6 October 2020
Seventy-fifth Session, 3rd Meeting (AM)

Pandemic Pushing Those Least Able to Adapt into Positions of Greater Risk, General Assembly President Tells Third Committee, amid Calls for Greater Protections

Beyond a global health crisis, COVID-19 has created an economic and humanitarian emergency, pushing those least able to adapt into even more vulnerable positions, the President of the General Assembly told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as he laid out what is at stake after years of gains made in social development.

Volkan Bozkir (Turkey) warned that the number of people facing a hunger crisis in countries affected by conflict is predicted to double to 270 million “if assistance is not provided”.  He expressed concern about the plight of children affected by disruptions to health, nutrition and education.  If disruptions to food and health are not tackled, food insecurity could lead to 6,000 daily deaths in the next six months.

The pandemic has compounded pre-existing gaps in the prevention of gender-based violence, he continued, underscoring the need for evidence-based solutions and more resources to tackle the problem.  Women shoulder a disproportionate household burden and are often unable to return to work.  “Self-isolation may be detrimental to their wellbeing,” he noted.

He likewise expressed concern about internally displaced persons and refugees, who live in crowded camps and asylum shelters, and have less access to services.  He expressed regret over the “racist stereotyping that unfortunately accompanied the pandemic”, stressing that making societies more equitable and resilient will help address challenges posed by COVID-19, which is “necessarily our top priority”.

“I encourage you to listen to each other,” he said, to the Special Rapporteurs and other experts updating the Committee throughout the season.  “I encourage you to stand by your principles and stand by your consensus.”  As the only Committee to have elected a woman as chair, he congratulated the Bureau for its pragmatism and trusted that delegates would work to build bridges among their views.

The half-day meeting was dominated by two broad stances:  representatives banding together to protest the “politicization” of human rights, which infringed on sovereignty, against those who spoke out in strong favor of the landmark instruments and conventions upholding them.

The Third Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. Wednesday, 7 October, to continue its general debate.

General Debate

Throughout the morning, delegates raised concerns over specific human rights situations around the world, with cross-regional blocs highlighting particular international norms and principles to bolster their positions, and at times offering different paths forward.

Germany’s representative, speaking for a cross-regional group of 39 countries, pressed China to respect the human rights of people belonging to religious and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet.  In Xinjiang, he pointed to the existence of a network of so-called political re-education camps, with reports of more than 1 million people arbitrarily detained.  He also described severe restrictions on freedom of religion or belief against Uyghurs, along with widespread surveillance of minorities, forced labour and forced birth control, including sterilization.  In Hong Kong, the national security law does not conform to China’s international legal obligations.  He called on China to allow unfettered access to Xinjiang for independent observers and to refrain from arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and other minorities.  He further urged relevant authorities to guarantee rights protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, calling on all countries to respect the principle of non-refoulement.

Taking an opposite stance, the representative of Pakistan, speaking for 54 countries, underscored the importance of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign States, a principle enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, and a basic international norm.  The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is an inalienable part of China.  “Hong Kong’s affairs are China’s internal affairs, that brook no interference by foreign forces,” he assured, expressing support for China’s “one country two systems,” policy and stressing that legislative power on national security in any country rests with the State.

Pointing to yet another way forward, Cuba’s representative, speaking for 45 countries, urged all sides to promote human rights through dialogue.  She rejected the politicization of such issues and commended China for having adopted a people-centered philosophy towards ending poverty, improving living standards and protecting human rights.  She welcomed that China has taken measures to respond to terrorism threats, in accordance with the law, in order to safeguard human rights in Xinjiang, stressing that there has not been a single terrorist attack there in the last three years and that all ethnic groups enjoy a happy life.  China has invited 1,000 officials, journalists and religious people to Xinjiang to witness its “remarkable” achievements.

Along similar lines, Kuwait’s representative, speaking for several countries, said no country should interfere in the internal affairs of others.  The deliberation of human rights matters should be objective, constructive, transparent, non-selective and non-politicized.  Drawing attention to terrorism, “an international phenomena that has to be eradicated”, he said countries must respect their international law obligations, the principle of proportionality among others.  Regardless of peoples’ religious affiliations, dialogue is the best way to address all root causes of conflict.  “Dialogue is the best way to achieve positive results,” he said, pressing countries to likewise consider the local context before broadly addressing human rights matters.  States should participate in a constructive way and enhance international cooperation on human rights.

Offering its perspective on these concerns, China’s representative expressed regret over the jarring rhetoric expressed by Germany’s delegate and those “bent on provoking antagonism”.  China categorically rejects that some countries are spreading disinformation, discrediting China and attempting to meddle in its internal affairs.  The United States participates in dishonourable practices and its “cliches fly in the face of facts”, he said, stressing that it “should look into a mirror”.  The United States cannot hide its human rights record by accusing China.  He underscored that more than 200,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID-19 and many people of African descent face racial discrimination, as revealed recently by the Black Lives Matter movement.  The Third Committee should adopt a resolution on the matter.  “Your hands are stained with the blood of innocent civilians”, he said, urging the United States to stop committing war crimes and dropping bombs on other countries.  Germany, the United Kingdom and others have been doing a disservice to cooperation by becoming accomplices to such arrogance and prejudice, he said, underlining the great importance China attaches to the protection of human rights and rule of law.  “We will unswervingly forge ahead along this path,” he assured.

The day also heard enlivened debate around issues in the Mediterranean, with the representative of Cyprus taking issue with Turkey for perpetrating massive rights violations on the island, displacing one-third of Greek Cypriots because of its aggression.  He rejected Turkey’s “demographic engineering”, ongoing since 1974, with thousands of Turkish settlers transferred to Cyprus, a war crime.  He also pointed to daily violations suffered by enclaved Greek Cypriots and Maronites, urging that the Security Council resolution on the issues of Varosha be respected and the issue of missing persons be settled, noting that more than half of the remains of 2,001 such persons have yet to be found, identified and returned. 

The representative of Greece likewise said the issue of missing persons is a highly sensitive one, noting that recent plans by Turkey and Turkish Cypriots for opening Varosha are in direct violation of Security Council resolutions 550 (1984) and 789 (1992), among others.  She expressed support for the viable settlement of Cyprus issues on the basis of Security Council resolutions and in accordance with the European Union, also pointing to widespread looting and the destruction of cultural and religious heritage in occupied areas of Cyprus as another pressing issue.

The representative of Turkey, meanwhile, touched on the rise of xenophobia, antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe, the plight of Palestinians in Israel-occupied territories, and of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.  In Syria, she called for the regime to be held to account for crimes against humanity.  In Libya, she expressed concern about the recent discovery of mass graves, calling for “urgent steps” to be taken to investigate the actions of Khalifa Haftar’s government.  On the human rights in Xinjiang, while respecting China’s territorial integrity, she was “alarmed” by reports on the condition of Uighur Turks and Muslim minorities in the region.  The eight recommendations put forth by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in August 2018 on this matter remain “valid and need to be acted upon”, she stressed.  China must act in a transparent manner and allow human rights bodies unrestricted access to the region.

Shining a spotlight on other tensions, Armenia’s representative said the denial of human rights for people residing in conflict areas is unacceptable.  “The pre-planned large-scale military aggression unleashed by the authoritarian regime of Azerbaijan with full backing of Turkey pursues clear genocidal intent”, he said, pointing to the targeting of the capital city Stepanakert and indiscriminate, intentional strikes on civilians and civilian infrastructure by Azerbaijan’s armed forces.  The targeting of journalists in the conflict zone is an attempt to prevent the flow of objective information and documentation of war crimes conducted by its armed forces.  The aggressor country and its supporters should be held accountable for gross violations of international human rights law, he said, at the same time deploring Turkey’s irresponsible policy of exporting violence and instability to neighbouring regions, using the terrorist organizations to commit atrocity crimes against the Armenian people of Nagorno-Karabakh and impeding their right to self-determination.  Calling the military aggression by Azerbaijan against the people of Artsakh “the culmination of decades-long state policy of intolerance, hatred and Armenophobia promoted and nurtured in the Azerbaijani society”, he said the people of Nagorno-Karabakh are entitled to their inalienable human rights, including to self-determination.

Several countries also drew attention to long-standing issues of equality that cut across regions, geographies and cultures, with Zambia’s representative stressing that gender equality and equity remains a priority for his country.  He pointed to the establishment of Fast Track Courts for gender-based violence, which aim to ensure greater access to justice for victims.  Aligning with the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, the African Group and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), he said child marriage is “a harmful practice that violates girls’ rights to health and education and robs them of their future” and noted that the Government is engaging traditional leaders in order to reform traditions that perpetuate it.

The representative of Mexico, speaking for the Group of Friends of Indigenous Peoples, said the pandemic poses serious risks to indigenous peoples, both in urban and in rural areas.  Non-discrimination and inclusion must guide COVID-19 responses, and indigenous peoples should take part in their implementation and evaluation.  He called for cooperation with indigenous peoples to ensure their adequate access to health care, vaccines and medical equipment, pressing States to prevent all forms of discrimination and violence against indigenous women and girls.  He also advocated the protection of indigenous human rights defenders, who are all too often subject to attacks and intimidation.

Throughout such efforts to uphold human rights, said Switzerland’s representative, measures taken to tackle the pandemic must adhere to principles of legality, non-discrimination and proportionality.  Journalists and civil society actors must be allowed to carry out their work freely and without fear of reprisals.  Recalling that Switzerland and Morocco are jointly facilitating the reform of United Nations treaty bodies, he said independent bodies need resources to fund all their mandates.  He expressed concern that the pandemic is exacerbating or creating new gender inequalities, with gains on sexual and reproductive rights also being called into question.  Turning to the death penalty, he said Switzerland is co-facilitating a resolution on a moratorium as a first step towards its universal abolition.  He went on to emphasize the duty of States to uphold the right to peaceful assembly, in light of the “record number of demonstrations in 2019”. 

In a similar vein, the representative of Iceland expressed concern about the recent erosion of norms and standards pertaining to women’s rights and reproductive freedom, particularly regarding bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive rights.  It is regrettable that same sex relations remain criminalized in 17 countries, he said.

Speaking in philosophical terms, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See lamented a growing pressure to reinterpret the foundations of human rights in satisfying political and economic interests.  This leads to grave inequalities and injustices, such as ignoring children in the womb and treating the elderly and persons with disabilities as insupportable burdens on society.  Just as there is no right to abortion, there is also no right to euthanasia, he said, stressing that “laws exist, not to cause death, but to protect life and to facilitate co-existence among human beings”.  He additionally noted that violence against women remains a global emergency impeding women’s unique and irreplaceable role, bringing negative consequences for the health and lives of women and girls as well as families, communities and society.  Many women today, as Pope Francis underlines, “are continually insulted, beaten, raped, forced to prostitute themselves and to suppress the life they bear in the womb”.

The representative of El Salvador said the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated poverty, particularly among women and girls, older peoples, migrants, refugees and LGBTI communities.  El Salvador has identified young people as “a key factor” in distributing information on the Internet.  It has built digital and e-learning platforms and provided laptops to teachers.  More broadly, he called for addressing the causes of migration and ensuring that “migration is a choice, not an obligation”.  He further stressed the need to end discrimination against women and girls, urging that any COVID-19 vaccine be accessible to all and perceived as a common good.  “We must ensure that we are all safe”, he concluded.

The representative of Rwanda, associating with the Group of 77 and the Africa Group, drew attention to the 71 million people who are expected to be pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020, due to COVID-19.  Women and children are among those bearing the heaviest brunt of the pandemic’s effects.  Many countries have seen a surge in domestic violence against women and children.  As such, Rwanda’s national economic recovery plan aims to reduce people’s vulnerability, as well as promote gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Right of Reply

The representative of Turkey, in exercise of the right of reply, objected to comments by Greece’s delegate on Cypriots.  Noting that atrocities against Greek Cypriots are well-documented, she recalled that 180,000 people were displaced in 1964.  They continue to live in “unacceptable isolation” and she called for an end to the injustice.  She went on to note that despite the change of status of the Hagia Sophia, its distinctive architecture will be preserved.  She refuted comments by the representative of Armenia, stating that attacks by that country violate international law.  “Azerbaijan has the right to defend itself and to protect its people,” she said, adding that occupying forces should withdraw from “illegally occupied” Nagorno, instead of “resorting to black propaganda”.

The representative of Syria countered Turkey’s statement that it protects Syrian people, stating that Turkey is a “major sponsor of terrorism in the region”.  It is a “rogue regime” trying to control the resources of the Mediterranean and has supported groups that have shed the blood of Syrians, including Jabhat al-Nusra.  Moreover, Turkey perpetrates “collective punishment” upon the 1 million citizens in the city of Hasakha by cutting off its water supply because it rejects their occupation.  “Such behavior is a crime against humanity,” he stressed.

The representative of Cyprus said States must cease their wrongful acts.  “Rewriting history is a failed tactic,” he said, adding that changing the special status of Varosha is a violation of resolutions passed by the Security Council, and constitutes a “plot to destroy” its original residents, preventing them from exercising their lawful right of return and property rights.

The representative of Turkey rejected the statement by Syria’s delegate, and reiterated Turkey’s solidarity with the Syrian people, and its call for the “regime” to be held accountable for its war crimes.

The representative of Syria said only his country had the right to speak for its people.  Regarding use of the term “regime”, he said “Turkey can call us what they want but they must respect the UN procedures”.  He went on to add that reports affirmed that hundreds of foreign fighters found their way to Syria because Turkish intelligence allowed them in.  “They were not parachuted in by spaceships,” he said.

Also speaking in the general debate today were the representatives of Singapore, Costa Rica, Bhutan, Croatia, Ethiopia, Romania, Cambodia, Cameroon, Madagascar, Qatar, Nigeria, El Salvador and Uruguay.  An observer of the Holy See also spoke.

For information media. Not an official record.