite repeated requests, Bahrain, Belarus, China and Venezuela had not responded to confirm such visits.  The current landscape of human rights activism was complex and saddening.  The international community, to that end, needed to reinforce its efforts to protect and support human rights defenders so that they were able to continue their work.

For his part, he assisted States that had shown the political will and interest in supporting human rights defenders.  Further, he had organized seven regional consultations in order to fully understand the situation of defenders and to report back to the General Assembly.  Special attention had been paid to encourage the participation of women human rights defenders and others at risk.

His report provided an overview of the current situation for human rights defenders around the world and identified key challenges they were facing.  The conclusions, he continued, had been drawn from extensive discussions with defenders and government officials from all around the world.

It was unfortunate that human rights defenders were faced with attacks and threats, harassment, intimidation, criminalization and physical violence.  Defending and promoting human rights had become an extraordinarily dangerous activity in many countries.  Further, he was extremely worried about the latest development in many countries criminalizing the actions of human rights defenders.  The situation was complex as violations were perpetrated by States as well as non‑State actors, such as religious and armed groups or transnational companies.  Accordingly, he recalled that the protection of human rights was primary responsibility of the States.

When the floor opened, delegates condemned restrictions, violence and harassment against human rights defenders and journalists and expressed particular concerns over the situation of female human rights defenders and defenders of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons.  Speakers also raised questions concerning accountability for violations of the rights of human rights defenders.

Other questions encompassed how whistle-blowers could be better protected, good practices to support the role of female human rights defenders and how to address pending requests by the Special Rapporteur.  Delegates also asked about the positive and negative impact of new technologies, including social media on the work of human rights defenders, and the rights and obligations of human rights defenders.

In addition, participants raised the issues of the protection of human rights defenders from reprisals, how to better protect the work of young human rights defenders and the Special Rapporteur’s cooperation with other special procedures mandate holders, including those working on minorities and freedom of religion.

Mr. FORST said that his mandate had never been to point at or to criticize States, but rather to support them and help them to protect human rights defenders.  That was why his next report would focus on sharing good practices among States.  He then underlined the importance of engaging with transnational corporations with regard to harassment and violence against human rights defenders in relation to the mining industry.

Participating in the dialogue were representatives of Norway, Ireland, Czech Republic, Poland, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Brazil, Lithuania, United Kingdom, Cuba, Maldives, Colombia, United States, Canada, Russian Federation and Costa Rica, as well as the European Union.

DAVID KAYE, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, presented his report, referring to the attacks against cartoonists in Paris in January 2015.  Freedom of expression could not exist only in specific documents or in marches on the streets of Paris, but must exist where it counted, he said.  Unfortunately, reports of violations of the right to freedom of expression continued as steps were being taken to dismantle progress made in the past.  The protection of sources and whistle-blowers and freedom of expression online had been the focus of his research in 2015.

Recalling international norms guaranteeing everyone’s right to seek, receive and impart information, he underlined that the legitimate secrecy of certain state information could not be a shield to prohibit public discussion of matters of public interest in democratic societies.  That was where sources and whistle‑blowers played a crucial role, he said.

Recognizing that not all disclosures were “comfortable” for Governments, political leaders and even societies, he stressed that the effective protection of sources and whistle-blowers was crucial to public debate and accountability in democratic societies.  In that regard, he encouraged States to adopt and implement national legal frameworks for the protection and called for the creation of internal institutional and external oversight mechanisms to provide effective and protective channels for whistle-blowers.

While noting that the Internet was increasingly unsecure, he explained that his next report would focus on the responsibilities of States and corporations in protecting freedom of expression online, to be presented before the Human Rights Council in June 2016.  The report would notably study website censorship and restrictions on digital security, encryption and anonymity.  To conclude, he expressed commitment to continue engaging with States in a spirit of dialogue and cooperation.

When the floor opened, delegates raised questions and concerns about mechanisms to provide protection for whistle-blowers and acts of reprisals against them.  Speakers also asked about best practices, online privacy and anonymity, national security and the right to access to information and to express opinion.  Further questions were posed about the disclosure of information and the role of the international community to protect journalists.  The delegate from the Russian Federation asked why the report had not referred to Edward Snowden.

Responding, Mr. KAYE said his report on whistle-blowers had rested on existing legal instruments, but not on the creation of new laws.  Turning to the protection of journalists, he said Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guaranteed everyone’s right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, providing the foundation for the international right of access to information.  Further, he noted that domestic laws needed to provide legal mechanisms to ensure the protection against reprisals and States should not demonize whistle-blowers.

Also taking part in the dialogue were representatives of Brazil, Switzerland, United States, Estonia, Liechtenstein, Poland, Norway, United Kingdom, Austria, Czech Republic, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, France, and Maldives, as well as the European Union.

HEINER BIELEFELDT, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, presenting his report, said violations often affected the rights of children and their parents.  Worryingly, in some countries, violations of the rights of children and parents in the area of freedom of religion were directly committed by State agencies.  In many cases, the rights of persons belonging to religious or belief-related minorities might additionally be at stake, he stressed.

Given children’s dependency on an enabling environment usually provided by the family, parents had the primary responsibility for supporting them in the exercise of their rights.  Children’s rights and parental rights in the area of freedom of religion or belief should generally be interpreted as being positively interrelated, he continued.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child operated on the assumption that parents served as the natural custodians of the best interests of the child.  That did not preclude conflicts of interests, in particular when the child grew up and tried to become more independent.  Furthermore, he said, situations might emerge in which the best interests of the child might require State interventions to protect the child against neglect, domestic violence or harmful practices.  Harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation or child marriage, could never be justified by the invocation of freedom of religion or belief, and States were obliged to take all appropriate measures to eliminate such practices.

When the floor opened, delegates welcomed the Special Rapporteur’s focus on children’s freedom of religion or belief.  They also raised a range of questions, including on combating harmful traditional practices and the protection of the rights of children belonging to religious minorities or indigenous groups, particularly from violence by extremist and terrorist groups.  Representatives also asked about the decriminalization of apostasy and the evolution, interpretation and measurement of the notion of the capacity of the child.  Delegates also made comments on and asked about limiting risks of radicalization of children and of Islamophobia against migrant children in receiving countries.

Mr. BIELEFELDT said the issue of children’s right to freedom of expression demonstrated the importance of a holistic understanding of human rights issues that properly reflected their universality, interrelatedness and interdependence.  Children faced very complex vulnerabilities that could only be addressed using all human rights norms.

To combat harmful practices, notwithstanding the primary responsibility of the States to protect human rights, he insisted on the responsibility of religious leaders to go beyond simple condemnation of harmful practices.  Education had a key role in promoting freedom of religion or belief and in showing respect for religious minorities, he said, emphasizing the importance of training education personnel on those issues.  He reiterated that freedom of religion involved the right to change one’s religion or the right not to have any religion.  Interreligious dialogue was much needed, he said, and could involve young people and new generations.

Taking part in the interactive segment were representatives of Switzerland, United States, Ireland, Austria, Russian Federation, Norway, Canada, Poland, Iraq, Mexico, United Kingdom, Germany and Turkey, as well as the European Union.

For information media. Not an official record.