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UN Rights Chief Reports on Human Rights Issues at the 40th Session of the UNHRC in Geneva

On 6 March, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet presented her annual report at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The report covered human rights issues across the world surrounding women, conflicts and inequalities.

In a wide-ranging speech, Michelle Bachelet addressed claims by activists that ten Saudi women are being held for their activism.

“Today, allow me to voice my concern at the apparently arbitrary arrest and detention and alleged ill-treatment and torture of several women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia,” Bachelet – who herself was a victim of torture under the regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile – said. “The persecution of peaceful activists would clearly contradict the spirit of the country’s proclaimed new reforms. So we urge that these women be released,” she continued.

Bachelet’s comments come ahead of a joint European initiative led by Iceland that is due to be launched on Thursday. The initiative will see a host of European countries urge Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights record as the Human Rights Council launches a probe into the country’s treatment of activists.

She also criticised Israel over its blockade of Gaza, and said she regretted Israel’s “immediate dismissal” of a report by a UN Human Rights Council commission of inquiry, “without addressing any of the very serious issues raised”.

UN experts said last week that Israeli security forces might have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity while responding to weekly mass Palestinian protests along the Gaza-Israel border last year. The experts investigated the deaths of 189 Palestinians and said they found reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers had shot at children, medics and journalists, even though they had been clearly recognisable as such.

“All parties concerned should exercise restraint as the date of March 30 approaches,” Ms Bachelet said, referring to the first anniversary of the start of the Palestinian protest campaign.

The High Commissioner also called on China to allow UN investigators to visit its Xinjiang region to verify reports about abuses against Uighur Muslims. Despite many Uighurs and Xinjiang experts’ interpretation about the “violent episodes,” Bachelet believes that “stability and security in this region can be facilitated by policies which demonstrate the authorities’ respect of all people’s rights.”

She also warned of the threat posed by growing global inequality over income, wealth and access to resources and justice. “In recent months we have seen people across the world take to the streets to protest,” she said. Ms Bachelet also expressed concern that the demands of citizens protesting against inequality were being met by “violent and excessive use of force, arbitrary detentions, torture and even alleged summary or extrajudicial killings”.

“In Sudan, for the past several months, people protesting harsh economic conditions and bad governance have been violently dispersed by security forces, sometimes using live ammunition,” she said.

“Inequalities stir grievances and unrest; fuel hatred, violence, and threats to peace; and force people to leave their homes and countries. Inequalities undermine social progress, and economic and political stability. But human rights build hope. They bind humanity together with shared principles and a better future, in sharp contrast to the divisive, destructive forces of repression, exploitation, scapegoating, discrimination–and inequalities,” said Bachelet at the end of her report.

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