September 8th, 2020

Bureau Report


The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has urged the Government of Pakistan to take concrete steps to ensure the protection of journalists and human rights defenders who have been subjected to threats in the country.

In a statement on September 8, the United Nations rights chief said that a majority of cases of violence and killings of journalists and rights activists have not been investigated.

Bachelet expressed her concern at ‘numerous instances of incitement to violence – online and offline – against journalists and human rights defenders in Pakistan, in particular against women and minorities’.

“Especially worrying are accusations of blasphemy – which can put accused individuals at imminent risk of violence,” she said.

According to the statement issued in Geneva, Pakistani women journalists last month had publicly warned of what they described as a “coordinated campaign” of social media attacks against those who have been critical of government policies. Bachelet cited the case of journalist and human rights defender Marvi Sirmed who had received numerous messages on social media containing highly derogatory and violent language, including gender-based slurs and death threats. The UN high commissioner said that accusations of blasphemy on social media were followed by actual police complaints filed against Sirmed, whose personal details were also revealed on Twitter.

Bachelet referred to cases of four journalists and bloggers killed last year. “Among them was Arooj Iqbal, a woman who was shot dead in Lahore as she sought to launch her own local newspaper,” she added. She also expressed concern about the recent killing of journalist Shaheena Shaheen in Kech district on September 5, when she was killed by her husband.

The UN high commissioner called for ‘prompt, effective, thorough and impartial investigations’ with a view to ensuring accountability in cases of violence and killings.

Victims and their families have the right to justice, truth, and reparations, she said. “We welcome that in the case of Shaheen, a number of high-level Government officials have condemned the murder and pledged to bring to justice the perpetrators.”

Michelle Bachelet called on the Pakistani leadership to unequivocally condemn incitement to violence against religious minorities, adding that there was an apparent increase ‘in the use of blasphemy laws for personal or political score-settling’. The Pakistani leadership should encourage respect for diversity of opinion, the statement said.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also urged the Pakistani government to address impediments to the active protection of the right to freedom of expression, including by carrying out legal reforms such as those recommended by the UN Human Rights Committee and other international human rights mechanisms.

Call for an independent probe into Russian leader’s poisoning

Separately, Bachelet welcomed the news that Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny has emerged from his coma in a Berlin hospital. The UN high commissioner urged the Government of the Russian Federation to carry out, or fully cooperate with, a thorough, transparent, independent, and impartial investigation, after German specialists said they have “unequivocal proof” that he was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent.

“The number of cases of poisoning, or other forms of targeted assassination, of current or former Russian citizens, either within Russia itself or on foreign soil, over the past two decades is profoundly disturbing,” Bachelet said. “And the failure in many cases to hold perpetrators accountable and provide justice for the victims or their families, is also deeply regrettable and hard to explain or justify.”

The High Commissioner noted that nerve agents and radioactive isotopes such as Novichok and Polonium-210 are sophisticated substances that are extremely hard to source. “This raises numerous questions,” she said. “Why use substances like these? Who is using them? How did they acquire them?”

She also noted that prior to his reported poisoning, Alexei Navalny had been repeatedly harassed, arrested, and assaulted, either by the authorities or by unknown assailants.

“Navalny was clearly someone who needed state protection,” she said, “even if he was a political thorn in the side of the government. It is not good enough to simply deny he was poisoned, and deny the need for a thorough, independent, impartial and transparent investigation into this assassination attempt. It is incumbent on the Russian authorities to fully investigate who was responsible for this crime – a very serious crime that was committed on Russian soil.”